On the Path of Democracy: The Palestinian Presidential Candidates


The smooth transfer of power in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) following the death of President Yasser Arafat contradicted predictions of chaos and Palestinian infighting. By upholding the bylaws of their institutions, Palestinians dispelled myths that they need to be guided towards the path of democracy. They are well into the process of organizing multi-level elections starting with municipal elections on 23 December 2004, followed by presidential elections on 9 January 2005 and legislative elections in May 2005. Fateh, the PLO’s largest political party plans to reform itself and will hold elections in August 2005–”for the first time in 16 years.

Until Fateh’s imprisoned West Bank Secretary General Marwan Barghouti suddenly decided to run, PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas’s victory was seen as a sure thing. However, contrary to what some analysts predicted, the Barghouti candidacy has yet to create a split in Fateh or push Palestinian politics into turmoil.

In spite of its promise to the U.S. and Europe to “facilitate” the elections, Israel’s occupying forces physically attacked Mustafa Barghouti, one of the top three candidates, and his aides, and have been preventing him from traveling to different areas to campaign. A day later, Israeli soldiers arrested independent candidate Bassam al-Salhi after a scuffle with troops who barred him from Jerusalem. In the West Bank town of Dharyieh, four municipal candidates were arrested on charges they belong to the Islamic Resistance group Hamas.

The Candidates

The 9 January 2005 election will be the second time Palestinians head to the polls to elect a leader. The first election in 1996 had only two candidates, Arafat and Samiha Khalil, a 73-year-old West Bank social worker who won 13 percent of the vote. In 2005, nine candidates will have to seriously compete for the presidency. This time Palestinians will not be voting for the “symbol” of the Palestinian national struggle but for ordinary politicians who need to convince the public to vote for them.

Six candidates are running as independents and three are backed by Palestinian political parties. Of the nine, three are leading the polls; Fateh’s Mahmoud Abbas; the independent, yet largely Fateh-supported Marwan Barghouti; and grassroots leader Mustafa Barghouti, also running as an independent.

Palestinian election law prohibits candidates from speaking about or presenting their platform until 25 December 2004, the start of the two-week campaign period. The Palestine Center takes a look at the personal backgrounds of candidates with some insight into their political positions.

Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is one of the few surviving founders of the ruling Fateh party. In November, the 69-year-old politician who spent most of his life living in the Arab world succeeded Arafat as head of the PLO’s decision-making executive committee. Abbas was the first Palestinian prime minister appointed by Arafat but his term was short lived. He resigned after less than five months citing lack of Israeli and U.S cooperation and differences with Arafat. Palestinians, Israelis and the U.S. see Abbas as a moderate. From the early days in the PLO, Abbas, who constantly spoke out against violence, established dialogue with the Israeli left. His anti-violence positions, namely his objection to a “militarized” al-Aqsa Intifada and his pledge to collect weapons from Palestinian groups has put him at odds with Fateh’s younger generation, specifically its military wing. His relationship with the Islamic groups, although cordial, is clouded by his ideological opposition to suicide bombings. A recent poll shows that 58.1 percent of Palestinians oppose military attacks against Israel.

Abbas, who was one of the first Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist signed the Declaration of Principles (DoP) with Israel in 1993 which launched the Oslo Accords. However, he has faced heavy criticism from Israelis for his writings in which he downplayed the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Abbas has a PhD in History and a B.A in law.

Abbas’s moderate positions earned him a reputation among Palestinians of being eager to appease Israel specifically on the issue of the Palestinian Right of Return. Although Abbas, a refugee from Safad who fled with his family to Syria in 1948 at the age of 13, believes Israel must recognize the right of Palestinians to return home, he argues that the implementation of that right should be mutually accepted by Israel and the Palestinians. He is well received internationally. His recent visits to several Arab countries to restore relations indicates that he would like to have a strong Arab role in the peace process. He also understands the importance of a strongly engaged U.S. administration. He would like an immediate resumption of negotiations in order to achieve a two-state solution through non-violent means.

Marwan Barghouti was born in the West Bank village of Kobar in 1959. At the age of 15, he joined Fateh and rose within its ranks becoming its West Bank Secretary General in 1994. He studied for his high school diploma while serving four and a half years in an Israeli prison for membership in Fateh. After his release from prison in 1983, he enrolled in Bir Zeit University (BZU)–”a hotbed for Palestinian political activism. A founding member of Fateh’s student movement, he served as its BZU president and later as student body president. In 1987, shortly after the eruption of the first Palestinian Uprising, he was deported to Jordan for his leadership role in the Uprising. He later moved to Tunis.

He holds a BA in history and political science from BZU and in 1998, while serving as a lawmaker in the Palestinian legislature; he earned an MA in international relations from the same university. In 1996, he was elected to represent the Ramallah district in the Palestinian Legislative Council where he lobbied for women’s rights and criticized Arafat for tolerating corruption among Palestinian officials and the abusive behavior of security forces.

