Bahbah: Abbas's Succession and the Newly Announced Elections
By: Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist
During the speech of Mahmoud Abbas to the UN General Assembly this September, he announced that the Palestinian Authority will hold elections for its legislative council within six months. After this, a new government will be formed reflecting the results of those elections. A year after the swearing-in of the new legislative council and/or the formation of the new government, presidential elections will be held; in other words, approximately 18-20 months from now.
This announcement raises many noteworthy questions. Why did Abbas finally decide to hold elections for the Palestinian legislative council and for the presidency? Will he be running for reelection? If not, who will be the likely presidential candidates or successors?
According to highly placed sources in Ramallah, the decision to hold elections came at the behest and urging of Norway, a strong financial and political supporter of the Palestinians. The Norwegians argued that, given the stalemate in the peace process and with the expected demise of President Donald Trump’s so-called deal of the century and given the paralysis in the Israeli political landscape, Palestinian elections were way overdue.
It was decided that elections for the legislative council will be held first, followed by presidential elections approximately a year later. The last time national elections were held in the occupied territories was in 2006 and, at that time, Hamas won a majority of the seats in the legislative council.
The Norwegians reasoned that with the holding of elections, it would be easier for major European countries to extend their recognition of Palestine as a state – a request that has been consistently rebuffed by major European countries in fear of upsetting the now moribund peace process.
The Norwegian prodding did not fall on deaf ears given that recent public opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza revealed that Hamas’ support has been on the decline since 2007, with the exception of periods when Hamas was engaged in violent confrontations with Israel. In fact, a public opinion poll held during the summer by Dr. Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, based in Ramallah, revealed that Hamas’ support in the West Bank did not exceed 26% while its support in the Gaza Strip, its home base, was a mere 39%. Hamas’ national support averaged around 33%. With that kind of polling, the likelihood of Fatah losing the legislative council to Hamas appears to be slim.
And, if we are to incorporate the anticipated electoral changes in the upcoming elections whereby there would only be national slates of candidates per party or political faction – similar to the Israeli electoral system – then the likelihood of Fatah or a combination of Fatah and independents winning in the legislative council increases dramatically. In the 2006 elections, there were national slates as well as regional slates which led to the squandering or dilution of votes between national and regional candidates. This voting system contributed to Fatah’s loss to Hamas in those elections.
Whether Hamas would agree to participate in the upcoming elections especially in Gaza is an unknown. Also unknown is whether Israel would allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in those elections.
However, it is anticipated that Mohammad Dahlan will have his own slate of Fatah reformists and independents running even if he is not listed on the slate himself, as expected.
With regard to the presidential elections, and wishing no one ill-harm, who knows whether Abbas, who is now 85 years old, a heavy smoker, and who has suffered from poor health, will consider running. Therefore, the question as to whether he will run again for reelection or not is truly anyone’s guess.
However, there are five potential candidates who would most likely be vying to run for the presidency in the event Abbas chooses not to run again.
Those five candidates who have a credible chance of winning are:
Mohammad Shtayyeh–the Current Palestinian Prime Minister
General Majed Faraj–Head of the Palestinian Intelligence Services
Hussein Al-Sheikh–Head of the PA’s General Authority of Civilian Affairs
Ismail Haniye–Secretary-General of Hamas
Mohammad Dahlan–the Fatah Leader Based in the UAE
It is widely believed in Ramallah that Dr. Shtayyeh, Majed Faraj and Hussein Al-Sheikh would be acceptable to the Israeli government. However, Israel’s security establishment would rather deal with a security-minded individual to ensure continued security and stability in the West Bank and Gaza, if reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah ever takes place.
Shtayyeh is believed to be favored by Abbas to succeed him and, as time passes, Abbas is affording Shtayyeh with more authority and responsibilities. On the other hand, Faraj and Al-Shaikh have regular interaction with Israel’s security establishment and are favored over Shtayyeh.
Clearly, Haniye is not favored by the Israelis. And, according to recent public opinion polls, if he were to run for the presidency against Abbas, Haniye would lose the presidency, albeit by a small margin even though 61% of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza would like to see Abbas resign as president of the Palestinian Authority.
As for Mohammad Dahlan, when he enters the fray of presidential elections, if he is permitted by the Abbas controlled Higher Election Council to run and if he is allowed by Israel to enter the occupied territories, he is believed to be the favorite in terms of being able to control the security situation in both the West Bank and Gaza. Additionally, Dahlan has been building a huge and broad base of support in Gaza where Hamas’ influence has been on the decline. He has even been able to mend fences with Hamas to whom he lost Gaza in 2007.
Dahlan’s base of support in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank have been expanding as well. Of course, the UAE’s financial support has helped him finance major assistance programs for the benefit of those Palestinian refugees. Furthermore, Dahlan enjoys the political support of Egypt, Gaza’s only gateway to the world. And, he has the financial and political support of heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In short, the upcoming legislative elections will most likely see Fatah and independents return to their control of that chamber while the struggle for the Palestinian president has yet to cross several unforeseen hurdles before the dust settles on a replacement for Abbas.
Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.
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