Rumors of Fatah–Hamas reconciliation talks—whether in Cairo, Gaza, or Istanbul—are once again rife. Driven by demonstrations calling for unity in Gaza and the West Bank, leaders of the two movements feel compelled to show readiness to break out of the cycle of contention that has held Palestinian politics hostage since 2007. The Ramallah-based leadership in particular sees the need to bolster prospects for unity ahead of efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September. Among the top issues on the agenda—and one that is salient to Palestinian politics whether there is reconciliation or not—is the holding of presidential, legislative, and local elections in the West Bank and Gaza. It seems that elections would be the only way for the two groups to reach a power-sharing formula and reunite the two halves of the PA.  But Fatah and Hamas interests and perspectives concerning elections are miles apart.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee showed its concern that the long-overdue elections had become a political liability by calling for them in its February 12 reaction to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the previous day. Fatah has two objectives in calling for elections. First, it is trying to revive popular legitimacy for President Mahmoud Abbas and for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s government in Ramallah, given that Abbas’s term expired in January 2009, as did that of the Palestinian Legislative Council in June 2010. Abbas hopes that elections will allow him to reclaim a popular mandate to push forward with his diplomatic agenda abroad and institution building domestically; this support is especially needed at a time when citizens of other Arab countries are challenging the legitimacy of their governments. 

Abbas’ second objective would be to take advantage of the disparity between the West Bank and Gaza. The PA in Ramallah has performed relatively better in improving its citizens’ lives, particularly in economic terms. Holding elections at a time when Gazans are suffering from hunger, poverty, and a continued embargo would disadvantage Hamas. 

Fatah also is trying to use Hamas’s refusal so far to agree to elections to its own advantage. Hamas leaders have expressed skepticism about the value of elections before reaching an agreement and achieving reconciliation, considering the call for elections now to be “fleeing forward” at a time when the Arab world is swept by profound changes. Hamas leaders believe that Abbas’s purpose in calling for elections now is to avoid the ramifications of reconciliation, as well as to prove to the Palestinian and international audiences that he is unscathed by the developments sweeping the Middle East or by al-Jazeera’s embarrassing recent disclosure of peace negotiation documents.

Although Hamas leaders have stated that in principle they support elections as a means of peaceful transfer of power, they have persistently rejected Ramallah’s calls for elections, saying that the PLO and Fayyad government lack the legitimacy to make such a call. Furthermore, Hamas leaders have said that the calls for elections are poorly timed, coming as they do under difficult circumstances, while there is a lack of national consensus, and while the PA continues security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank.

Hamas’s resistance to the PA call for elections serves several purposes. First, by insisting on reaching a reconciliation deal before elections, party leaders are wagering that they will be able to shape the terms, especially in restructuring the PLO, so as to ensure that Hamas will not be excluded or marginalized in Palestinian politics over the long run. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said on April 4 that “Hamas will be ready to participate in elections after an agreement is reached to confute the allegation that Islamists partake in elections only once.” Holding elections before the details of reconciliation are clear would be political suicide for Hamas.

Second, Hamas leaders believe that they did not have a fair chance to rule after winning the 2006 elections, as they were set upon from all sides at home and abroad and so were unable to meet their election promises or claim tangible achievements for the public. Thus, Hamas’s opposition to elections now can be understood as a wish to avoid an embarrassing potential electoral defeat at a time when the economic situation in Gaza is still in free fall. 

Third, Hamas leaders are hoping to benefit from the changing regional environment after the Arab uprisings, as they believe that Mubarak’s fall has strengthened their hand vis-à-vis Abbas. The Mubarak regime backed Abbas in his struggle, putting intense pressure on Hamas after the takeover of Gaza. As Hamas’ foreign relations chief Osama Hamdan said on February 12, “The Egyptian revolution will affect not just the Palestinian question, but also the entire region, due to Egypt's historical political role on the Arab and international scenes.” 

What Fatah and Hamas share is a parochial perspective on elections, with each looking to exploit the issue in order to gain the upper hand against its rival and shore up its battered legitimacy. In this regard, the calls to hold or boycott elections are simply two sides of the same coin. Only if Palestinian political life can be freed from the Hamas-Fatah struggle will elections be able to fill the increasingly urgent need to consolidate a democratic entity that responds to citizens’ needs and stands up to Israeli policies aimed at eliminating what remains of the Palestinian national dream. 

Basem Ezbidi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.