Cancellation costs: Abbas and Palestinian democracy

By cancelling Palestine’s first elections in 15 years, President Mahmoud Abbas has relinquished Palestinian democracy and national reunification, and is setting the stage for future turmoil

May 3, 2021, Gaza city, Gaza Strip, Palestinian Territory: Palestinian candidates electoral lists, attend a press conference about postponement of the Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, in front of legislative council headquarter in Gaza city on May 03, 2021. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced Friday that the legislative elections scheduled for May 22 will be postponed until further notice. The Palestinian leadership insists on holding the general elections in East Jerusalem, as they want to elect a new parliament and a new president for all the Palestinian territories (Credit Image: © Mohammed Salem/APA Images via ZUMA Wire
Image by picture alliance / | Mohammed Salem

President Mahmoud Abbas has tipped Palestinians and their national movement deeper into crisis – and he has no exit strategy. By indefinitely postponing the first elections in 15 years, he has missed an important opportunity to put Palestine back on the path towards national reunification and accountable leadership. He is increasing the political fragmentation and authoritarianism that has marked Palestinian politics since the last elections.

None of this was inevitable. In the past few months, there was credible progress towards legislative and presidential elections for the Palestinian Authority (PA) – thanks to the extensive efforts of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission and wide-ranging support from Palestinian factions. By the end of April, 36 electoral lists had registered to compete in a legislative election scheduled for late May.

But last week’s annulment, a few days before the start of campaigning, was predictable. Since the launch of the electoral process, there had been speculation that Abbas would ultimately call it off if he felt his hold on power slipping. Ironically, this threat came not from Islamist Hamas but from within his own Fatah party.

A Fatah house divided

Abbas has worked assiduously to monopolise the mechanisms of power and marginalise dissenting voices. The prospect of open elections gave veteran Fatah leaders Mohammed Dahlan, Nasser Kidwa, and Marwan Barghouti an opportunity to challenge his leadership – in the process, fracturing their party into competing electoral lists. Barghouti then raised the stakes by indicating his intention to run against Abbas in the July presidential election – which he was projected to win easily. This also threatened the many Fatah cadres who depend on Abbas’s presidency and control of the PA for power and patronage – and who, as a consequence, joined the push for cancellation.

Abbas undoubtedly hopes to quash internal dissent and restore the political status quo. However, his actions will have the opposite effect, by deepening divisions and galvanising his opponents. The latter have long accused him of having lost his way and called for democratic reform. Given that Abbas retains the support of the PA’s security forces, his position may not be in jeopardy, even if his popularity continues to wane. However, he is setting up a dangerous showdown over his succession.

The European message should be loud and clear: restore Palestinian democracy or lose support.

As Abbas continues to weaken the legal and constitutional guardrails – and in the absence of elections or a legislative body – his would-be successors will be left to compete against one another through patronage and force of arms. The 85-year-old’s reluctance to plan for his departure only adds to the risk of political turmoil.

East Jerusalem or bust

Abbas blamed his cancellation of the elections on Israel, citing its refusal to include East Jerusalem in the votes – a key demand of all Palestinian factions. Israel has indeed dragged its feet on the issue. The country restricted election-related activity in the city and arrested candidates, thereby giving Palestinians a pretext to cancel the votes. And it did so in a deliberately ambiguous manner, without taking a formal position on the elections one way or the other.

Nonetheless, Abbas showed little interest in replicating the technical compromise that the PA and Israel previously reached to allow Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote in local post offices. He emphasised the symbolic status of East Jerusalem – which Israel illegally annexed in 1980 – by demanding that Israel acknowledge Palestinians’ right to hold elections in the city “the same way as in Ramallah”. Without this, he said, there would be no elections.

Rather than coupling diplomacy with popular mobilisation to increase pressure on Israel, Abbas has relinquished Palestinian agency and leverage. Predictably, the ultimatum elicited stony silence from Israel – which has laid claim to a ‘united Jerusalem’ and worked to stifle Palestinian nationalism in the city. The country has also derived strategic benefits from Palestinian divisions. In asking for Israel’s permission, the Palestinian president has effectively blocked any prospect of elections.

