RAMALLAH // Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, may not run for a second term in office if and when Palestinian presidential elections are held in 2009, according to a report in the London-based pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper. Aides to Mr Abbas reportedly told the paper the Palestinian leader had discussed his future with other Arab leaders, including Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, and he had decided not to seek re-election.
There has been no official confirmation of the report, nor has it been denied. Mr Abbas, 73, has before hinted he would not stay on as president for more than one term, citing his age as one reason. But with no clear candidate from within the ranks of Fatah to succeed him, it previously seemed likely he would continue whatever his personal preference. Mr Abbas has made no position public on the matter. On Tuesday, he announced he would soon call both presidential and parliamentary elections. His four-year-presidential term ends on Jan 9, but Mr Abbas has sought to extend that in spite of fierce opposition from Hamas - the Islamist group that controls Gaza and won a parliamentary majority in the 2006 elections - arguing that by law, both parliamentary and presidential elections should be held at the same time.
The four-year parliamentary term is up in Jan 2010. Hamas has said it will no longer consider Mr Abbas as a "legitimate" president after Jan 9 absent inter-factional agreement. While it is not clear what that will mean in practice, it will certainly deepen Palestinian political divisions. But there is also public pressure on Mr Abbas to resolve his position. A recent opinion poll by the Ramallah-based Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) found that a clear majority of Palestinians, 64 per cent, believe that Mr Abbas's term in office ends in January.
An overwhelming majority favoured new presidential elections, and of those who did not, 15 per cent said the presidency should go, as per law, to Aziz Dweik, the current Hamas speaker of parliament who is imprisoned in Israel. Only seven per cent favoured Mr Abbas continuing in office without elections. Announcing new elections could, therefore, be designed to ease some of the pressure on Mr Abbas. Whether elections can take place at all in the face of Hamas opposition remains to be seen, however. Without the Islamist movement on board it will be impossible to include Gaza in any vote.
"If a list is proposed that includes representatives from Gaza, even if Gazans are not voting, elections could be presented as a legitimate," said Ali Jarbawi, a political analyst and a former director of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. "This would deepen the division between the West Bank and Gaza, but it could be done." Mr Jarbawi said he thought Mr Abbas genuinely wanted out of a job "he was never keen on in the first place". But by calling for elections and letting it be known that he intended not to run, he was also bolstering his position.
"It's hard to see who might succeed Abbas and there might be pressure on him to run again. Hence he may well change his mind. We have to wait to see if his personal intention coincides with Fatah's intentions," Mr Jarbawi said. Of those who might succeed Mr Abbas, only two names are consistently bandied about: Ahmed Qureia, the chief negotiator in the current round of talks with Israel and a former prime minister, and Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned West Bank Fatah leader, who repeatedly polls as the most popular Palestinian politician.
The PSR poll found that while Mr Abbas's lead over Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, has narrowed from 14 per cent in September to 10 in December, Mr Barghouti maintained a 15-point lead over Mr Haniyeh. It is not certain, however, that Hamas would put forward Mr Haniyeh as a presidential candidate if the movement should agree to contest presidential elections. Khader Khader, a Jerusalem-based analyst, said he thought it likely Hamas would try to appeal to West Bank voters by presenting a West Bank candidate, the most likely being Mr Dweik, who is a legislator from Hebron.
Should Mr Abbas step aside in favour of Mr Barghouti and Mr Dweik be nominated by Hamas, it would present the intriguing possibility of both presidential candidates being held in Israeli prisons. "At least," Mr Khader said, "that would present a true picture of the Palestinian situation." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org