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Palestinian January election off. What now?

Palestinian elections due on January 24 were effectively cancelled on Thursday after the independent Central Election Commission (CEC) recommended postponement, saying conditions would not permit a fair vote.

Official sources said the CEC would cite the fact that the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, will not permit voting, which would mean only those Palestinians in the Fatah-dominated West Bank could choose the government.

Postponement of the elections would resolve the immediate questions clouding the Palestinian political future, but still does little to illuminate what might happen next.

No voting, no quitting, no splitting
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the election on October 23 as he was obliged to do by law. A week later he said he did not want to run for a second term as president. Both statements are now null and void, and the terrible prospect of an election that would have formalised the division of the Palestinian movement into two rival powers, in two separate territories, has been averted, for now.

PLO council extends Abbas term
Political analysts expect the central council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the supreme body dominated by the Fatah movement led by Abbas, to indefinitely extend his term as president of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is not a PLO member. Both the PLO and Fatah have already said they want Abbas to stay on and there is a precedent: in 1999, the PLO extended the presidency of the late Yasser Arafat. It can also extend the term of the Palestinian Legislative Council, or Parliament, which expires on January 25. The fact that Hamas currently holds a majority in the dysfunctional council might lead the Fatah-dominated PLO to dissolve the body. The PLC has not met since Hamas won a brief war for control of Gaza in 2007.

PLO dissolves Palestinian authority
This would be seen as a seismic move politically and a step backwards. The PA is the embodiment of the Palestinian move towards statehood in a future peace treaty with Israel. The PLO central council approved the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1993 as an outcome of interim peace deals with Israel, and has the power to dissolve it. In this scenario, the PA’s powers would revert to the PLO. Abbas, as head of the PLO, would stay at the heart of Palestinian politics, remaining PLO head until his death, incapacitation or removal by the Palestinian National Council. Those who back dissolving the PA say it would force Israel to assume all responsibilities as the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, resuming local powers handed over in the 1990s Oslo accords. It could lead to administrative chaos in the territories, wrecking progress in institution building that has won much praise in the West.

Hamas signs reconciliation pact, elections set for June
An Egyptian proposal aimed at reconciling Hamas and Fatah would slate legislative and presidential elections for June 2010. Abbas has signed the document but Hamas has reservations. Were Hamas to sign, the elections that have just been cancelled could be rescheduled for June, with a guarantee that voters in both territories would take part. Hamas opposes efforts by Abbas and Fatah to make peace with Israel, which it refuses to recognise. For now, the prospects of Hamas signing a unity pact are dim. But if it happens, it raises a very important question: which of them will win what would likely become a make-or-break vote in June for the heart of the Palestinian movement.

Abbas steps down
Were Abbas to actually quit before January — which would shock most political analysts — Hamas would likely declare Aziz Dweik, a Hamas member, as president since he is speaker of Parliament and constitutional successor. Fatah, however, says Dweik’s term ended a year after he assumed the post in 2006 and would not accept him as president, so this scenario is not viewed as likely. — Reuters

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