Palestinian splits deepen as Abbas puts poll on hold

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The Independent Online

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, yesterday postponed - possibly for several months - parliamentary elections planned for July amid continued divisions within the weakened Fatah organisation to which he belongs.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, yesterday postponed - possibly for several months - parliamentary elections planned for July amid continued divisions within the weakened Fatah organisation to which he belongs.

While the announcement was not unexpected, it was publicly condemned by Hamas, the militant Islamic group which was expected to build on recent local election gains by securing a substantial share of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Hamas stopped short, however, of threatening to pull out of the still fragile truce called nearly four months ago.

The postponement follows a struggle between the Palestinian president and his supporters within the PLC and other Fatah members, inside and outside the legislature, over a new electoral system. Mr Abbas reportedly favoured a wholly proportional list system, while others wanted a hybrid under which two thirds would be elected from districts and another third from a list.

The pressures on him to delay the elections, which would be the first for the PLC since 1996, were intensified almost a fortnight ago when the official Central Elections Commission said that because of the protracted wrangling over a new election law it did not have time to arrange an election on 17 July unless it was carried out under the old, district-based, law.

Although Hamas has itself been pressing for electoral reform, it would have contested an election under the old rules. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, nevertheless complained that the new decision violated the terms of the ceasefire agreement negotiated with Mr Abbas in January, under which Hamas would take part in the internal political process. "This decision was taken unilaterally without any consultation with the Palestinian factions, and it came as a response for the conditions and the atmosphere of the Fatah movement and not for any national consideration," he said

Mr Abbas gave no new date for an election, but said it would be fixed after discussions ranging across the factions, including Hamas. Earlier yesterday the semi-official Al Ayyam daily newspaper predicted an imminent announcement and suggested that the election could be delayed until November.

Hamas has made significant local authority gains - capturing every council seat in the West Bank city of Qalqilya, for example - among voters disillusioned by corruption and atrophy in the Palestinian Authority, which Fatah has long dominated. Fatah itself has been riven by divisions -including between the so called "old" and "new guard" - over the need for reform.

In an upbeat reaction to the postponement Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent independent PLC member, said yesterday that maintaining the truce was a common interest among the factions. The delay played "into the hands of everybody", in her view, by allowing Fatah to select new and more popular candidates, while Hamas could take some of the political credit for Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza.

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