RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) -Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday suspended primary elections of his ruling Fatah party over widespread voting fraud in a new blow to preparations for a January parliamentary ballot.
The primaries, Fatah”s first, have been seen as a key step for Abbas to assert control since Israel”s Gaza pullout in September and to get his long-dominant party ready to face down a political challenge from the militant Islamic group Hamas.
Abbas”s failure to hold orderly primaries to pick his party”s candidates raised new questions about his chances of carrying out a long-delayed parliamentary election as scheduled on January 25 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
New signs of upheaval in Fatah, its public support already eroded by complaints of corruption and misrule, could also give a boost to Hamas, which is contesting a legislative election for the first time after making a strong showing in municipal polls.
Fatah officials said Abbas, trying to bring more transparency to Palestinian politics since the death of Yasser Arafat last year, gave the order to halt the primaries.
"Abbas has instructed the election committee to stop the entire election process in all areas as a result of widespread fraud," Ahmed al-Deek, a senior Fatah official, told Reuters.
Deek accused some security force members of complicity.
He said results of voting already held in some parts of the West Bank would only be validated after Abbas returned from a visit abroad and made a decision on them.
Gaza primaries were canceled on Monday after Fatah gunmen stormed some polling stations, complaining the vote was unfair.
The violence undercut Abbas”s efforts to rein in lawlessness in the strip, widely seen as a testing ground for Palestinian statehood after Israel ended 38 years of military rule.
Last week, voters in primaries in the occupied West Bank cast aside veteran Fatah politicians in favor of newcomers and militants.
Members of Fatah”s new generation demanding a say in decision-making had demanded primaries in a challenge to the dominance of the party”s Old Guard, many of whom spent years in exile with Arafat and are widely seen as tainted by corruption.
Arafat hand-picked Fatah”s candidates in the last parliamentary polls in 1996, but this time the decision was being left up to the party”s rank-and-file.
The voting has been marred by charges of misconduct.
In Nablus, 28 candidates complained of ballot stuffing. In Ramallah, a winning candidate accused Palestinian forces of interfering in the vote and demanded an inquiry.
Abbas has vowed to hold parliamentary polls on time. Any further postponement would anger Hamas, which has accused Fatah of stalling for time.
Israel and the United States are worried that Hamas, sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, will do well in the legislative ballot.
Abbas, elected in January on a platform of non-violence, coaxed Hamas and other militant groups into a ceasefire earlier this year. Hamas, the driving force behind suicide bombings against Israelis during a five-year-old uprising, has said it does not plan to renew the truce at the end of the year.