Ben Lynfield:

A campaign poster of Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas, looking for a landslide victory in Sunday’s Palestinian presidential election, shows him standing shoulder to shoulder with Yasser Arafat. The two gaze confidently ahead, under the caption: “On your path, we will fulfill the Palestinian dream.” Associating himself with Arafat’s legacy may be a good way to attract votes. Yet during his campaign Abbas has also staked out distinct positions as he struggles to emerge from Arafat’s shadow. He called for an end to the armed intifada, and Thursday in Nablus said his first priority after the election would be to restart peace negotiations with Israel.

But this campaign has not been without combative overtones and the emotive symbolism of militants. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, reached out to young voters by riding on the shoulders of wanted gunmen during visits to refugee camps where he vowed to defend fugitives. He promised that militants will be persuaded rather than coerced into a cease-fire and invoked the hard-line epithet of Israel as “the Zionist enemy” after a tank shell killed seven Palestinians Tuesday. Yet hours later, speaking to a Ramallah audience, he condemned a Hamas rocket attack in which Israeli civilians were killed.

Israel, for its part, “will judge Abbas by what he does, not by the words he utters in an election,” says Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Associates and analysts say electoral politics did not come naturally to the reserved Abbas, who cofounded Fatah with Arafat and played a role behind the scenes in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. A short stint as PLO prime minister in 2003 did little to undo the sense of him as a technocrat lacking the common touch.

Although respected by the international community, Abbas tallied only a 2 per cent popularity rating in an opinion poll four months ago. But becoming Fatah’s candidate for the presidency has forced him to finally meet the Palestinian street. At a campaign stop in Hebron Wednesday, Abbas met a charged-up and sympathetic crowd including Fatah youth activists. Abbas vowed: “We won’t retreat, we will not stop, our conscience will not rest until we establish our independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. We will not be quiet until we achieve freedom for all the prisoners, the return of the refugees and a dignified life for all the wanted people.”

Abbas is finally establishing a rapport with the Palestinian public, analysts say. But Palestinian journalist Khaled Amayreh has been less impressed. “Fatah’s support for Abu Mazen is not like its support for Arafat. In Arafat’s case there was infatuation, symbolism, and irrational love. He had a halo of charisma around him. Abu Mazen lacks all of this. Fatah has no way of preserving itself except by backing this man.”

But much will depend on Sunday’s outcome and on Israel’s policies. A poll released this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research gave Abbas 65 per cent of the vote, compared with 22 per cent for second-place independent candidate Mustafa Barghouthi. Abbas will need a turnout of more than 70 per cent and at least 70 per cent of the vote to be able to claim a clear mandate, say analysts. — The Christian Science Monitor