Abbas set to delay Palestinian vote

Published June 4th 2005 in Times of Oman
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas was expected on Saturday to postpone legislative elections set for July 17 amid fears Hamas could score a major success in the polls.

The likely announcement of a delay comes after Israel revealed that Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would meet on June 21 in Jerusalem, the first time Palestinian and Israeli leaders have met in the holy city.

The prospect of Hamas sweeping the legislative elections has sparked fears in Abbas's Fatah party and in Israel of Hamas creating a political powerbase ahead of the Jewish state's pullout from the Gaza Strip in mid-August.

A Palestinian official, who asked not to be named, said Abbas needed to have more time to discuss with the Palestinian factions an amended electoral law adopted by the Palestinian parliament. The amended legislation was voted through by members of parliament on May 18 but is still waiting for final approval from Abbas.

The elections would be the first contested by Hamas, which Fatah fears could end its five decades of domination on the Palestinian political scene.

The central elections committee has said it would need "at least two months" to prepare for the ballot if Abbas approves the new law, according to which two thirds of seats will be elected by proportional representation.

Hamas, which has been behind some of the bloodiest attacks on Israel, is hoping to capitalise on its recent strong showing in municipal elections, and has made clear that it is opposed to any delay.

Hamas beat Fatah in four out of five major cities in the second stage of municipal polls last month, which followed a first-round landslide victory for Hamas in its Gaza stronghold in January. The possibility of postponement comes amid strains between Fatah and Hamas that have already resulted in officials delaying partial re-elections in the Gaza Strip to stave off a new crisis between the two factions.

Officials were forced to intervene when Hamas refused to contest the new vote in three Gaza Strip municipalities and one West Bank village, ordered after the main ruling Fatah party demanded a recount of May 5 local elections.

The rift between Fatah and Hamas has already forced mediation by Egyptian officials.

Meanwhile, there was further evidence of the fragility of the ceasefire agreed by Abbas and Sharon at a landmark summit in Egypt earlier in February, as the Israeli army arrested two wanted fighters from the armed group Hamas in the West Bank.