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Despite the presidential decrees, will the Palestinian elections actually be held?

A Palestinian man enters the offices of the Central Elections Commission in Gaza City, on January 17, 2021. - Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on January 15, announced dates for the first elections in more than 15 years, setting legislative polls for May 22 and a July 31 presidential vote. Abbas's Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority based in the occupied West Bank, and the Hamas Islamists, who hold power in Gaza, have for years expressed interest in taking Palestinians back to the polls. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP) (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
A Palestinian man enters the offices of the Central Elections Commission in Gaza City, on January 17, 2021 [MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images]

A positive development has occurred in the form of President Mahmoud Abbas's decrees to hold legislative, presidential and National Council elections in May, July and August this year. They come after Hamas backed down from its insistence on holding the elections simultaneously and agreed to them being held consecutively.

Hamas does not appear to be placing any obstacles in the way of the elections, but its objectives will worry Israel. The Palestinian Authority is preoccupied with the elections despite the fact that it is concerned that the movement which controls it, Fatah, may lose.

Doubts still prevail in Ramallah about actually holding the elections in the first place, despite the presidential decrees being issued. There is a fear that Hamas has a surprise in store and that Fatah does not agree on a united electoral list, given the differences with Muhammad Dahlan and other senior people.

What we know for certain at the moment is that the election issue will rise and fall whenever the media focus on it. Meanwhile, the core of the Palestinian issue is being overlooked or forgotten altogether.

There is real European pressure on Abbas to hold the elections. It looks as if the PA leader issued his decrees in order to ease such pressure and be ready for the Biden administration to take office in Washington this week. In reality, though, Abbas does not want them to be held. The Palestinians believe that the president was counting on Hamas rejecting his condition of consecutive elections, but this did not happen.

He is now pushing the Europeans to put pressure on Israel to allow Jerusalemites to participate in the polls; his prediction is that Israel will refuse. This will give him the opportunity to elude the elections, and earn him some free publicity into the bargain.

READ: Palestine set for 1st national elections in 14 years

It is felt by some observers that Hamas in the West Bank may hesitate to participate in the elections, not least because the 2006 election campaign revealed who its workers and supporters are, and they were arrested by Israel as soon as the polls were over. The PA then dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council, of which Hamas had won control. The movement's leadership in the West Bank is afraid that it will have to pay the price for its authority in Gaza, where it has absolute control. Nevertheless, it wants to reposition itself in the West Bank through the ballot box, after many years of being hounded by Israel and the PA, so agreed to the elections without preconditions. Even so, there is no certainty that they will actually be held.

Unlike Israel, where citizens are going to the polls for the fourth time in just under two years, the Palestinians have not been able to hold elections since 2006. Talk about elections throughout Abbas's presidency — which technically ended in 2009 — was more about empty slogans than sincere intentions. There are thus many reasons for the Palestinians not to trust the seriousness of the president's intentions, which are doubted due to the series of conditions he announced. If we see Israeli electoral chaos today, will it be a Palestinian version tomorrow?

The PA leader's change of heart is probably more to do with threats to cut financial support to the PA than any real wish to give Palestinians the chance to vote. Nevertheless, Fatah and Hamas are expected to go ahead and open negotiations about the finer details of the election process.

Who will be Fatah's candidate for the presidency? Abbas is 86 years old and not always in good health, but he may still nominate himself to represent the movement. He is maintaining his silence on this matter, while those around him express different opinions. Will he be pushed aside or allowed to step down quietly of his own accord?

In any case, the battle for the succession has started. It is likely to be heated and more open the nearer we get to the day allocated for the presidential election to be held. It looks like a rocky few months ahead.

READ: EU welcomes decision to hold elections in Palestine

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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