Palestinian elections scheduled for this year are meant to inject democratic legitimacy into the discredited Palestinian leadership as domestic support has waned, the Biden administration has taken over in Washington, and "normalisation" agreements have undermined the traditional Arab refusal to deal with Israel until Palestinians have self-determination.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party has decreed parliamentary elections in May, a presidential poll in July and a first-ever vote for the National Council (the Palestine Liberation Organisation's legislative body) in August. Rival group Hamas's political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh has agreed to the votes. Both Mr Abbas and Mr Haniyeh took power in 2005 ahead of the last parliamentary poll in 2006, which Mr Haniyeh's Hamas rather than Mr Abbas's Fatah won, creating the ongoing political and territorial division between the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Hamas-governed Gaza.
Renewal of legitimacy is essential. Abbas (85), whose term in office expired in 2009, has not stated his intentions, but Fatah expects to retain the presidency. Haniyeh (59), who ceded power in Gaza in 2017 and lives in exile, is determined to ensure that Hamas will have a role going forward.
The Palestinian legislature has not met since 2007, when Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza. The National Council has always been comprised of nominees from Palestine Liberation Organisation factions rather than elected representatives. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been excluded from the council and demand membership.
Palestinians blame Fatah for failing to deliver an independent state through negotiations and Hamas for mounting armed resistance to Israel’s occupation, as this has resulted in three wars, siege and blockade.
The inability of Fatah and Hamas to form a united front has created popular frustration with the ruling parties, which are also accused of mismanagement and corruption.
Palestinians hope a return to democracy will encourage the US to revive the “two-state solution” providing for a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel and prompt Arab regimes to halt normalisation agreements with Israel until it ceases settlement expansion and returns to negotiations.
Egypt has brokered agreement on mechanisms for the elections and the Palestinian election commission has been revived. Previous Palestinian presidential and legislative elections have been ruled free and fair by former US president Jimmy Carter, but if this is not the case in 2021 the elections will not be deemed legitimate by either Palestinians or outsiders.
Conducting elections could be difficult. They will not be held under a single authority unless the election commission has full authority in both the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has warned Hamas not to campaign in the West Bank and has barred Palestinian Jerusalemites from voting. They were previously permitted to cast ballots in the West Bank.
Palestinian commentators argue that Mr Abbas has promoted elections as a public relations ploy to appear democratic but will cancel them as he has done repeatedly before.