A popular Palestinian leader imprisoned by Israel for terrorism registered his own parliamentary slate in a dramatic last-minute development that could weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and increase the chances of a Hamas victory in the upcoming Palestinian legislative elections.
Marwan Barghouti is serving five life sentences in Israeli prison for masterminding terror attacks during the Second Intifada. But he is widely popular among Palestinians, many of whom see him as a symbol of resistance untainted by corruption.
His wife Fadwa Barghouti, accompanied by leading Fatah dissident Nasser al-Kidwa, headed to the Central Elections Committee headquarters in Ramallah to officially submit their electoral list.
“We hope for success and for freedom for our people and our prisoners,” Barghouti told reporters outside the election headquarters.
Al-Kidwa had earlier told The Times of Israel that he had merged his widely anticipated slate with Barghouti’s.
The slate of candidates, which is called “Freedom,” will see al-Kidwa take the top spot, while Fadwa will be second on the list.
“We are truly pleased to practice our democratic right and present this list, this democratic list,” al-Kidwa told reporters on Wednesday night.
The announcement came just hours before the midnight deadline to submit party lists for the Palestinian legislative elections.
Together, al-Kidwa — a seasoned diplomat and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s nephew — and Barghouti, will represent a serious challenge to Abbas in the upcoming election.
In a mid-January decree, Abbas set the vote for May 22. Many observers have been skeptical, noting that numerous pledges by Palestinian leaders to hold elections have fallen through. But anticipation has slowly been building that the Palestinians might actually hold a national vote for the first time since 2006.
Abbas has struggled to maintain unity within Fatah in the buildup to the vote. Fatah voters will now choose between Abbas’s list, Barghouti and exiled Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan.
A senior Fatah official dismissed the concerns about Barghouti’s rise while speaking to reporters in Ramallah.
“Even with our prophet Mohammad, there were those who lost faith,” Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub said. “Fatah is strong.”
A recent survey found that if Barghouti formed a breakaway political faction within Fatah, his candidates would defeat Abbas’s bloc: 28% of those polled said they would vote for Barghouti’s list while 22% said they would vote for Abbas’s faction.
Many Palestinians draw unfavorable comparisons between Barghouti and the 86-year-old Abbas. The Palestinian Authority is widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual by many Palestinians; Ramallah is also regularly assailed for its coordination with Israel. Opinion polls consistently find a majority of Palestinians demanding the PA leader’s resignation.
Al-Kidwa is a widely respected senior diplomat and Yasser Arafat’s nephew. Until recently, he served as a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, the Palestinian movement’s most powerful decision-making body.
A longtime critic of Abbas, al-Kidwa has sharpened his rhetoric in recent months. After he announced that he would run his own slate of candidates against Abbas’s Fatah list, he was expelled from the Central Committee in early February.
While al-Kidwa had publicly expressed his support for Barghouti for months, the Palestinian prisoner bided his time before announcing that he would form a separate list on Tuesday night.
Officials in Ramallah have speculated that Barghouti would not himself run in the upcoming legislative elections, instead keeping his eyes firmly locked on the presidential vote scheduled to follow them.
According to opinion polling, aging PA leader Abbas — who is his Fatah movement’s presumptive nominee — would likely lose to Barghouti in a faceoff.
Some 31 Palestinian groups have registered electoral lists with the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, including the Hamas terror group and exiled Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan.
Former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad has also submitted his own legislative slate of candidates. Fayyad’s party will run under the title “Together, We Can.”
Fayyad garnered international support during his time as prime minister between 2007 and 2013. A technocrat with a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, Fayyad sought to pragmatically advance Palestinian governance on the ground in the absence of a Palestinian state.
But Fayyad was reviled at home for many of the same qualities which made him popular abroad. In the 2006 legislative elections, a slate he led received slightly over 2 percent of the vote, and his popularity did not improve during his time in office.
In an interview with the Arabic-language daily Al-Quds in early March, Fayyad seemed to reverse some of his earlier positions. He called for Palestinians to reject the so-called Quartet conditions for any new Palestinian government, which include bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestinians such as the Oslo Accords.
“Regarding the Quartet’s conditions, they must be rejected by all Palestinians…. And when I say its rejection, I mean absolute rejection, without trying to leave any wiggle room with tricky wording,” Fayyad said.
Fayyad justified his position by citing Israeli intransigence, arguing that the Palestinians had received nothing in exchange for their commitments to Israel under Oslo. Both Israel and the Palestinians regularly accuse one another of being in violation of the agreements.
“There is no government in Israel ready to accept the inalienable right of the Palestinians to full sovereignty, not even over an inch of the land of Palestine,” Fayyad said.
Agencies contributed to this report