Will the successor of Mahmoud Abbas be appointed or elected ?

Middle East Monitor  /  January 25, 2023

A heated debate is taking place in Palestinian circles about the next head of the Palestinian Authority; how the president will be chosen; what the atmosphere will be like when it happens; and what factors will influence his selection.

It is uncertain whether President Mahmoud Abbas will step down, and if this will prompt a presidential election. He has a strong hold on the PA and systematic efforts are made to maintain absolute control over the government. This is strengthened through his abolition of the effective independence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, as well as the PA; he is head of all three.

None of the options available — Abbas stepping down voluntarily, appointing his successor or holding a presidential election during his lifetime — are guaranteed. We need to consider what will happen in the event of the death of the president in office.

Will his successor as head of the PA be chosen through a presidential election? The parties influencing the decision-making process know that an election result cannot be guaranteed to produce a figure who will be acceptable to them. Moreover, Fatah knows that a presidential election will not be in its partisan interest, while Palestinians understand that their limited democracy requires agreement by all parties about an election. Fatah also understands this, and so it has kept the Palestinian National Council — the legislative body of the PLO — under its control, and the Executive Committee in its hands, as well as the judiciary, the Council of Ministers and the general unions. All are structured at present in such a way as to prevent full civic participation.

This will make it probable that the next PA president will be appointed, not elected. If that is the most likely scenario, which movement will the next president come from? Fatah will not hand the presidency willingly to any other faction, group or movement, and will strive to fill the eventual presidential vacuum post-Abbas with one of the many players in the Palestinian arena which it favours.

How, though, will the other factions react to this? It’s not very clear, but observers suggest that Fatah will have its usual alliance with the PLO, while the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) will oppose such an appointment, although it will have no opportunity to present an alternative candidate for the presidency. The issue is thus likely to fall to Hamas, which will be forced to decide whether it will recognize a Fatah-appointed president, or seek popular support for another candidate. An already complex crisis of representation will be made even more so.

Is there a possibility that this will lead to violence in order to determine the successor to Abbas? Personally, I rule out a violent conflict within Fatah to nominate a president, although there could be mobilization within the movement to allow the distribution of the four leadership roles: the leadership of Fatah; the presidency of the PA; the leadership of the PLO; and the head of the Council of Ministers. However, such mobilization is not typical of Fatah, and will create conflicts that will surface very early in the process.

It is worth noting that stability in Palestine during the presidential succession process will be determined by the timing and the manner in which the leadership positions will be allocated, especially if it happens during Abbas’s lifetime. External parties may push for this, and they will find listening ears among Fatah officials.

An important factor to consider is the influence of foreign players in the decision-making process. The influential Arab framework of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be involved, in coordination with the US, while the latter will involve Israel.

The calibre of potential candidates is also a factor, of course. Prominent figures in the current Fatah set up may be reflected in the leadership of the PA. Members of the Central Committee, for example, can be considered ahead of others in Fatah, including Mahmoud al-Aloul, Jibril Rajoub and Hussein al-Sheikh. A weaker option could be Rawhi Fattouh.

Beyond the Central Committee, the head of the General Intelligence is influential behind the head of Fatah, and this will be reflected in who the next PA president will be. It is thus unlikely that a candidate will arise from outside the committee.

Finally, does Marwan Barghouti have a role to play in the Fatah leadership equation? He is currently in an Israeli prison, so his role will depend on the distribution of the four positions referred to above. In the event of a presidential election, though, he will almost certainly be nominated as a candidate. However, I think that an election is unlikely; the next president will be appointed by a relatively small clique.

If Barghouti is released, however, the equation will change, and he will become the most prominent figure within Fatah. Where he is released — if he is — will have an impact on his political strength and presence in the movement.

We need to consider the options if we are to avoid a difficult impasse. I lean towards the importance of reviving the democratic approach to spare us from a stalemate in the Palestinian leadership and unhelpful rivalry over representation. Above all else, I think we need to ensure that we reform what is at the moment an unenviable and untenable situation.

Translated from Palinfo, 24 January 2023