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Palestinian polls ‘should be delayed’

The Palestinian electoral commission has said the elections called for January should be postponed because the vote can not take place in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

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“I regret to say it is unfortunate that the elections will be postponed,” commission head Hanna Nasser told reporters. “It has become clear to us that conducting elections in the Gaza Strip is not likely to happen.”

The election delay risks throwing the bitterly divided Palestinians into a legal and constitutional limbo, since the mandates of both president and parliament will have run out in January.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will consult with Palestinian Authority officials in the next few days and is likely to accept the commission’s recommendation, officials said.

“I believe we will delay the date of the elections,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the central committee of Abbas’s Fatah party.

Abbas had called for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held on January 24, when the four-year mandate of the current Hamas-dominated parliament runs out.

Hamas blasts presidential decree

But Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since June 2007, blasted the presidential decree as unconstitutional because his own mandate ran out last January.

Abbas was elected on January 9, 2005 for a four-year term. The Palestinian Authority extended his presidency by one year so presidential and parliamentary elections could be held on the same date, as required by Palestinian Basic Law.

Legal vacuum

“After January 25, there will be a legal vacuum because the president and parliament will no longer be legal,” said Ahmad of Fatah’s central committee.

A committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation will meet in December to “examine how to fill this legal vacuum,” he said.

Hamas hailed the electoral commission’s decision, adding that “conditions are not suitable for a successful election … in the absence of a national consensus,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP in Gaza.

The bitter rift between Fatah and Hamas goes back to the start of limited Palestinian self-rule in the 1990s, when strongmen of the secular Fatah cracked down on the Islamist militant group.

Tensions jumped during the last parliamentary elections in January 2006 when Hamas, running for the first time in a national ballot, unexpectedly routed the long-dominant Fatah.

Hamas grabbed 74 seats in the 132-member parliament, leaving Fatah with 45.

Simmering divisions boiled over in June 2007 when Hamas fighters expelled Abbas loyalists from Gaza in a week of bloody clashes, seizing control of the impoverished and densely populated territory.

Egypt has unsuccessfully tried for months to coax the bitter rivals to sign a reconciliation deal and many analysts interpreted Abbas’s call for elections as a move designed to pressure Hamas.

Abbas has said he would not stand for re-election because of what aides said was his frustration with the inability of the United States to pressure Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank in order to resume peace negotiations.