RAMALLAH, West Bank – Senior members of the ruling Fatah party on Monday urged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to delay upcoming parliamentary elections, reflecting growing fears that the Islamic group Hamas will deal the movement a stinging blow in the polls.
The new calls for the delay of the Jan. 25 vote come amid a rash of chaos in the Gaza Strip, including a brief armed takeover of several government buildings on Monday. The violence has threatened to weaken Abbas and benefit Hamas, which is running on a campaign pledging clean government and law and order.
Abbas, who is on a tour of Gulf Arab countries, has rejected calls to delay the election. With campaigning to begin officially on Tuesday, he may be running out of time to do so.
"We can't say that because we have fears about the election that we want to delay it. We must work from now to strengthen Fatah to achieve success in the upcoming elections," said Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath, head of the movement's election campaign.
Fatah has been weakened by infighting and the growing chaos in Gaza, where gunmen have been kidnapping foreigners or taking over government buildings on a daily basis. A bad showing in the election would further weaken the Palestinian leader and his fractured party.
In new violence, about 200 Palestinian police, shooting into the air, briefly took over several government buildings Monday in Gaza to protest the Palestinian Authority's failure to impose law and order.
Police have been powerless to halt the violence that has gripped Gaza since Israel withdrew from the area in September. Last week, an officer was killed in a shootout between two rival families.
With Fatah increasingly in disarray, the party's powerful Central Committee met late Sunday to discuss the party's election prospects.
After the gathering, members sent a letter to Abbas demanding the election be postponed, said Abbas Zaki, a committee member. They cited the declining security situation in Gaza and Israel's threat to prevent Jerusalem's Arabs from voting.
"Jerusalem for us is a major issue. We can't accept excluding it from our national elections," Zaki said.
Sovereignty over Jerusalem is one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides wanting the holy city as their capital.
Israel has threatened to bar registered voters in Arab-dominated east Jerusalem from voting in the city due to opposition to Hamas' participation in the ballot. Israel still hasn't made a final decision, and officials say they hope to reach a compromise.
It appears that those leading calls for a delay in voting are embittered Fatah members left off the ballot to make room for a "young guard" of leaders who threatened to split from the party if they weren't given prime spots. Zaki, one of the leading voices in favor of a delay, lost his spot on the ballot in last-minute negotiations last week.
At Sunday's meeting, members of the central committee accused Abbas of making broad concessions to the movement's young guard, officials present at the meeting said.
Hani Masri, a political analyst for the Al-Ayyam daily, said the internal Fatah opposition poses a serious threat to the election.
Many of them want a delay because "they fear a defeat in competition with Hamas," he said, adding that some elements within Fatah may even use violence to derail voting on election day.
"With this degree of chaos in the Palestinian territories, a few gunmen can ruin elections on election day, so I expect the elections to either be delayed early on, or for them to be disrupted by gunmen raiding ballots on election day," Masri said.
Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki said Fatah's inability to clean its ranks of corrupt officials and its inability to bring law and order to Gaza is further hurting the movement. A poll published Sunday by Shikaki showed 43 percent of Palestinians would vote for Fatah, and 25 percent for the Hamas militant group.
However, he pointed out that 20 percent remain undecided and they could swing either way, depending on what Abbas does in the coming weeks. A delay in the vote, Shikaki said, would strengthen Hamas.
"If they delay for six months or one year ... Fatah won't be able to solve the chaos and the corruption, and I believe Fatah's internal problems will be complicated more. So it's in Fatah's interest to hold elections as soon as possible," Shikaki said.