HEBRON, West Bank — Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian national movement whose survival is key to hopes for a peace deal with Israel, appears ill-prepared for a promised electoral showdown with the Islamic militant Hamas.
The movement's leaders, blaming Fatah's loss to Hamas in 2006 parliament elections on lack of organization, say this time they've come up with a detailed plan to mobilize supporters and field attractive candidates. But skeptics note the party, known for epic infighting, hasn't even begun looking for a presidential candidate to replace leader Mahmoud Abbas, 76, who says he is retiring.
Some say the movement that once cast itself as a band of swashbuckling revolutionaries needs "rebranding" — its star dimmed after two decades of corruption-tainted rule in the Palestinian autonomy zones and the failure of negotiations with Israel meant to produce an independent state.
In the West Bank's largest city of Hebron, district party leader Kifah Iwaiwi said he spent much of the past four years on the job apologizing for the past misbehavior of Fatah members. Relying largely on volunteers and donations in the campaign, Iwaiwi said one of Fatah's biggest assets, at least locally, is the ability to solve voters' personal problems because of its ties to the Palestinian Authority.
Fatah and Hamas — after several years of running rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza — agreed in principle to "reconcile" and hold presidential and parliamentary elections by May 2012. Since then, Islamists have emerged victorious in parliamentary elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, feeding a fear that the Palestinian territories — if elections indeed are held — could be next.
A political takeover of the West Bank as well by an unreformed, globally shunned Hamas would isolate the Palestinians, crushing any hopes for peace and a negotiated path to Palestinian independence. It could also mean the end to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of annual foreign aid from the West, which regards Hamas as a terror group.
"Everyone feels that if Fatah falls down again, it's the end," said Iwaiwi. Hebron overwhelmingly voted for the Islamists last time.
Fatah may be helped this time by some disillusionment with Hamas, which seized Gaza by force in 2007. Pollster Khalil Shikaki sees a drop in the Islamists' popularity, from 44 percent in 2006 to 29 percent today — but a fifth of respondents are undecided, and pollsters failed to predict the stunning 2006 upset by Hamas.
The election date is linked to progress in slow-moving reconciliation talks, and Abbas' initial election date of May 4 already seems out of reach.
Central Elections Commission director Hisham Kheil said he still awaits Hamas permission to update voter records in Gaza, a process of some six weeks. Elections would be held about three months after preparations are completed, with the date set in a presidential degree by Abbas.
The delay has raised questions about whether Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal are genuinely committed to elections. They announced again last month that they are ready to end the split, but the goodwill gestures promised at the time, such as releasing political detainees and lifting travel bans, have not been carried out. They plan to meet again in Cairo in early February.
Each faces some opposition in their movements, and power-sharing comes at a steep price, especially for Abbas who would lose international support by bringing Hamas into the fold.
Abbas has told Fatah's 22-member decision-making Central Committee repeatedly that he is serious about retiring and moving forward with elections, and that the party had better find a presidential candidate.
But polls show that only Abbas could defeat a Hamas candidate, and that his lieutenants — except senior Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned by Israel — would win minimal voter support.
Meanwhile, the party is arguing over how to choose the candidates for parliament. Chaotic primaries in 2006 were blamed for Fatah's defeat: many of those who weren't picked in the primaries ran as independents and split the vote, helping Hamas candidates win certain districts.
The Central Committee wants to skip primaries this time and pick the candidates, said Mohammed Madani, head of Fatah's election campaign.
Such a decision, however, would antagonize those seeking a more democratic process, including party elders who advocate choosing the candidates for president and parliament in a convention, not in back rooms.
"Fatah lost the last election due to an accumulation of errors. I do not see that it has learned from its mistakes," said Nabil Amr, one of the party elders who have been sidelined.
Shikaki's latest poll puts Fatah ahead of Hamas by 43 to 29 percent, with 11 percent backing other factions and 17 percent undecided. In the presidential race Abbas tops Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas by 55 to 37 percent. Jailed Fatah icon Barghouti would defeat a Hamas candidate with 54 percent, while senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat would lose with just 7 percent. The mid-December survey of 1,260 carried an error margin of 3 percentage points.
No one knows quite what to make of the polls.
Many believe Islamist support — as elsewhere throughout the Arab world — may be under-measured systematically in such surveys. In the West Bank specifically, Hamas backers may not always be honest about their political leanings because of the ongoing crackdown on the Islamists by Abbas' security forces.
With all the uncertainty, Abbas and Mashaal could also keep postponing the election.
Hamas is confident of victory, but fears that it would be a pointless one if, just as in 2006, its West Bank candidates are harassed and arrested by Israel. Abbas might come under growing pressure from Fatah to call off the vote, as he did in 2010 when he canceled local elections after it became apparent his party would lose.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed reporting.