Mahmoud Abbas succession fever: Is there a cure?
In my view, there are powerful reasons to believe that there will be no successor to the current president
Debate and speculation among Palestinians over who will succeed the Palestinian president have suddenly intensified. Foreign journalists and diplomats are instantly drawn to the topic. Leaks from those in President Abbas’ inner circle that he will resign, and the replacement of Yasser Abed Rabbo with Saeb Erekat as secretary general of the executive committee of the PLO have fed the discussion.
The main questions are, what would be the process of succession and will it be smooth? Moreover, which one of the various Palestinian leaders has the best chances of succeeding President Mahmoud Abbas?
In my view, there are powerful reasons to believe that there will be no successor to the current president. In fact, President Abbas is likely to be the final president of the Palestinian Authority as we know it.
The Palestinian constitution provides for succession through elections. The second point of Article 37 of Palestinian basic law is very clear in this regard. It stipulates that, “If the office of the President of the National Authority becomes vacant […], the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place in accordance with the Palestinian Election Law.”
There are powerful reasons to believe that there will be no successor to the current presidentDr. Ghassan Khatib
The state of Palestinian internal politics, however, puts a huge question mark over the possibility of conducting such an election and throws into doubt whether the legal process of succession will play out. The Legislative Council (whose term, mind you, long ago expired) is not functioning. There has been no annual election of a council speaker as required by the council’s bylaws. The vast majority of politicians and political factions have justified not holding these elections on the basis that to do so would consolidate the rift that exists between Fateh (Abbas’ faction) and Hamas (which overran the Gaza Strip, administering it since 2007).
There is a chance that the leaders of the PLO -- comprised of several factions, the main one Fateh -- will decide to “agree” on a successor to Abbas as chairman of the PLO during the next National Council meeting (scheduled for the middle of this month) in order to avoid the need for presidential elections. (In this case, the anointed leader of the PLO would slip into the role of the president.) But clinical observation of the nature and behavior of faction leaders leads analysts to conclude that it is much more likely that they will compete as rivals and continue to disagree and clash. There is no single leader able to stand above the various divisions.
Lack of internal political momentum
The public opinion poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center in August, the first to pose this question to the public directly, revealed that none of the possibilities are very popular. The question asked was: “If presidential elections were to take place today and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) would not run again, whom you would vote for?” The response was revealing. Ten-and-a-half percent of respondents said they would vote for Fateh leader Marwan Barghouti, who has no chance of acting as president because he is sentenced to several life sentences in Israeli jails. Another 9.8 percent said they would vote for Ismail Hanieh, the deputy head of Hamas in Gaza and 5.1 percent chose former security chief Mohammad Dahlan, who was expelled from Fateh and is persona non grata in Palestinian Authority areas. Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the PLO executive committee, and Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas, each took 3.3 percent.
A clear-eyed look at these results finds that there is no real candidate for succession, and therefore makes it unlikely that an “agreement” on succession between the factions is possible.
This complex situation and the lack of any internal political momentum is very worrying. If the position of the president were to become vacant, for whatever reason, the Palestinian Authority can only be expected to deteriorate and then finally collapse in the resulting vacuum and infighting.
The only possible preventative measure for this dire scenario is for the president, while in power and still legitimate, to call for legislative elections. Such a step would ensure a legal and smooth succession -- whenever it is needed – halt the slow decline in governance and accompanying lack of accountability, and thus shore up the Palestinian political system and its future stability
This article was first published by the JMCC.
Dr. Ghassan Khatib is Vice President for Development and Communications and lecturer of Cultural Studies and Contemporary Arab Studies at Birzeit University. Previously, he served as director of the Palestinian Authority Government Media Center (2009-2012), Minister of Labor in 2002 and Minister of Planning (2005-2006), founded and directed the Jerusalem Media and Communication center. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation for the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference in 1991 and the subsequent bilateral negotiations in Washington from 1991-93. Khatib holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham in UK, and is author of Palestinian Politics and the Middle East Peace Process: Consensus and Competition in the Palestinian Negotiation Team.