He was a strong supporter of the Oslo Accords and convinced many West Bank Fateh members to support the peace process. He used the Hebrew he learned in prison to cultivate relationships with the Israeli left to promote coexistence.

He soon realized that Fateh’s reputation as a staunch supporter of the peace process was dealt a blow every time Israel reneged on its commitments. The land-for-peace agreement was disappearing as Israel continued to build settlements and bypass road and continued the occupation.

In 2002, he was sentenced by an Israeli court to five life terms on charges of being responsible for the killing of 26 Israelis. Speaking in Hebrew, he challenged the legitimacy of the court saying that as long as Palestinians are under occupation they have the right to resist. In 2002, Fateh’s military wing, al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades issued a statement claiming he was its leader. He believes the U.S. is biased towards Israel and that a solution to the conflict should be based on U.N resolutions. He does not see any contradiction between engaging in negotiations while carrying out resistance.

Mustafa Barghouti is a medical doctor who helped found the grassroots movement, the Palestinian National Initiative in 2002. Barghouti claims that he represents the “silent majority” of Palestinian reformists. He supports the Palestinian Right of Return and a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. He has urged Palestinians to use non-violent methods to resist the occupation and has criticized the PA for its corruption and the PLO’s “old guard” such as Abbas and other members of the current transitional leadership for their mismanagement of peace talks with Israel.

He is the president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, the largest non-governmental organization providing healthcare and community services to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In 1996,he lost the race for a seat in the Palestinian legislature.

Other candidates include Taysir Khaled, who resigned from the PLO executive committee in 1993 after serving two years as the representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a Marxist-Leninist group. Khaled resigned in protest over the PLO’s signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel. He is backed by the DFLP, whose secretary-general Nayif Hawatmeh lives in exile. Abdel Sattar Qassem does not recognize the state of Israel and believes the Palestinian old guard is corrupt. Indeed, in 1999, Arafat ordered his arrest for signing a petition criticizing widespread corruption in the PA. In the 1996 presidential election, the professor of political science considered running against Arafat but decided against it in the end. He is running as an independent. Bassam al-Salhi is backed by the Palestinian People’s Party, formerly the Palestinian Communist Party. The 44-year-old al-Salhi severed time in Israeli prisons during the 1980s and 1990s for his “resistance activity.” While at Bir Zeit University, he led student protests against the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

The other three candidates, all independents are, Abdel Karim Ahbier, Abdel Halim al-Ashqar, and Alsaied Barakah.

The Top Three Candidates and the Polls

According to four recent surveys, three candidates are leading in the polls: Abbas, Marwan Barghouti, and Mustafa Barghouti. Three polls forecast a close race between Abbas and the imprisoned Barghouti while a fourth gave Abbas the lead.

In the poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 40 percent of the 1,320 people surveyed said they supported Abbas with 38 percent giving their support to Marwan Barghouti. Among the 1,198 people surveyed by Bir Zeit University’s Development Studies Programme, 35 percent said they supported Abbas with Marwan Barghouti a very close second at 34 percent. The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion surveyed 997 Palestinians, of whom 40 percent said they would support Abbas and 22 percent said they backed Marwan Barghouti. Mustafa Barghouti placed third in all polls scoring between 6-14 percent. All four polls have a 3 percent margin of error.

A 5 December 2004 poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) found that Abbas had the support of 31.9 percent of the 1,200 people surveyed compared to Marwan Barghouti’s 26.4 percent. Mustafa Barghouti came in third with 8.8 percent. Support for Abbas in the West Bank is higher than that for Marwan Barghouti. According to the JMCC poll, 32.4 percent of West Bankers support Abbas while 24.1 percent favor Marwan Barghouti. The percentages in Gaza are closer, with the former receiving 31.1 percent and the latter 30.2 percent.

Abbas’s numbers may be a reflection of a growing support for Fateh over the past six months. According JMCC, 40 percent said they trust Fateh compared to 18.6 percent who said they trust Hamas. Only 3.2 percent said they favor an Islamic Palestinian state compared to 56.7 percent who support a two-state solution. About 22 percent said they trust Abbas compared to Marwan’s 15 percent.

In fact, Fateh’s handling of governance and the post-Arafat succession, as well as its ability to limit its differences over Barghouti’s candidacy to verbal disagreement, has been well received by Palestinians.

For Fateh, it is a win-win situation. A victory either by its official candidate, Abbas, or its popular Secretary General, Barghouti, is a victory for the party. Some of Barghouti’s colleagues believe he may still withdraw by the 15 December 2004 deadline. If he runs and loses, it will be a personal loss for him but not his supporters. They will have proved to have a strong base that cannot be ignored and that would put them in a better position to demand participation in Abbas’s government.