Barghouti forecast to win in Palestinian elections

Marwan Barghouthi held in an Israeli jail since April 15th 2002 – 19 years ago today – is forecast to win the presidential election if he stands as a candidate

When the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas announced that elections would take place for the Palestinian parliament on May 22 2021, for the presidency on July 31 and for the Palestine Liberation Organisation on August 30, there was a lot of skepticism. It wasn’t the first time that elections had been promised. But this time the skeptics may have to eat their words. Agreements have been reached. Obstacles have been overcome. The May election is almost certain to go ahead.

But nothing is guaranteed. If the first election is 90% certain, the second probably only 60% and the third maybe only 30%. The Palestinians have gone 15 years without a national election and there is nothing in their constitution that forces them to call elections. As a result elections will only happen when the two main parties, Fatah and Hamas, agree that it’s in both of their interests to hold them. The reason they are both doing so now is the fear that, without a fresh democratic mandate, they will lose their economic backing from European and Gulf states and will miss the opportunity created by the Biden presidency.  

So what’s likely to happen in May? A poll from the authoritative Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research held between March 14 and 21 shows that Fatah is opening up a substantial lead over Hamas.

Parliament electionMarch 2021 December 2020
Other 9%9%
Don’t know 18% 19%

But in the last few weeks two Fatah breakaway groups have emerged, each presenting its own list of candidates. One group headed by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief in Gaza who is now living in exile in the United Arab Emirates, presents the lesser problem.  If his list stands against the official Fatah list, the result would be:

Dahlan list 10%
Official Fatah list 29%

The greater problem is posed by Marwan Barghouthi, Fatah’s former general secretary who is held in an Israeli jail. Even before his allies declared that he was putting forward a list, the poll showed that if he stood, he would take more than half of Fatah’s support with him.

FactionMarch 2021 pollDecember 2020 poll
Barhouti list28%25%
Fatah list22%19%

The situation is still fluid but as things stand at the moment next month’s election could see three separate Fatah or ex-Fatah factions with a majority between them but only be able to form a government if they re-unite.

It’s worth remembering that a similar event occurred before the last parliamentary elections in 2006. Fatah excluded Barghouti’s supporters from the official list. Barghouti put forward a breakaway list. There were negotiations and a compromise list was agreed.

A similar compromise agreement with Barghouti seems the most likely outcome, although one alternative that has been mooted is a joint Fatah-Hamas list. It’s difficult to see how a Fatah-Hamas government would work, but it is apparently popular with a majority of Palestinians.

Joint Fatah-Hamas list

When it comes to the presidential election, it is understood that President Abbas wants to stand again as the Fatah candidate, even though he is now 85 and polls suggest that 68% of Palestinians think he should retire.

In December the polls showed him losing to the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyyeh by 43% to 50%. His position has strengthened in the last three months and he has now edged ahead of Haniyyeh by one point.

Presidential election March 2021December 2020

If Abbas can ensure that he is the only Fatah candidate, then he could emerge as the winner in a straight contest with Hamas, though on a fragile margin.

There are other potential contests who could win more convincingly, including the current Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh.

Presidential election March 2021December 2020

But Marwan Barghouthi would win easily by a margin of 30%.

Presidential electionMarch 2021 December 2020
Barghouti 63%61%
Haniyeh 33%37%

And he would win even in a three-cornered contest against both Abbas and Hamas

Presidential electionMarch 2021WB (March)Gaza (March)Dec 2020
Abbas 19%17%21%25%
Haniyeh 29%22%38%32%
Barghouti 48%55%40%41%

Marwan Barghouti has long been the most popular Palestinian politician despite being in an Israeli jail since 2002 – April 15th is the 19th anniversary of his arrest – and despite there being little prospect that any Israeli government would willingly agree to release him.

There are, however, many international precedents for opposition politicians to be let out of jail to negotiate with a government on behalf of their followers, from Gandhi and Nehru in India to Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and of course to Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

In Israel the prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu is currently appearing in court on corruption charges for which the maximum tariff is ten years in prison, which raises the tantalising possibility that, instead of letting Barghouti out of jail, Netanyahu might be forced to join him in jail. That would solve the problem of where to hold the negotiations. They could hold them in Cell 28 in Hadarim Prison, not far from Netanyahu’s private residence on the Mediterranean coast.

A senior Hamas official, Mousa Abu Marzouk, told Al Jazeera last month that Hamas would contest only the parliamentary election and would not put up a candidate for president. This might seem a strange position for a political party to take. But bear in mind that Hamas has changed tack after recent internal elections and is now more prepared to pursue a joint approach with Fatah focusing on negotiations and non-violence.

Hamas had little to show from their election victory in 2006. They had a majority of the MPs, but the MPs were unable to meet, many of them were put in jail by the Israelis and international donors boycotted their government.

This is now reflected in the views of Palestinian voters who believe that another Hamas victory would make the economy worse, not better, and the siege of Gaza even tighter and Israel will in any case not allow it to happen.

If there is a Hamas victory:
Israel will allow it 11%
Israeli will not allow it51%
Israel will arrest MPs28%
It will tighten the blockade 49%
It will relax the blockade 14%
It will make no difference 31%
It will worsen the economy45%
It will improve the economy 17%

The main benefit from the election will be that it will breathe new life into Palestinian democracy. Changes to electoral law will mean there will be more women elected – at least every fourth candidate on every list must be a woman, there will be younger MPs – the minimum age for candidates has been lowered, and there will be a more proportional outcome as a result of the abolition of regional seats. . In the 2006 election Hamas’s majority was hugely inflated by Fatah factions putting up rival lists against one another.

Israel so far continues to refuse to allow Palestinian polling stations in East Jerusalem and bans political campaigning in the city, but the new voting system means that Palestinian Jerusalemites should be able to vote in suburbs of the city that have not been annexed to Israel.

The Israeli government is already pressing for the cancellation of all the elections. And it must remain a distinct possibility that, even if the May election goes ahead, the Palestinian government will find some reason to cancel the presidential elections in July.

The elections for the Palestine Liberation Organisation are less immediate and work has only just started on the logistics of holding elections among Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. At the moment the parliament of the PLO is filled by a combination of bargaining among factions, appointments and ad hoc measures by key constituencies, and that is likely to continue until elections can be organised.

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