Palestinian election body urges vote delay, reflecting political disarray

The Palestinian Election Commission said Thursday it was "impossible" to organize the vote by Jan. 24, the date decreed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week.

The Palestinian Election Commission on Thursday said it would be unable to carry out January elections called for by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week, recommending that they be held later.

"We have decided to address a letter to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas telling him of our inability to conduct the mission of holding elections," said Hanna Nasser, the head of elections commission, in a press conference in Ramallah on Thursday, which was carried live by local and Arab satellite channels. "We have faced obstacles in the Gaza Strip and in Jerusalem. We've sat with all the political factions and the picture has become clear after these meetings: Elections are impossible to hold."

The decision of the commission, a body that is officially independent Mr. Abbas's government, reflects a panoply of internal and external factors that make it, in the words of the head of the election commission, "impossible" to bring Palestinians to the polls in just over two months. Abbas was expected to accept its recommendation.

Hamas refused to cooperate

The Palestinian political arena has been in a state of disarray since last week, when Abbas announced that he would not seek another term in elections that he had decreed should take place on Jan. 24. Abbas cited a number of frustrations: his Fatah party's ongoing state of internecine conflict with Hamas in Gaza, Israel's stance vis-à-vis peace negotiations, and the Obama administration's failure to broker a breakthrough.

Although elections seemed an apt solution to the stalemate, and were due to be held anyway according to Palestinian law – the last vote was held in January 2006 – the logistical and political barriers to holding elections are functionally insurmountable. Hamas, in charge of the Gaza Strip, rejected Abbas's call for a ballot and said it would not participate, nor would it allow Gaza resident to vote. Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would not allow elections to take place in East Jerusalem, although the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords specifically allow candidates from that area to run for office.

Lack of funds

On top of all these complications, elections require preparation and funds. Past elections have been paid for by the international donor community, and it was unclear whether such funds would be available in time.

"In my view, they didn't have a choice but to say that they couldn't do this, mostly because of the Gaza situation," says Michael Murphy, a Canadian based in East Jerusalem who has worked for several years on building Palestinian capacity in elections and political parties.

"The real issue is that they will not be able to do it without Gaza. Hamas is not going to participate, and they can't have elections without them," says Mr. Murphy. "This situation has the Palestinian Elections Commission in an uncomfortable situation of not being able to maintain neutrality. They've always maintained an arm's distance so as not to be dragged into politics. And so their technical position is that if we can't have elections everywhere, then we can't do our job."

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