In an election dominated by a jailed intifada leader and a moderate veteran negotiator who both come from the ruling Fatah party, an alternative voice is struggling to emerge.
It belongs to Mustafa Barghouthi, ranked a distant third in polls, whose candidacy is seen as a chance to develop a "third way" in Palestinian politics, distinct from both Fatah and Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist opposition that is boycotting the election.
Mr. Barghouthi is unlikely to become president, but his campaign may lay the foundations for the creation of a viable secular opposition in Palestinian politics, analysts say.
"If he does well, it could be like a revolution or coup in Palestinian political life," says Hani Masri, a Palestinian official who is a political columnist in the al-Ayyam newspaper. "Fatah and Hamas will have to deal with a third party. Most of the people who vote for him will do so not because they are in love with him, but because they are against Fatah."
In a smoky room packed with 200 supporters during a stop in Bethlehem, Barghouthi, who heads the Palestinian medical relief committees, makes a speech filled with promises to redress corruption and inefficiency. Improvising without a prepared text, he keeps asking his audience "Am I right or not?" as he paints the front-runner, Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas, architect of the 1993 Oslo peace agreement, as a failure who does not stick up for Palestinian rights.
"I'm willing to sign a pledge of honor that I will not sign any peace deal without having all of our prisoners released," he says. "Anyone who believes making concessions will bring us closer to our goal is full of illusions," he adds.
Then comes the inevitable campaign line: "Our message is that we mean what we say and we implement it on the ground, not like the others who are only full of banners and speeches," he tells the mostly young audience. That line could have been taken from any campaign anywhere, but the Palestinian race leading to the January 9 polls to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat differs markedly with what Western voters are used to.
For one thing, the winner might be a prisoner. He is Marwan Barghouthi, a Fatah leader and distant relative of Mustafa who is running as an independent. He helped lead the intifada and is serving a total of 150 years in prison for the death of five people. He denied involvement in the deaths.
Israeli Arab legislator Taleb al-Sanaa, who visited Marwan Barghouthi in prison on Tuesday, told reporters afterward that the firebrand orator, who has been subjected to Fatah pressure to withdraw, is considering pulling out of the race. If he remains, it could be a close battle to the finish with Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, analysts say.
He tallied 38 percent compared to Abbas's 40 percent in a survey released this week by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR). Mustafa Barghouthi came in third in the same poll, tallying 6 percent of the vote and the other seven candidates tallied a total of three percent, with the remainder undecided.
The other candidates are Tayseer Khaled, a leader of the left-wing Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, running on an anticorruption platform; Bassam al-Salhi, head of the People's party (formerly communist), who opposes cooperating with Israel's disengagement plan in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank; and independents Hassan Khreisheh, Abdul-Sattar Qassem, Al-Sayyed Barakah, and Abdul-Karim Shubeir.
Perhaps the darkest horse is Abdelhaleem al-Ashqar, a former academic who has lived in the US for the past 15 years. He is under house arrest in Alexandria, Va., after being charged in August with illegally collecting funds for Hamas. He says the charges against him are politically motivated.
The race may be determined by whether or not the Palestinians are on the receiving end of hard-hitting Israeli military actions such as incursions and assassinations, says Khalil Shikaki, the director of PCPSR. "If the next few weeks reflect hope and optimism, Abu Mazen wins," he says. "If the environment turns into violence, fears and threats, Marwan and his message will win." That message is continuation of the intifada and not selling out to Israeli and international negotiating demands, as opposed to Abbas's view that negotiations can yield improvements in living conditions and gains toward statehood.
Mustafa Barghouthi was prominent in opposing Israel's construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank. He says he prefers nonviolent resistance to the armed intifada and believes that the international community can be galvanized to boycott Israel as it did South Africa under apartheid.
Independent candidate Khreisheh, the acting speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), says he has mostly been bottled up in his home district of Tulkarem. Israeli troops refused to allow him through checkpoints when he tried to campaign in Hebron and Bethlehem, he says. The Army said it is checking the complaint.
Khreisheh adds that with such a short campaign, it is impossible to have a chance against the front-runners. "Still, I think it is important to get our message of accountability and the rule of law across," he says. Khreisheh's campaign budget: $24,000, including $3,000 from his own pocket and $3,000 each from seven other PLC members.
• Samir Zedan contributed to this article.