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.