Imprisoned political leader Marwan Al Barghouti has shaken up the Palestinian political scene ahead of crucial legislative and presidential elections by joining forces with exiled Fatah member Nasser Al Kidwa, a nephew of former president Yasser Arafat.
Mr Al Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, and Mr Al Kidwa registered their own list, which they called Freedom, in a challenge to Mahmoud Abbas, the long-serving president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the ruling Fatah party.
Analysts say the move, taken hours before registration closed on Wednesday might lead to defeat for Fatah in the May 22 legislative elections due to the party’s unfavourable image in the public eye.
“Fatah is due to be a loser in these elections. It is now divided between an official list that the president is running, whether for the legislative or the presidential elections, and another non-official list,” said Mohammed Daoudi, former fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the Wasatia Academic Institute in Jerusalem.
“Kidwa and Barghouti unified their forces to run for the elections and they have good support base, much more than the official Fatah list,” Mr Daoudi told journalists in a virtual press briefing from east Jerusalem.
A poll of 1,270 adults in the Occupied Palestinian Territories by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research showed that a quarter of Palestinians would vote for Mr Al Barghouti's independent list over one run by Fatah.
Mr Daoudi and senior fellow at the Washington Institute Ghaith Al Omari, said factional rivalries within Fatah would also embolden the Gaza-based militant party Hamas.
“The main beneficiary of these divisions will be Hamas. Because Hamas is running with one list,” Mr Al Daoudi said.
“It will really be a dark moment if we end up in isolation with Hamas in control of the legislative council as well as the presidency. That’s why people are so worried about these elections and perhaps will try to pressure Fatah to unify,” he said.
Hamas scored an unexpected win in the last legislative elections held in 2006 which ended with a power-struggle between Hamas and Fatah ultimately leading to a Hamas-controlled Gaza and a West Bank overseen by Fatah. Since then, Mr Al Omari believes Mr Abbas has been consolidating his grip on the West Bank.
“Although he succeeded in establishing full control over the party’s formal structures, significant constituencies have been alienated by his coercive approach,” Mr Al Omari said.
In fact, Mr Al Kidwa was ousted from the Fatah party after announcing that he would be challenging Mr Abbas in the coming parliamentary elections.
Mr Al Barghouti’s name is not in the list registered by his wife and Mr Kidwa, leaving him free to possibly challenge Mr Abbas in the August presidential election.
The former Fatah official is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison on charges of murder committed during the second Palestinian intifada. He denies the allegations.
Concerns about the fate of this year’s presidential election are mounting as sceptics wonder if the growing anti-Abbas movement would cause them to be postponed or cancelled altogether.
“There are doubts that the elections themselves might be postponed. Maybe in order to reshuffle the cards again,” Mr Al Daoudi said. “That will be very unfortunate if that happens, it will lead to despair among the Palestinian people.”
Others, like former PA minister Ashraf Al Ajrami, said postponing the May poll would prove incredibly difficult and would need the agreement of all the various lists.
“Even if there is a problem with the voting of citizens (of East Jerusalem), they will find a solution,” he said. “It’s not easy for Mahmoud Abbas to cancel elections, the results would be catastrophic for him and the Fatah movement.”
The Palestinians have vowed to hold elections across Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, though Israel fully controls the latter and does not allow the PA to operate in the city. Israeli authorities are yet to announce whether they will facilitate the election and their refusal could lead to the postponement or cancellation of the vote.
But Mr Al Omari maintained that it would be riskier for Mr Abbas to commence with the elections than to cancel them, especially in light of the recently united front against him.
"The announcement of the Barghouti-Kidwa list has increasingly raised chances of election cancellation," he said.
"The PA could find an excuse to cancel the elections even if its a thin one."