Abbas singled out the European Union for failing to back him. To be sure, the EU deserves criticism. Its policy on elections has, at times, been timid and slow. But the EU did not sit on its hands. European diplomats in New York, national capitals, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv consistently highlighted Israel’s responsibility to facilitate the process, including in East Jerusalem. This effort involved a diplomatic démarche against Israel. While the EU certainly could have brought more of its political weight to bear, it was the only major international actor to have invested any real political capital in the issue. Ultimately, EU diplomacy can only complement, not replace, Palestinian political and civic activism.

A turn away from democracy

The collapse of the electoral process leaves Palestinians on a negative trajectory. By closing off an important avenue for political change, Abbas has increased the sense of alienation from the established political order felt by many Palestinians, especially young people. To maintain power, the PA may further clamp down on political contestation and freedom of expression.

Abbas and the PA were already unpopular. Many Palestinians will now see them as even less legitimate. Rather than serving as the nucleus for an independent and democratic Palestinian state, the PA does little more than generate public sector employment, provide security for Israel, and sustain political patronage for Fatah officials. Moreover, having been expelled from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 and barred from East Jerusalem by Israel, the PA only has 40 per cent of the West Bank under its civil control. Without the capacity to represent all Palestinians in the occupied territories and further their national agenda, the PA risks irrelevancy. The lack of elections will accelerate this trend.

The Palestinian president has vowed to form a national unity government. But it is difficult to see how he intends to achieve this. His unilateral decision was opposed by most of the main factions, including Hamas – which had embraced elections and political engagement to extricate itself from Gaza. It will now have to reassess its options. Given past experiences, the group is unlikely to rush to support a new government led by Abbas. More likely, it will use his missteps to score political points and burnish its domestic credentials. And, while Fatah may try to compensate for this by increasing its nationalist rhetoric and calling for peaceful popular resistance, it is Hamas that will be best placed to exploit increasing tensions with Israel.

As usual, the biggest casualty will be Gaza – which remains stuck on the brink of conflict and a humanitarian catastrophe. Without any path towards national reunification, and as institutional linkages between Gaza and the West Bank continue to fray, Gazans may only be able to hope for an expanded ceasefire arrangement between Hamas and Israel that facilitates an economic recovery – even at the risk of creating a de facto mini-state under Hamas’s authoritarian rule.

The need to recalibrate EU policy

Since the start of the Middle East Peace Process in Oslo in 1993, support for the PA has formed a core part of EU policy. But the EU now needs to recalibrate its approach, given that Abbas’ rising authoritarianism is undercutting Palestinians’ national aspirations and institutions. This should be part of a broader review of EU policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict – one designed to address a dysfunctional peacemaking paradigm that incentivises Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. An important corollary of this will be to help restore Palestinian political space and allow the emergence of a transformative, non-violent strategy that is no longer beholden to the Oslo process.

In the meantime, the EU should continue pushing Palestinian factions towards national dialogue and reunification. But the bloc should also countenance the possibility that Palestine’s fractured system of governance, split between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, may last for years to come. To better support Gaza’s recovery and consolidate Hamas’s move towards political engagement, the EU will need to end its no-contact policy with the group.

Above all, the EU should more explicitly link funding to democratisation, to make clear that a continued slide into autocracy will have implications for the bilateral relationship. Unless Abbas sets a new date for the elections, the bloc should ensure that its direct financial support to the PA does not benefit Abbas’s presidential office – whose budget totalled around €28m in 2017,[1] or approximately 15 per cent of EU funding under PEGASE. This would free up funds that could be reallocated to other PA budgetary lines or to local socio-economic projects.

The EU should couple this with an offer of greater on-the-ground support to help organise elections in East Jerusalem and surmount any potential Israeli obstructions that may emerge.

Palestinians deserve a representative leadership and accountable institutions. These are indispensable elements of their quest for self-determination and statehood. As the largest funder of the PA, the EU has a responsibility to ensure that Abbas does not undercut these ambitions. The European message should be loud and clear: restore Palestinian democracy or lose support.

[1] Public Budget Law 2017, State of Palestine, Ministry of Finance and Planning, Directorate General of Budget (copy held by author).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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