The Ma’an news agency is reporting that an ‘understanding’ has been reached between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian National Authority.
According to the report, agreement has been reached on the formation of a caretaker government and an election timetable.
There are currently two PMs in the area covered by the Palestinian Authority, one Fatah PM in the West Bank and one Hamas PM in the Gaza Strip. The agreement is supposed to lead to the resignation of both PMs and the appointment of a single replacement. In addition, presidential and legislative elections would be held a year after the formation of the interim government.
In February, the Fatah PM, Salam Fayyad, tendered his resignation to President Mahmoud Abbas, who called for elections in September. In retrospect, this sounds like part of a strategy to try to reach an agreement with Hamas.
There is, of course, no guarantee that the agreement will be ratified or implemented successfully. However, it seems that one of the consequences of the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt is that there is both a renewed incentive for both parties in the Palestinian Authority to reach an agreement and perhaps fewer constraints on the nature of such an agreement than was previously the case.
There is a new government in the Palestinian National Authority.
As reported in an earlier post, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned in March prior to the beginning of negotiations between Fatah, President Mahmud Abbas’ party, and Hamas, the winners of the January 2006 parliamentary election.
Following a period of cohabitation government, then the civil war and the de facto partition of the Palestinian National Authority into the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza, the legitimacy of the Fatah government has been continually questioned by Hamas.
The question of a government for the Palestinian National Authority was central to the recent negotiations between Fatah and Hamas. A key element of any agreement would have been the appointment of a unity government. Prime Minister Fayyad tendered his resignation in March in order to try to facilitate such a government.
However, negotiations have not been going well. On 13 May, in the context of the likely failure to reach an agreement, President Abbas reappointed Salam Fayyad as head of government. This decision was opposed by Hamas and it was also opposed by factions within Fatah itself. At least one of the problems was that the negotiations were not yet terminated and Fayyad’s appointment was seen as making the likelihood of any agreement even more slim. As a result, and in a clear demonstration of the disunity within Fatah itself, Fayyad’s nomination was not approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Last Monday, though, negotiations between Fatah and Hamas broke down. As a result, Middle East Online reports that Fayyad was nominated again and this time his appointment has been ratified.
The prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Salam Fayyad, has submitted his resignation to President Mahmud Abbas, stating that it will take effect when the national consensus government is formed at the end of the month.
Prime Minister Fayyad was appointed in June 2007 after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza strip. His appointment followed the dismissal of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas by President Abbas. Hamas consider the appointment of Prime Minister Fayyad to be illegitimate, not least because his appointment has never been ratified by the legislature and the Basic Law requires, and consider Prime Minister Haniyeh still to be the legitimate prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority.
In the context of a proposed national unity government, the proposed resignation of Prime Minister Fayyad is clearly a conciliatory move. It is also a sign that the unity government will work within the constitutional framework of the Basic Law. How it would be able to do so with the PM issue still outstanding was very unclear at the time of the last post on the PNA.
Fatah and Hamas appear to have agreed in principle to the idea of a unity government. Meeting in Cairo last week, representatives of the two groups agreed to establish five committees that would report on various issues by 20 March. The interim transitional government would operate until new presidential and legislative elections are held, it is reported.
The Palestinian Information Centre reports that the five committees cover the following areas: the national unity government, the security apparatuses, the rebuilding of the PLO, elections, and national reconciliation.
Assuming a government is formed and given its transitional nature, and assuming there has been agreement to reform the PLO to include Hamas and Islamic Jihad and given the PLO has its own decision-making structures, it is unclear to me whether the government will work, even notionally, within the context of the Basic Law. Indeed, politically, this would raise ongoing issues about the relationship between the president and the prime minister under the Basic Law.
In a recent policy paper, Fatah is reported as claiming that presidential and legislative elections will be held in January 2010. In a recent poll, 79% said they would vote in elections with more people believing that Hamas would win rather than Fatah.
The UNDP Democratic Governance programme reports that the Palestinian Central Council elected Mahmoud Abbas as ‘President of the Palestinian State’ on 24 November. The Palestinian Central Council is an offshoot of the Palestinian National Council, which is the legislative body of the PLO rather than an institution established by the Basic Law of the Palestinian Authority.
The election occurs in the context of the dispute between Fatah, Abbas’s party that controls the West Bank, and Hamas, the party that won the 2006 legislative election and that now controls Gaza. In theory, the Palestinian Authority is governed by the 2002 Basic Law, which was amended in 2003 to make it a semi-presidential system. The text is available here.
Abbas was elected as President in 2005 and his term should end in January 2009. However, in the context of the current Fatah/Hamas conflict, he does not intend to stand down, though he does state that he is committed to elections next year if the Egyptian-sponsored peace agreement between Fatah and Hamas comes to fruition. There is also some speculation that he may call elections in the West Bank alone where his support is strongest. Obviously, Hamas want him to stand down in January and hold a general election as they feel their candidate would win the presidential election as things stand.
Given the historic role of the PLO and the upcoming term limit in January, Abbas’s election as President of the Palestinian State could be seen as an attempt to legitimise his position, even though my understanding is that Palestinian Central Council has not been a key actor in recent years. Needless to say, Hamas have denounced the move as illegitimate because they claim the Palestinian Central Council does not represent the Palestinian people as a whole.
There is a nice report from the BBC about the possibility of new elections in the Palestinian Authority.
President Mahmoud Abbas’s term expires in January 2009 and the legislature’s term is due to expire in January 2010. Technically, Fatah holds the presidency and Hamas controls the legislature. However, Hamas’s military control over the Gaza Strip complicates the situation considerably. There is a scenario in which the Palestinian Authority splits into two and the different territories are run separately.
Anyway, discussions between the two parties are taking place in Egypt. The Egyptian plan is a government of national unity and for elections then to take place. However, the discussions raise some classic semi-presidential issues. Hamas has opposed the idea of holding simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections and want President Abbas to call an early presidential election. Obviously, Abbas refuses this scenario and it is highly likely that the presidential election will not go ahead in January 2009.
Both sides currently have some hold over power and neither is willing anything to risk giving up what they currently have. In other words, the semi-presidential system, rather than allowing for opposing parties to share power, satisfies neither side because neither has full power. In this context, the institutions themselves become a bargaining tool and the system destabilises.
In 2003 the Constitution of Palestine was passed. This document regulated the internal affairs of the Palestinian National Authority. The constitution had been the subject of negotiation for years, but was eventually passed in the context of attempts to find a settlement to the conflict with Israel. In particular, it was, in effect (and as I understand it), part of the attempt to marginalise Yasser Arafat, who was seen by various parties as a stumbling block to peace. The creation of a semi-presidential system with a president and a prime minister was a deliberate attempt to try to reduce Arafat’s power over the system. He died in November 2004.
The constitution can be found here. Articles 67 and 75 clearly establish the government’s collective responsibility to the legislature. Article 45 establishes a president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism.
A really interesting situation in this context concerns the brief period of cohabitation following the victory of Hamas in the 2006 legislative election. In January 2005 Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of Fatah was elected as president. In January 2006 Hamas gained an absolute majority in the legislative election. There was some talk of a coalition but Hamas formed a single-party government. Therefore, there was a period of cohabitation.
In effect, this situation did not last long. In June conflict in Gaza led to Hamas controlling that area, while it was expelled from government. President Abbas dissolved the government and assumed emergency powers.
From a parochial point of view, the question is whether the semi-presidential system was partly responsible for the civil war. My guess is that the causes of the conflict are already well overdetermined, but that the semi-presidential system did not help in any way.
Previous posts in this series: