After fifteen years without Palestinian elections, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now calling for not just one but three of them this year. This includes Palestinian Authority (PA) legislative elections slated for May 22, followed by PA presidential elections on July 31, and then Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) parliamentary elections for the Palestinian National Council (PNC) a month later.
Palestinian leaders have agreed to hold elections many times in the past—and repeatedly have found a reason to postpone them. These recent announcements invite cynicism for many reasons—the frequent breaking of past promises; the numerous legal, political, logistical, and diplomatic obstacles; and the limited authority of the positions up for election. Holding PA elections for the approximately 5.2 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) will be difficult enough. Yet it would be even more challenging to hold PNC elections, which would entail trying to gauge the political will and preferences of approximately 13 million Palestinians worldwide.
Some are cynical and worry justifiably that none of the three elections will take place, but this skepticism should be dialed back a bit: this time, the intention to hold elections is a bit more serious, some obstacles can be managed, and the political benefits would be limited but real. And while many Palestinians are skeptical about the outcomes and concerned that the elections could very well entrench existing political divides, they stand ready to cooperate—more than 93 percent of the 2.8 million eligible voters in Gaza and the West Bank are registered to cast ballots.
Palestinian elections would be neither a panacea nor a way of reviving the peace process, and they likely would be messy, incomplete, and inconclusive. For all their limitations and flaws, however, their net effects would likely be positive for Palestinians, so there are sufficient reasons for powerful international actors to exert the necessary diplomatic energy to make these elections more likely to happen and to give them a better chance of succeeding.
How Do Palestine’s Three Impending Elections Relate to Each Other?
It is worthwhile to take a brief look at each of these elections in turn.
PA Legislative Council
The May 22 elections would be for the PA Legislative Council (PLC), the lawmaking body for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The council also oversees the prime minister and the cabinet, who must secure the votes of a majority of the council’s members to hold these posts. The first PLC was elected in 1996 with no fixed term because the Oslo Accords that facilitated its creation were designed only for a three-year interim period. The PLC did draft a constitutional document, the Basic Law, which was approved by president Yasser Arafat in 2003. Finally, in 2006, a new PLC was elected. When voters opted for a parliament with a Hamas majority, the ensuing period of instability resulted in a split between Gaza and the West Bank that effectively suspended the PLC. Hamas insisted for a while that the PLC was still a valid body that met in Gaza; in the West Bank, a newly created Constitutional Court loyal to Abbas declared in 2019 that it was dissolving the PLC. A newly convened PLC in May 2021 would thus have to review all the legislation issued in its absence over fourteen years and give its support to any Palestinian prime minister, the full cabinet, and their political program. Furthermore, its speaker would serve as interim president pending new presidential elections to be held within sixty days.
PA Presidential Elections
The PA presidential elections are slated for July 31. Arafat won the first presidential election handily in 1996. As with the rules regarding the PLC, there was initially no fixed term for the post of PA president. When Arafat died in 2004, he was temporarily succeeded by the PLC speaker in accordance with the Basic Law, which had by then come into effect. In early 2005, Abbas was elected and took the reins from the speaker as president of the PA, which rebranded itself as the State of Palestine in 2012.
PLO Parliamentary Elections
Elections for the parliament of the PLO, the internationally recognized representative organization of the Palestinian people, are scheduled for August 31. The PNC includes 747 members from both inside the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora. The first entity to call itself the PNC met in Gaza in 1948; it declared statehood over all of Palestine and approved an interim cabinet, but much of its work was forgotten. In 1964, a second PNC meeting was convened in the part of Jerusalem then annexed by Jordan; the PLO was formed at this meeting to represent all Palestinians. In later years, PNC meetings took other important steps such as declaring independence again in 1988, selecting the PLO chair, and forming the PLO Executive Committee.
PNC seats generally have been filled according to a quota system that allots seats to political factions, unions, diaspora communities, intellectuals, and others. Negotiations to include members of Hamas and another faction known as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have repeatedly stalled because existing PLO leaders have offered fewer seats than these two groups felt their political weight and popularity merited. Elections have never seemed practicable given the geographic dispersal of Palestinians and the obstacles to administering ballots in some locations. Since no obstacles have been surmounted, the decree to hold PNC elections seems to be more a wish than a promise, but the Palestinian political factions including Hamas have agreed to meet in Cairo in March to work out the mechanisms for holding PNC elections.
Why Is There a Push to Hold Elections Now?
