For more information, please see Nathan Brown's recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.  Click here.

Why Palestinian elections now?

The matter of Palestinian presidential elections was forced by Yasir Arafat's death on 11 November 2004. Under the Basic Law and the Election Law, he was succeeded by the speaker of the PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council), Rawhi Fatuh, but only for an interim period of no more than sixty days. Fatuh is not regarded as presidential material and he has honored the caretaker nature of his position, decreeing that presidential elections would be held 9 January 2005.

Since 1999, various parties have suggested holding fresh elections for the PA (Palestinian Authority) presidency and the PLC. Demands picked up in 2002 with the resurgence of Palestinian reformers. Some Palestinians felt that elections would renew institutions that had decayed under the pressure of the intifada and the Israeli response, shoring up their legitimacy internationally and domestically. Any new presidential elections, however, would clearly have led to a victory by Yasir Arafat, undercutting international support. Palestinians had therefore pushed ahead for local elections (finally beginning them last month) and for PLC elections (with work on an amended election law for the PLC moving slowly over the past two years).

Palestinian elections are being carried out in accordance with the Basic Law (or interim constitution), promulgated in 2002, and the Palestinian election law of 1995. That law is unusual in that it was designed to be used precisely once—in January 1996, when elections were held for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority and for the Palestinian Legislative Council, a body that evolved into the PA's parliament. The PA and the PLC were supposedly interim structures, designed to oversee Palestinian affairs in the West Bank and Gaza while a permanent agreement was negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The deadline for this agreement passed in 1999, and negotiations collapsed in 2000. The same Palestinian bodies have remained in place.

How has the process worked?

Once an election date was declared, oversight of the election was passed to the Palestinian Central Election Commission (one of the few independent election commissions in the Arab world—a region where elections are more often overseen by the far less independent Ministry of Interior). Since local elections had been recently scheduled, the Palestinians had just completed a voter registration drive. That allowed the commission to work quickly to issue regulations, register candidates, and prepare for voting.

While the elections are thus being carried out in a far more neutral and professional manner than is customary in the Arab world, the process has not been without controversy. Campaigning has been an issue, with Israeli travel restrictions inhibiting the ability of candidates to move freely. Internally, there has been some criticism that PA institutions have favored Abu Mazin (Mahmud Abbas), but by regional standards, official involvement in the campaign has been mild.

Jerusalem has proven to be a particularly contentious point, since both Israelis and Palestinians view it as their legitimate capital but Israel remains largely in control of the city. In 1995, a Labor party government in Israel agreed to have Palestinians residing in Jerusalem participate in Palestinian elections. After some hesitation, the current Likud government agreed to abide by the earlier arrangements. This it has largely done. Thus, Israel has allowed the posting of some campaign material. But there have still been significant frictions. Israel has thus far prevented candidates from visiting the city, though it has suggested that Abu Mazin may pay a visit. Israel also had worked in the fall of 2004 to block efforts to register voters in Jerusalem.

In addition to Palestinian Jerusalemites, those in outlying villages had difficulty registering because of Israeli travel restrictions. The PLC therefore quickly voted to amend the electoral law to allow unregistered Palestinians to vote if they are listed on the population registry. The sudden change sparked internal criticism that this might open up possibilities for multiple voting. The Electoral Commission therefore worked to develop procedures preventing this (such as reopening registration, registering Jerusalemites door to door, and checking purported unregistered voters against existing rolls). It likely will be unclear until election day how well these measures will work.

In the end, seven candidates will be listed on the ballot. Abu Mazin, the official nominee of Fatah, is the obvious frontrunner and presumed future president. The other candidates are standing as independents or as representatives of small parties or coalitions. Mustafa al-Barghuti, a respected NGO leader, is the most widely-known opponent, but he seems unlikely to be able to challenge Abu Mazin.

The strongest possible challengers to Abu Mazin decided to withdraw or not to run: Marwan al-Barghuti out of deference to the Fatah decision to endorse Abu Mazin; Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders because they do not wish to recognize the Oslo Accords that established the PA, independent Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi because of age; and interim PLC speaker Hasan Khraysha, ostensibly because of Israeli restrictions (but likely because he would have had to step down as interim speaker).

What is at stake?

