RAMALLAH, West Bank – Yasser Arafat's popularity has slipped as dissatisfaction with his corruption-ridden regime grows, but no other Palestinian can muster enough support to pose a serious challenge to the Palestinian leader, according an opinion poll published Tuesday.
The survey also indicated that there is overwhelming support among Palestinians for reforms -- including firing corrupt Cabinet ministers, streamlining rival security services into one force and holding elections within the coming months.
The survey was conducted May 15-18 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank, with 1,317 adults interviewed face-to-face. It had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
According to the poll, Arafat has the support of 35 percent of Palestinians, compared to 46 percent in July 2000, before the outbreak of fighting with Israel, and 36 percent in December 2001.
Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, came in second, with 19 percent. Barghouti was arrested by Israeli security forces last month on suspicion he financed and coordinated attacks on Israelis by Fatah gunmen. In December, Barghouti's approval rating stood at 11 percent.
Pollster Khalil Shikaki said that for the past eight months, Arafat's popularity as leader has been lower than ever before in his four-decade career.
"The belief in the street is that he is not projecting leadership, that it is not clear what he wants," Shikaki said. "He has failed on two challenges, ending (Israeli) occupation and building a democratic state."
Yet there is no real challenger to the 73-year-old Arafat, and there won't be as long as the conflict with Israel continues, Shikaki said. "He will continue to be seen as the embodiment of aspirations of ending occupation. As long as Arafat lives, there will be no second man," he said.
Shikaki said there was tremendous internal pressure on Arafat to carry out reforms. He said 95 percent of respondents support the idea of firing Cabinet ministers suspected of corruption, 85 percent back the unification of the security services and 92 percent want Arafat to sign the Basic Law, a type of constitution, passed by parliament several years ago.
Last week, the Palestinian parliament called for a reform package. It asked Arafat to disband the Cabinet and present a new one within 45 days, and also called for presidential and parliamentary elections by the beginning of 2003.
Arafat's aides said in response that the Palestinian leader endorses general elections within six months, but that Israel must first withdraw troops to positions they held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.
Palestinians have long grumbled about widespread corruption and nepotism in their government, but complaints intensified during the past 20 months of conflict, which have severely disrupted everyday life, with Israeli troops blockading Palestinian communities. The hardships got even worse during Israel's recent six-week military offensive in the West Bank, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were confined to their homes under military curfews.