Abbas has been promising elections since as far back as 2011. He has called for them three times in the last three years: at the UN Security Council in February 2018, after the new Constitutional Court he created dissolved the defunct PA legislature later that same year, and in 2019 before the UN General Assembly. This pattern of broken promises stems from the differing interests of the divided Palestinian leadership—between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. While the two opposing factions have agreed on holding the elections in principle, they have generally in the past had little interest in actually holding them. At times when one side has been favorably inclined to do so for its own reasons, the other has not been. They have had different ideas about the sequencing of elections too. Mistrust between them has grown quite deep, hamstringing efforts to muster the cooperation needed to hold elections.
There are now signs that the two sides have their own motivations for moving forward. Palestinians in general are fed up with the split between Gaza and the West Bank and between Hamas and Fatah, and they are very dissatisfied with Abbas, whose disapproval rating hovers around 65 percent. The idea of elections is very popular, and this public enthusiasm is understandable. Palestinians have only been asked twice to choose their leaders, and half of the eligible voters this time around will be between the ages of 18 and 33—individuals who grew up under the Oslo Accords and have never voted. With rates of unemployment at around 40 percent, this cohort wants a chance to express its frustration at the ballot box.
Abbas, who is likely to run for reelection, is hoping elections can revive him a bit politically at least with the international community and perhaps give his party a boost—if the contest is managed correctly. For Hamas, a PA reunified at the ballot box presents a path out of total responsibility for Gaza, a potential route to a political reemergence in the West Bank, and a role in Palestinian leadership structures. Of course, such factors have long held true. But because these separate motivations often pull in opposite directions (Fatah has not wished to hold elections that would give Hamas a veto over its decisionmaking, and Hamas has not been willing to relinquish control over its weapons in Gaza, for instance), practical arrangements have never progressed very far.
Now the push is a bit stronger. The strategic threat posed by the normalization of diplomatic relations between Arab states and Israel and the pressing need for a united Palestinian front internationally is magnified by donor pressure. Fatah has lost funding from Saudi Arabia, whom it had relied on for budgetary support. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates stopped all support to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in 2020, a UN body that provides food, education, and healthcare to nearly 1.4 million people in Gaza. Qatari contributions to Gaza—set at $360 million for 2021—will likely come with strings attached following the Gulf state’s reconciliation with Saudi Arabia. Qatar, keen to garner favor with the United States, will be pushing for Hamas’s cooperation with the elections.
And there are other reasons too. Abbas wants to reestablish good relations with the United States following the election of President Joe Biden; democratic renewal at home may make Abbas a stronger and more attractive partner. Elections allow Palestinian leaders to take the initiative and invite international support for a democratic step—and a more robust resumption of international donor aid.
What Signs Indicate These Elections Might Actually Happen?
Perhaps the most compelling reason to take the latest promises of Palestinian political renewal a bit more seriously is that some (though hardly all) of the biggest obstacles to holding the elections have been overcome.
First, Abbas has agreed with Hamas on the question of sequencing. Hamas had wanted PLO elections to be held first, so it could have some say over the organization’s political platform before becoming a part of the PA, which is only an agent of the PLO mainly tasked with providing services to Palestinians living in parts of the West Bank and to a lesser extent in Gaza. Fatah has rejected the possibility of bringing Hamas under the PLO umbrella before PA legislative elections for the same reason; it did not want the presence of Hamas in the PLO to steer the organization away from support for a two-state solution and negotiations with Israel, nor did it wish to give Hamas some say over Palestinians’ conduct of international relations. Losing control over the PLO means losing control over the national project. The chair of the PLO also has powers over lawmaking that would hamstring the operations of the PLC even if that body were to remain in Fatah’s hands.
Second, the two sides have reached a tentative compromise on a political platform. Abbas repealed a decree he issued after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006—a decree that would have required candidates to accept the PLO’s political platform and principles. Instead of swearing allegiance to the PLO, Hamas and twelve other Palestinian political factions have agreed to abide by the 2006 National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners signed by jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and representatives from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. That statement called for a Palestinian state with borders based on the boundaries that prevailed in 1967 and the restoration of refugee rights per international law, but it conspicuously refrained from validating the Oslo Accords.
Third, Hamas has agreed to abide by Abbas’s election law decree, which calls for countrywide, proportional representation for PLC seats based on voting by party list only. That makes it unlikely that Hamas would repeat the 2006 victory that precipitated the violent confrontation that drove the Fatah-controlled PA forces in Gaza and the Hamas militants apart.
