Fatah expels Arafat's nephew over election breakaway bid

GAZA/RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party expelled Yasser Arafat’s nephew on Thursday over his attempt to field a separate list of candidates in a May parliamentary election.

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The Palestinian nationalist movement’s highest decision-making body, the Central Committee, said it had given Nasser Al-Qudwa two days to drop his breakaway challenge, but that he had failed to comply.

Fatah’s internal divisions were a key factor in the party’s loss to its Islamist rival Hamas in the last parliamentary election in 2006. Fatah had been widely expected to win that vote even though Arafat, its figurehead and co-founder, had died just over a year earlier. But its vote was split by official and unofficial candidates running against each other.

Abbas, 85, has ruled the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank by decree for over a decade, but in January, he announced new legislative and presidential elections amid criticism of the democratic legitimacy of his rule.

Prompting speculation that old divisions were about to be repeated, Qudwa announced last week he would form a list to run against Fatah in the May vote for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the parliament of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

He called on Marwan Barghouti, a popular West Bank Fatah leader now serving life imprisonment in Israel after being convicted of orchestrating deadly attacks, to head the candidate roster.

The Central Committee, headed by Abbas, said in a statement it had expelled Qudwa “after all efforts exerted with him failed”.

In response Qudwa, who had been a member of the committee, said he would remain “a faithful member of Fatah”, adding: “I look forward to the future and the day when reforming our internal affairs is possible.”

Hani Habib, a Gaza-based political analyst, said the expulsion “may serve to prevent some (Abbas) opponents within Fatah from breaking away or even joining Qudwa’s election list”.

Abbas and his inner circle have pledged party unity as they seek to fight Hamas in the elections.

Opinion polls show Hamas leaders edging out Abbas in the presidential ballot, which is planned for July. But polls also put Barghouti, long seen as a potential successor to Abbas, ahead of any other candidates.

Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones