Abbas can cancel elections but not anger in Palestine

Problems are mounting for leaders who are scared to hear what the people think
A screen displaying a live broadcast of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's speech during a meeting to discuss upcoming elections, is seen in a coffee shop in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank April 29, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has his reasons for not liking elections. Fifteen years ago, his authority was unexpectedly challenged when a vote delivered militant Islamist group Hamas victory over Fatah, the dominant party in the territory's politics. The shock was a blow to Mr Abbas's credentials and sparked lethal unrest.
Unlike in 2006, many Palestinians were expecting this year's election to bring some degree of change. New figures had emerged to challenge the Fatah-Hamas binary, and a young electorate – no Palestinian below the age of 34 has had the opportunity to participate in elections – could have broken with tradition.
Mr Abbas's decision on Friday to postpone the vote was, therefore, unsurprising. He claims to have done so because of the possibility that Israel would have imposed voting controls on Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem. Occupation has indeed gotten in the way of them exercising their democratic rights before. But this time round the issue was one of proportion. In 2006, roughly 6,300 voters cast ballots in these areas. Before Mr Abbas's decision, plans were already in place to mitigate potential difficulties, with post offices and even foreign missions being floated as possible polling stations in the event of an obstruction. And while Israeli limitations could have presented difficulties for some Jerusalemites, an estimated 150,000 Palestinian residents of the city were expected to cast their votes in suburbs outside the Israeli military's control.

A girl gestures as Hamas supporters take part in a protest against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to postpone planned parliamentary elections, in the northern Gaza Strip April 30, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
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No Palestinian below the age of 34 has had the opportunity to participate in elections

Mr Abbas's decision was, at best, disproportionate. It was more likely an attempt to protect his career. Palestinians had good reason to deliver a result not in his favour. The pandemic has worsened pre-existing economic and political difficulties. Unemployment is at almost 50 per cent in Gaza. Israeli settlements continue to expand in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Authorities have proven ineffective at petitioning Israel, the foremost vaccinator against Covid-19 globally, for their fair share of doses. Improving governance in the face of occupation is, of course, hugely challenging. But ordinary Palestinians are growing tired of it being used as a catch-all excuse for lacklustre leadership.
It is true that Mr Abbas's brief is a tough one. The grip Hamas has on Gaza's politics limits his influence. There were fears that this year's election could have made them yet more powerful; after all, the organisation's victory in 2006 had deadly short-term consequences and continues to hamper progress years later

But blocking the democratic process is not going to get rid of the group or solve Palestinian problems. And while there was a chance that Hamas could have benefited from recent splits in Fatah, the militant organisation is itself based on corrupt political foundations that many Palestinians reject. A fair vote could have been the moment that the people, particularly the young, rejected not just the stagnancy of Mr Abbas's tenure, but Hamas's fringe politics as well.
Society in the Palestinian Territories is changing. With trust and fairness from its leaders, elections could have been the opening of a new and better chapter. With distrust, a dangerous stalemate remains. The decision to postpone the vote has placed Palestine on the wrong path.