Fourth, Hamas has apparently promised not to field a presidential candidate and is in talks with Fatah about issuing a joint Hamas-Fatah candidate list or joining a national list with other parties. Essentially, Hamas and Fatah leaders would be agreeing to split PLC seats in advance. To strengthen party discipline and avoid fracturing the party ahead of elections, Fatah is prohibiting any current members of the Fatah Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council or current or former officials from running for legislative seats.
Putting aside the fact that it is hardly a democratic practice to limit who can run in elections and divvy up the seats before voting takes place, such moves seem designed to manage, though hardly bridge, the deep Hamas-Fatah political differences that have fractured the Palestinian polity. Such an arrangement could result in a two-headed leadership incapacitated by divisions. The fact that the two sides are considering this option, however, is evidence of their serious desire to hold PA legislative elections and signals a cooperative spirit—for now.
And that spirit has had some unexpected beneficiaries. The factions have agreed to list at least one woman candidate within the top three slots of their candidate lists and in every fourth slot thereafter to ensure women’s representation in the parliament. They each have agreed to release prisoners they are holding on political charges or for displays of political expression ahead of the elections, and Abbas has agreed to lower the age requirement for PLC candidates to allow for better representation of young voters and to bring some new faces into politics. Finally, Hamas and Fatah have agreed to sideline the Constitutional Court that Abbas established by decree five years ago in favor of a new court that would seat some judges from the West Bank and some from Gaza; this court would be empowered to adjudicate election disputes and irregularities.
Will the Elections Ultimately Take Place?
Ultimately, some of the elections are more likely to happen than others. The PLC elections are the most likely to materialize, while the presidential elections appear to be less so, and the PNC elections seem the most improbable.
While preparations for the PLC election are the most advanced, even that contest poses practical, legal, and political difficulties. Israel controls movement between and access to the villages and towns inside the West Bank and restricts the movement of people in and out of Gaza. Jerusalem remains under total Israeli control. The two times PLC voting has been conducted in the past, international involvement and (sometimes grudging) Israeli cooperation lessened these obstacles. But these factors did not altogether eliminate the hurdles, with reports on those previous occasions indicating that campaigning was being hindered and that restrictions in Jerusalem were particularly onerous. This time, there is less international interest in the elections and no political determination by Israel’s leaders to cooperate. And, indeed, some Hamas activists have already alleged that Israeli security officials are warning them against running. It is likely that voting in Jerusalem, the movement of election officials, and campaigning will be far more restrictive in 2021 than in any previous round.
Intra-Palestinian wrangling also poses a profound challenge since both Hamas and Fatah are in a position to obstruct and even prevent any step of the electoral process. In the past, moments when both Fatah and Hamas seemed to be willing to consider elections (such as in 2014) passed quickly. Just as significantly, divisions within the Fatah movement could sap the leadership’s determination to move forward. There are already signals that some leading movement figures might bolt from the party’s list. If that happens, the proportional system now in place would not swing the parliament in Hamas’s favor (as happened in 2006 when Fatah candidates ran against each other for district seats) but would instead likely result in a divided parliament. With Fatah unity a major goal of the movement’s aging leadership, deep divisions might yet prompt a cancellation of elections. With arguable legal discrepancies between the promised arrangements and the provisions of the Basic Law over election eligibility (individual candidacies are barred) and other matters, the Constitutional Court—ousted from any role in adjudicating election results since it is a body widely viewed as loyal to Abbas—might be called upon to overturn the electoral decree itself.
The external and internal obstacles to holding smooth elections are thus formidable—but there are more sustained and serious efforts to overcome these problems than there have been in the past. Full Israeli cooperation is unlikely, but supportive international actors might apply pressure for less onerous restrictions, the protective presence of election observers, and even a new round of ingenious ways for some Jerusalem residents to vote, perhaps by dropping their ballots off at consular offices. Fatah and Hamas have strived to put their differences aside. Hamas has done so most significantly by dropping its objection to some changes in the electoral law unilaterally decreed by Abbas, and Fatah has done so by agreeing to sideline the Constitutional Court packed with its supporters if the elections do indeed move forward. The scope of these intra-Palestinian agreements and the level of detail being worked out is now too significant for electoral talks to be dismissed as completely insincere.
