In what is probably a long-overdue move, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has called for new local, presidential and parliamentary elections before September.
The leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority are finally beginning to proactively tackle the crisis of legitimacy that resulted from the split within the Palestinian national movement between the PLO and Hamas after 1997. Many Palestinians have been elected to many offices in recent years, but everyone’s term has expired, and rivalry between the different factions has prevented new elections from resolving this crisis of legitimacy.
The recent unrest in Egypt, like the new sense throughout the Arab world that political leadership must be legitimate and based on the consent of the governed through elections, may well have added to the sense of urgency among Palestinian leaders.
Domestically and internationally, the lack of elections has been used consistently as a cudgel with which to attack everything the mainstream Palestinian leadership has been doing, most notably negotiations with Israel and state-building in the West Bank. The critics have argued that the absence of recent elections means that what the PLO and the Palestinian Authority do is subject to serious doubt, although the same standard is rarely applied to Hamas.
In fact the onus for the lack of elections lies with Hamas, which most predictably has rejected the new election plans as “a conspiracy against the Palestinian people.” Hamas rejected plans for elections in January 2010 under Palestinian law and an Egyptian proposal that would have allowed for elections last July. Its position was that national reconciliation had to precede elections. This was a ploy designed to cover up for the fact that the organization, quite reasonably, feared the results of Palestinian voting under the present circumstances.
The logic was tortured, since there are no other means to clarify the will of the Palestinian people or to set the stage for national reconciliation and define on whose terms reconciliation will largely be based. It was a dodge, designed to avoid elections whose results would almost certainly have been unfavorable to Hamas, following more than two years of freefalling political credibility, at least among Palestinians.
But Fatah also bears its share of the responsibility. Last summer the Palestinian Authority was planning local elections in the West Bank. These were called off at the last minute, apparently because, even though Fatah was largely, or at least formally, unopposed in many races, it seemingly was unable to organize itself sufficiently. The local elections would have been a very good step forward, and their sudden cancellation was a considerable embarrassment.
However, the current plans offer one of the few obvious ways for the Palestinians to reunite amicably, and for the Palestinian people to make their preferences about national leadership and policy clear. It is, of course, vital that elections actually be held. It will also be important to give opposition groups, including Hamas, a serious opportunity to put forward candidates and campaign. Palestinians have proven with the presidential elections in 2005 and the parliamentary elections in 2006 that they are more than capable of holding free and fair elections.
If elections are called for and then abandoned or indefinitely postponed, or held under dubious circumstances with real questions about their legitimacy, it would be better not to hold them in the first place. Since Hamas is likely to oppose the election plans and fare poorly, it can and should have to bear the political price for this.
The biggest question mark is over the future of President Mahmoud Abbas. He has repeatedly said he would not stand in future elections, but there is no clear successor to him in Fatah or the PLO. But politicians change their minds, and standing in a free and fair election would not be illegitimate for Abbas. On the other hand, the president seems genuinely to have had enough of national leadership.
No doubt there will be efforts to convince Abbas that since there are no clear, plausible alternatives at this stage, he should reconsider his earlier pronouncements. That is especially true since it is not clear what kind of leadership and policies might emerge otherwise.
Egypt’s case demonstrates that change can be both necessary and risky, and the Palestinian leadership is wise to seek to manage change by calling for new elections. If it holds them and abides by the results, with or without Hamas cooperation, it will be a significant step bolstering both the leadership’s legitimacy and the Palestinian national project.