Khalil Shikaki, leading Palestinian pollster and director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), has told Al-Monitor that based on current polling, the Fatah movement would do well in parliamentary elections, but that President Mahmoud Abbas would not win. According to Shikaki, the only Fatah leader at present who could win an election is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a long sentence in an Israeli prison.
Shikaki said polling data reveal that Abbas’ troubles go back to 2014. According to the PCPSR's most recent poll, conducted Sept. 14-16, and surveying 1,270 West Bank and Gaza residents, the PCPSR reported, “67% of Palestinians want President Abbas to resign and only 31% are satisfied with his performance.” If a presidential election was held between Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau, the Hamas leader would receive 50% of the vote compared to 42% for Abbas. Like Abbas, Haniyeh would also lose to Barghouti, who would garner 59% to his 36%. In parliamentary elections, Fatah would garner 36% of the vote, while Hamas would come in second, with 29%, with third parties winning a combined 10%.
Shikaki believes that if the ongoing attempt at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas succeeds, Abbas’ fortunes could improve, but only slightly. “Instead of two-thirds of polled Palestinians wanting him to resign, maybe the percentage will be closer to 60% or 55%,” he said. “There is still strong frustration with the performance of President Abbas among the majority of Palestinians.”
The pollster does not believe that Palestinians' frustration only relates to the punitive measures that Abbas has applied against Gaza. Rather, he said, “There are three reasons for this frustration. In addition to Palestinian anger over the reduced support to Gazans, there is frustration that his rule is becoming more autocratic and at the same time that Abbas is weak in standing up to the Israelis.”
Abbas has repeatedly said that he does not plan to run for president, but according to Shikaki, only Barghouti fares better in head-to-head competition against Hamas’ Haniyeh. “All other Fatah leaders — including every member of the Fatah Central Committee — are seen as too connected to Abbas, and not independent from him, and therefore they don’t fare any differently from Abbas in polls.”
Shikaki believes that if Abbas is definitely not running for re-election, he should “move quickly to provide an opportunity for a new leadership to emerge that will be seen as independent from [him] and will be able to forge a different direction and strategy for Palestinian independence.”
While Abbas’ numbers are not encouraging, consecutive polls indicate that support for Fatah remains more or less stable. The movement Abbas leads would fare better in parliamentary elections. “Their numbers are stable in the West Bank, but Fatah will need to do something about [Mohammed] Dahlan in Gaza,” Shikaki said.
Dahlan, who was expelled from Fatah, is likely to split the faction's vote in Gaza, which could spell trouble for the movement there, Shikaki contends. “A lot of work will be needed to improve Fatah’s position in Gaza,” he said. “The reconciliation could help Fatah, but the years of Hamas rule have left their mark, and the Fatah movement is weak and not unified.”
After 10 years of total control over Gaza, Hamas has agreed to a wide range of measures allowing the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza and unify the divided Palestinian community. New elections are part of the agreement. The younger generation constituting the majority of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank is largely indifferent and apathetic toward current leaders, but Shikaki says there is no organized alternative to the long-standing factions.
“As of now, there is no sign that anyone outside the two established groups, Fatah or Hamas, will be able to put forward a candidate with a credible chance of winning the presidency or has a list that could win enough votes and can impact the balance in the Palestinian Legislative Council,” Shikaki said.
The position of the Palestinian electorate as assessed by Shikaki is similar to the results of other recent public opinion polls. A poll published Sept. 6 by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) reflected this high degree of apathy and produced similar negative results for Abbas but relatively better results for Fatah at the parliamentary level. The JMCC poll, conducted Aug. 13-21, showed “an unprecedented increase in the percentage of those who do not trust any political faction, reaching 42.8%.”
If general elections were held and Abbas did not run, the JMCC poll found, Barghouti would receive the most support. According to a JMCC press release, “26.1%, said they would vote for Marwan Barghouthi — 25.8% in the West Bank and 26.7 % in Gaza — while 12.1% said they would vote for Ismail Haniyeh — 9.3% in the West Bank and 16.7% in Gaza. Another 7.7% said they would vote for Mohammed Dahlan — 1.5% in the West Bank and 18% in Gaza.”
The JMCC findings differ slightly from the PCPSR poll for head-to-head results between the Fatah and Hamas leaders. “If Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh ran, 34.8% said they would vote for Abbas, while 27.0% would vote for Haniyeh,” the JMCC poll found.
Although the polling results do not look so good for the current Fatah leadership, it is unlikely that the leadership will indefinitely delay elections, especially since they have for years been demanding that elections take place. The most likely scenario will be for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to test the waters by conducting municipal local elections in Gaza. (Municipal elections were held in May on the West Bank, but not in Gaza.) Another factor will be whether Hamas plans to nominate one of its high-profile leaders to compete for the presidency. Winning control of the executive would be a major burden for Hamas, so it is doubtful that the weakened movement, with few regional sponsors, is of a mind to even consider nominating a candidate for president and again assuming the challenge and liability of governing.