Only one item is on the ballot: who shall serve as PA president. Other elections—for local councils and the Palestinian Legislative Council—are being held separately (see below).

On paper, the PA presidency is much less important a position than it was before the Palestinian Authority's Basic Law was amended to create the position of prime minister in 2003. When he served as the PA's first prime minister, Abu Mazin showed far greater respect than Arafat ever did for laws and proper procedures. Thus, he is more likely than Arafat to operate within the limits of his authority.

The PA presidency was an office designed around a specific individual (as often happens with strong presidencies), Yasir Arafat. But Arafat seldom acted as if he was bound by rules and institutions. Indeed, it was in reaction against presidential domination that the PLC amended the Basic Law in 2003 to transfer much authority to the prime minister. While Arafat accepted the amendment due to intense international pressure, he did not fully honor it.

Thus, the elections may be far more important on the level of general political atmosphere—testing the viability of Palestinian institutions, demonstrating a commitment to democratic mechanisms, and strengthening a candidate dedicated to a negotiated solution with Israel—than on a day-to-day level. In this sense, Abu Mazin likely will lnot be a full successor to Arafat as unchecked leader of all Palestinians, nor does he seem desirous of such a role. Instead, he is likely to use his position to oversee (rather than micromanage) the PA and to explore opportunities to renew the peace process.

On internal matters—reform and democracy—the presidential elections may therefore matter much less than three other sets of elections that have been promised to Palestinians.

Why are other Palestinian elections potentially more important?

Local elections: Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza have begun the process of electing village and town councils. While the Palestinian Legislative Council established the legal framework for electing these bodies in 1996, the PA delayed, claiming that holding elections only in areas under full PA control might prejudice Palestinian claims to Israeli-held areas (especially East Jerusalem). In addition, PA officials were also likely very worried that Islamists would do well in local elections, embarrassing the PA and complicating negotiations. Palestinian reformers continued to call for local elections and obtained promises in 2002 that they would be held. In May 2004, the Palestinian cabinet, anxious to prove some democratic credentials and show initiative, finally ordered the elections.

The first round of these elections took place on 23 December 2004 in some localities in the West Bank and Gaza, and remaining towns and villages will continue to vote over the next year. While local governments have only restricted responsibilities, the elections are significant because—for the first time since the creation of the PA—Islamists are fully participating in elections for governmental bodies. The first set of elections were held in locations where Fatah was expected to perform well—which it did—but Islamists also made a strong showing, campaigning on strictly local issues.

Parliamentary elections: PLC elections are likely to take place this May. With the PA having moved from a presidential to a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, a reinvigorated PLC would be a major development in Palestinian governance and PLC elections may be more significant than presidential elections over the long term, since the PLC will have oversight over a prime minister and cabinet that have been empowered at the expense of the president. They are also likely to be more contentious in two senses.

First, the date and format of the elections have already been the subject of considerable dispute. Opposition political parties wished to hold PLC elections at the same time as presidential elections but failed in convincing the Palestinian leadership. They are likely to be more successful in demanding a move toward proportional representation, with the PLC currently debating an amended election law that would elect half the PLC seats on the basis of electoral districts and the other half on a nationwide basis.

Second, PLC elections are likely to be more contentious because the move toward proportional representation would make it easier for opposition parties to gain seats. Many of those who sat out the 1996 elections (including the Islamists) are likely to participate if they feel they have a chance of making a strong showing. Hamas deputies in the PLC would be a major shift in Palestinian politics, perhaps hardening the position of the body but also offering the possibility of converting Hamas from a resistance movement to a political party accepting majority rule.

Fatah Party Congress: Internal elections also are slated for the largest Palestinian political party, Fatah, in preparation for a party congress in August 2005—the first such meeting since 1989. Lower-level members have clamored for greater democracy within Fatah for over a decade, charging that it was run in a top-down manner by Arafat and other members of the party's old guard. In the summer of 2004, some activists moved beyond complaining and the party seemed on the brink of civil war.

Abu Mazin and other senior leaders have maintained discipline in the organization only by promising to hold a party congress, and that will necessitate a round of branch elections not only in the West Bank and Gaza but in Fatah units in the Palestinian diaspora as well. (The congress will be held on the West Bank, however, giving Israel a veto over outside members attending.) A generational shift within Fatah is an inevitable part of this process.