RAMALLAH, West Bank – Jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti and other younger activists swept Fatah primaries, signaling a change of generations that could make the corruption-tainted ruling party more attractive to voters in Jan. 25 parliament elections, according to preliminary results released Saturday.
The Barghouti-led "young guard" had long pushed for a greater say, especially after last year's death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who founded Fatah and controlled it four decades.
Arafat's successor, the reform-minded Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to hold internal elections for the list of parliament candidates and, under pressure from the young guard, blocked demands by Fatah oldtimers to be assigned secure spots on the slate. However, Abbas will still have some say about who gets on the final list.
"The old guard has failed politically and administratively, and in running their organization in a democratic way," said Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri. "It's time to go home."
The Fatah veterans — Arafat contemporaries who returned with him from exile in the early 1990s — are widely considered as corrupt. Barghouti's generation rose through the ranks during the first Palestinian uprising, from 1987-1993, but was kept out leadership positions by the oldtimers.
Barghouti, 46, is seen as a potential successor to Abbas even though he is serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison for involvement in shooting attacks that killed five Israelis.
Barghouti supports peace negotiations with Israel and before the outbreak of fighting in 2000 had close ties to Israeli leaders. However, he also advocates the use of force, including shooting attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers, to try to drive Israel out of the West Bank.
Israeli officials said Saturday there is no chance Barghouti would win early release.
"Barghouti was convicted in an Israeli court, a civilian court, I would stress, and sentenced to consecutive life sentences for his involvement in the murder of innocent civilians," said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.
On Friday, primaries were held in five of the largest West Bank districts — Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Tubas. In coming days, primaries were expected in several more districts in the West Bank and Gaza.
The new parliament will have 132 seats, up from 88 in the current legislature. Polls indicate that Fatah will remain the strongest political force, but that Hamas will come in a close second in its first major test at the polls.
Hamas is campaigning on a platform of clean government and claims credit for Israel's Gaza pullout this summer, saying its attacks pushed Israel out.
Some 463,000 Palestinians registered for the Fatah primary. In all, 463 candidates competed in the West Bank and 311 in Gaza to get on the Fatah parliament list.
Abbas will put together the final list from a pool of the top vote-getters. However, he'll consider twice as many people as districts have seats, allowing him to choose from a larger group and giving him considerable say.
In the Ramallah district with 40,000 Fatah members, some 30,000 votes went to Barghouti, making him the top vote-getter, according to preliminary results.
Two Fatah veterans did well — Azzam al-Ahmed, a former PLO ambassador to Iraq, got a top spot in Jenin, and the Nablus governor, Mahmoud Aloul, was a top vote-getter in his hometown.
Two fugitives from Fatah's violent offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, also secured high positions. The Jenin winner, Jamal Abu Rob, who gave himself the nickname "Hitler," is wanted for killing several suspected informers with Israel. The Nablus candidate, Jamal Jumaa, is a leader of Al Aqsa in the West Bank's largest city.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and most other members of Fatah's ruling body, the Central Committee, did not compete. Sakher Habash, a Central Committee member who did run, won only a few hundred votes in Ramallah.