After years of indecision, the Palestinian leadership has taken a bold step this week. Armed with a ruling by the Palestinian Constitutional Court, President Mahmoud Abbas announced the dissolving of the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The announcement also noted that legislative elections are due to take place within six months. No mention has been made of presidential elections.
Both the legislative council and presidency have long passed their expiration date. Abbas was elected for a four-year term on January 9th, 2005 and the legislative council was elected also on a four-year term on January 25th, 2006.
General elections have been hampered because of the events of 2007, when Gaza’s Hamas movement, which had won most seats and set up the Ismael Haniyeh government, revolted against the rule of the Ramallah-based presidency and physically ended its mandate over the Gaza Strip. Two separate governments have existed since, and efforts at reconciliation and elections have been hampered ever since.
The decision to dissolve the legislature and hold elections has been rejected by many individuals and groups, but the largest opposition has come from Gaza. The deputy speaker of the Palestinian legislature has rejected the decision, calling it a blow to Palestinian national unity. Some, including Abbas’s senior deputy Saeb Erekat, the secretary of the PLO’s executive committee, have called for simultaneous presidential as well as legislative elections.
The actual decision of the constitutional court has been criticised as highly political and representing the will of the executive branch rather than being totally independent. Anis F. Kassim, a respected Palestinian legal expert, called the action by president Abbas a form of “rule by law instead of rule of law”.
Some of Abbas’s supporters have been baffled by those opposed to the decision, calling them hypocritical. Abbas Zaki, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, asked how the same people, who have been continuously calling for the end of the Oslo era, can want to hold on to one of the bodies that was established as part of the Oslo Accords.
The fact is that the entire Palestinian political system in the Palestinian territories is technically subservient to the PLO. It was in their capacity as the chairman of the PLO that Arafat and Abbas launched the Oslo process. All legal documents of the Palestinian presidency, government and legislative branch are under the PLO’s umbrella. Of course, Hamas, which participated in and won the elections in 2006, is not a member of the PLO or its various bodies and as a result does not give any role to the PLO, which technically represents Palestinians inside and outside Palestine, but rather clings to the elected legislative body in the Palestinian territories which gave it the electoral mandate.
The question of elections is also very complicated, regardless if the elections are for the legislative council or also for the presidency. How can you have general elections without Gaza? Also, there are many who question whether Jerusalemites will be able to participate.
In previous elections, Palestinians from Jerusalem have run for and participated in voting, albeit in polling stations just outside the city or by absentee voting using East Jerusalem post offices to send their ballots. The four Jerusalemites elected in 2006 were supporters of Hamas and have since been repeatedly arrested administratively by Israel and accused of not showing loyalty to Israel. They were deported and denied entry to Jerusalem and when, after years of legal fighting, they won a high court case, the right-wing dominated Israeli Knesset passed a law legislating their action of deporting any individual who does not show loyalty to Israel.
Some, like Palestinian legal expert Majed Arruri, doubt that elections, even if they were limited, would ever take place. Arruri believes that the decision of the politically-motivated constitutional court decision has a singular aim. He argues that the aim is reestablishing the rule of the PLO’s various institutions to circumvent a problem that is causing complications in the succession process for 83-year-old Abbas. According to the current Palestinian basic law, if the president is not able to carry out his duties, the speaker of the PLC will become acting president for 60 days, until new presidential elections can take place. The last speaker of the PLC is Aziz Dweik, a Hamas supporter. Arruri argues that with the council dissolved, there is no legal case for Dweik to claim the presidency once President Abbas is no longer around.
Whatever the motive is for the decision to dissolve the PLC, President Abbas and his team are move ahead in creating a legal precedent, regardless of whether Hamas and its supporters agree to it or not. This is not a good reflection for the potential of Palestinian national unity.