Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced that Palestinians will be going to elections. This is not just news, it is really big news. That is, if it actually happens.
According to Abbas, Palestinians will go to the polls for two elections. One election to vote for president, another election to vote of parliament members.
And it will be their first election in almost seventeen years. Palestinians haven't been to the polls since 2005.
But this is not the first time Palestinian elections have been scheduled – and then failed to take place. Excuses for the previous cancellations range internal conflicts to concern that the wrong side would be victorious. The wrong side in Palestinian elections is the side Mahmoud Abbas is not on. Abbas has never wanted to jeopardize his long held position of leadership and so, he has not sanctioned an election in all these years.
When the announcement was made, Al Quds, the leading Palestinian newspaper and website, plastered the news of the election as a big headline, in bright red, across their front page. Many Palestinians, however, greeted the announcement with skepticism. They simply do not believe that the election will take place and have adopted a calm, wait-and-see attitude.
Palestinians do not have a culture of elections. In 2005, when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president, he became only the second-ever Palestinian president. He was elected not because the previous president's term had expired, but because Yasser Arafat, the first and only other Palestinian president, had died.
And that election did not go smoothly for Abbas.
Because of internal conflicts with the Palestinian polity, Hamas – not Abbas' Fatah party, won the plurality in the parliament and their candidate became the prime minister. When it was determined that Hamas would lead the Palestinian parliament, Abbas simply rejected the election. First he appointed his own prime minister. Eventually, he disbanded the parliament.
While there is hope that the election will come to fruition, surprises are still probable. And there is absolutely no hope of a changing of the guard, of introducing a new generation of leadership, of new ideas or new ideology entering Palestinian politics.
In this new election the candidate for president from the Fatah party is 85-year-old and ailing Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas wants to continue to lead the Palestinians. He does not want to, or see the need to, step down, move over or make way for new blood.
In December, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research surveyed Palestinians and determined that 66% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. They do not want to remove Fatah from power. They do not want to replace Fatah with the militant, terrorist organization cum political party Hamas. They just want Abbas to go.
As a rule, over the years, Fatah has led Hamas by about 5 points in polls. That hasn't changed. In another recent poll by the Palestinian Center, Fatah garnered 38% of popular support while Hamas trailed with 34%. Narrowing down the voting constituency to only the West Bank, over the past five years Fatah scored consistently higher poll numbers than did Hamas. Fatah garnered between 35% and 40% support from potential voters while Hamas scored 30% to 34%.
The pulse of the Palestinians is measured by "the Palestinian Street" and right now, for good reason, the Street is showing little hope.
Mohammed Dahlan is one of the most popular people in Palestinian political life. Dahlan now lives in exile in the UAE where he is employed as a special adviser to the Emir. Abbas, not surprisingly, has disqualified Dahlan as a candidate for the presidency.
One reason Abbas gave for disqualifying Dahlan is the fact that he lives in the UAE. Another is that Dahlan was convicted – in absentia, by a Palestinian court for disrespecting Abbas and for financial improprieties.
As much as Abbas fears Dahlan, Hamas despises him. Back in the day, Dahlan was Fatah's man in charge of security in Gaza. He was an enforcer for Fatah and under his leadership Hamas was tamped down and kept in their place. Hamas does not want to see Dahlan in power. But the people do. Dahlan has an organization of followers in both Gaza and the West Bank who are extremely loyal to him. They have kept his name alive and if Dahlan cannot run, they will run in his name.
Another very popular candidate is Marwan Barghouti. The chance of his becoming Palestinian president is even more remote than Dahlan's chances. An anti-intellectual intellectual, Barghouti has spent the last many years sitting in an Israeli prison. He was convicted of acts of terror and of masterminding dozens of terror attacks against Israelis. Every so often there is talk of letting Barghouti out of prison to become president, but that is nothing more than a simple pipe dream.
Every few years the suggestion that a unity agreement be struck between Fatah and Hamas surfaces. It is a fool's errand. It has been attempted and failed again and again. Only outsiders are suggesting this duo, only people who have never witnessed the sheer hatred and anger that Fatah and Hamas have for each other.
If Palestinians do go to elections, it will be an important step toward establishing democracy. But elections are only a small part of democracy. The fundamentals of everyday life and governance need to be established or improved. Equal protection under the law. Independent courts. Free press without police and governmental interference. Police that don't terrorize but that protect. Education grounded on the principle that everyone is equal, that everyone has rights. Teaching women's rights and equality. Essential and fundamental principles of democracy are appallingly weak in the Palestinian Authority.
All this needs to change. But it will not change under Abbas, even if he does take the big step of not just talking about, but actually taking the Palestinian people to elections. Symbolic elections are nothing more than empty elections and faux symbols.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern" a weekly TV program and "My Chopp" a daily radio spot. A dynamic speaker, he specializes in analyzing world events and evaluating their relevance and impact. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. Read Micah Halpern's Reports — More Here.
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