The presidential election faces similar logistical obstacles, but the internal political ones are greater—or at least more uncertain—since key actors are likely to determine their attitudes when it is clear who would be on the ballot. In general, the likelihood that Palestinians will be asked to select their leader will increase as their options in the selection process are narrowed.
One of the two most significant challengers to Abbas and his likely reelection bid would be a candidate from Hamas if it reneges on its promise not to put forward a candidate (something that could happen if the movement feels cheated in the parliamentary balloting for some reason). The second potential rival would be Barghouti, Fatah’s jailed leader, who hopes a successful presidential bid could put international pressure on Israel to release him. Consistent regional media reports that he will run have begun to appear. Mohammad Dahlan’s Democratic Reformist Current faction, formed by Fatah dissidents, could also split from Fatah’s party line and field a presidential challenger. Another strong independent candidate could also emerge.
Overall, it seems likely but not inevitable that Abbas will remain in the presidency despite his low standing in the polls, perhaps because competitors may be pressured to keep out of the race or because the election could conceivably be postponed. In either case, the parliamentary elections would still have profound effects on presidential succession regardless of whether presidential elections are held or what the outcome would be. A restored parliament would revive provisions in the Basic Law to have the PLC speaker serve as interim president pending a presidential election.
PNC direct elections are by far the least likely to happen. There is no real precedent, far less urgency, and little incentive for holding real elections rather than filling the body through quotas and appointments. The necessary mechanisms are not in place. And because the PNC is designed to represent Palestinians everywhere, it is difficult to imagine countries like Israel or Jordan cooperating with voting—just as it is hard to picture Palestinian citizens of those countries risking their legal status by participating. The PNC will likely be filled as it has been in the past—by a combination of bargaining among factions, appointments, and ad hoc measures by key constituencies to gain representation.
Would Elections Revive the Peace Process or Palestinian Democracy?
There is no viable peace process in place at present, nor is there any prospect of one, so there is nothing to revive. Elections might allow the Palestinian leadership to speak with one (or at least a coordinated) voice and thus make it possible for others to conduct some limited diplomacy with an authoritative Palestinian interlocutor. And holding elections might make it possible for meaningful Palestinian discussions of national strategy to move from the realm of quiet, small-scale conversations among intellectuals and activists to discussions taking place in authoritative national institutions that can make decisions. But any sense of unity that emerges would still likely be fragile (and, indeed, unity is probably too strong a word; loose coordination would be the best outcome). After all, the disarming of Hamas is not even on the table.
Despite those reservations, holding Palestinian elections would be a healthy (albeit limited) step in many respects. Assuming some elections are held, there would be three major positive effects for those who wish for a sounder, more coherent basis for Palestinian political life and for diplomacy.
First, successful elections would breathe some life back into Palestinian national institutions. While Palestinian national identity remains strong, the institutions built over generations—the PLO, the PA, various political factions and movements, and even large parts of civil society—have generally decayed. Second, elections not only would give Palestinian factions renewed vitality but also would give them some measure of unity (or at least a clearer set of mechanisms for managing disagreements). Third, casting ballots would force existing leaders to turn back to their constituents rather than take their positions for granted.
But if elections do take place, the way they are held will limit their significance precisely because of what must be done to secure the support and cooperation of the leaderships of both Fatah and Hamas. Some argue that the election results are simply likely to entrench existing power dynamics. Among parties outside of Fatah, age limitations and other restrictions could inhibit the entry of emerging leaders into organized politics, and the proportional representation system will favor existing, well-organized movements. Inside Fatah, the various internal steps taken to bar the leadership class from running have seemed designed to prevent any breakaway Fatah list and new thinking within the party. While Fatah fractiousness is already in evidence, any breakaway list would likely be headed by familiar figures rather than new faces.
At best, then, Palestine may be able to partially restore some semblance of a national movement connected to a society that can coordinate on some tactical issues. Palestinians might also begin more serious and less theoretical conversations about strategy—all within harsh limits that show no short-term signs of easing or seriously opening. Without hope in a two-state solution and with an entrenched sense of apartheid for Palestinians both inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories, Palestinians desperately need change. The PLO’s political program in recent decades has come to seem increasingly anachronistic. Most of all, then, Palestinians need a national dialogue to reassess their political platform and to devise a strategy to support whatever platform they commit to. This is more than enough of a reason for Palestinians to welcome elections for their possible contributions to these ends—and the international community should welcome them too.