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Palestinian President May Postpone Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Will Palestinians finally get a chance to vote? After a decade and a half without elections, a parliamentary vote is scheduled for May 22. But NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Ramallah the vote might be called off.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced long-overdue elections to unite Palestinians and renew his own legitimacy, confident his Fatah party could win. Instead, it just brought out opposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking in Arabic).

ESTRIN: This is campaign headquarters for a group of Abbas' former allies who broke away and formed their own list for parliament. They want change.

NOUR ODEH: We are extremely concerned about the status quo. We believe it's unfitting of the Palestinian people. A people who have been struggling for their freedom deserve a leadership that can serve them. This is a leadership that has calcified.

ESTRIN: Nour Odeh is a former Palestinian government spokeswoman now running with the Freedom List, backed by a popular Palestinian figure in Israeli prison. There's another list that broke away from the president, backed by a longtime exiled rival - the Future List. Dmitri Diliani is a candidate.

DMITRI DILIANI: We live in a one-man show place. There are no rules. We have no legislators. Imagine living under these conditions since 2007, being ruled by an autocrat who's an 86-year-old. Any democracy should not be supporting him.

ESTRIN: The last elections 15 years ago led to disaster for the Palestinians. The Islamist Hamas won the most seats, but Israel and the West, which consider Hamas terrorists, refused to deal with them. And Abbas' party refused to cede power to them, so Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip. Abbas was left with the West Bank, and the parliament stopped functioning. Now Hamas is running for office again. I meet a confident Hamas candidate, Jamal Tawil, at his campaign headquarters.

You're smiling.

JAMAL TAWIL: (Laughter).

ESTRIN: Do you expect your list, the Hamas List, to get the most votes?

TAWIL: Of course. We want to be No. 1 but not alone - not alone. We have to work together.

ESTRIN: A unified Hamas could win more seats than Abbas' divided party, meaning any new government could have to share power with Hamas. Sa'ed Nimer of the Freedom Party says Abbas could cancel the vote but faces a lose-lose choice.

SA'ED NIMER: We have a saying in Arabic. If he spit up, it will be on his mustache. If he spit down, it will be on his beard. So if he stops the elections, he will face the anger of the Palestinian people. And if he continue with, he might lose a huge portion of this parliament to Hamas and to his rivals.

ESTRIN: The European Union, a major donor to the Palestinians, has been pushing for the vote. The U.S. and Israel have been wary about Hamas participation. Abbas has already said the elections would be cancelled if Israel doesn't allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote. Israel's position on that is unclear, but it could be a convenient excuse for Abbas. He could make an announcement as soon as tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

ESTRIN: On the street near the now-defunct parliament building, we meet a young woman named Rahaf, who gives just her first name, wary of repercussions talking about politics. She wants elections but thinks they'll be called off.

RAHAF: We need the election. It's our right.

ESTRIN: Another woman walks by and reaches through the gate to pick a rose off a bush. The gate is closed, and the parliament has not met in years.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Ramallah, the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF RONE'S "NAKT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.