Palestinian elections delayed by Hamas-Fatah bickering

The earliest feasible date to organise a Palestinian election would be after June.

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RAMALLAH // Palestinians will not hold presidential and parliamentary elections in May because of disagreements between the two main political factions, a Palestinian elections official said this week.

The gridlocked Hamas-Fatah reconciliation has made it impossible for the Palestinian Central Elections Commission (CEC) to hold elections on May 4, the date originally set by the groups, said the Ramallah-based organisation's chief electoral officer, Hisham Kuhail.

"May 4 is out of the question," said Mr Kuhail, who oversees the CEC. In an interview with The National, he said the commission cannot stage the election primarily because Hamas will not allow it to make the necessary preparations in Gaza, such as updating the voting registry and installing voting centres.

The problem can be resolved only by "real reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah", he said.

Further, under Palestinian law, Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, must issue a decree instructing the CEC to begin preparing for the elections. This process takes 90 days.

"But to this moment, that has not happened," Mr Kuhail said.

The earliest feasible date to organise an election would be after June, he said.

A Hamas-Fatah agreement signed in Cairo last year was supposed to have led to an interim government that would govern both Gaza and the West Bank until elections took place.

Mr Abbas probably will not issue the order for the elections until Hamas and Fatah settle their disagreements over who will run the interim government, sources say.

Palestinians, whose pro-unity rallies in the West Bank and Gaza in March of last year prompted the reconciliation process, last held a parliamentary poll in 2006.

That was won by Hamas and triggered sanctions against the Palestinian Authority by Israel. It also provoked Hamas-Fatah fighting that culminated with the Islamist group's violent takeover of Gaza a year later.

Winning the last presidential election, in 2005, Mr Abbas's term officially ended in 2009. He has since ruled by presidential decree, angering critics who liken his powers to those of an autocratic ruler.

Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah official, acknowledged that holding elections in May would be difficult, blaming Hamas's "bargaining tactics" during reconciliation talks - including banning the CEC from making election preparations - for the delay.

Mr Kuhail said Hamas had prevented the CEC from updating Gaza's voter registry, which was last updated in 2007. This was essential for holding elections but, he said, his team was denied permission to do this during a meeting last month with aides to Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister in Gaza.

The West Bank voter registry was updated in August.

"Although we sensed that the Hamas people see and understand our argument, they think of elections as a political issue," he said of the meeting with Mr Haniyeh and his staff.

Mr Haniyeh's spokesman, Taher Nunu, could not be reached for comment.

Salah Al Bardawil, a Hamas official in Gaza, has criticised the CEC as beholden to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, an umbrella group of Palestinian factions that also is headed by Mr Abbas.

Mr Kuhail dismissed accusations of political bias, insisting that his organisation, whose yearly budget of US$3 million (Dh11m) is financed by the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, was independent.

He pointed out that the CEC oversaw the 2006 election that Hamas won. He said the CEC was recently restructured during reconciliation deliberations in November. Both factions agreed to reshuffle the organisation's nine-member board.

Under normal circumstances, commissioners are selected by the Palestinian Authority president.

"So how come they see us as politically attached to somebody?" he said. "I mean, this new structure of the commission came as a result of an agreement between factions, including Hamas."