RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Freed from Yasser Arafat’s one-man rule, Palestinians say they are eager and able to build the first real democracy in the Arab world, despite the dangers lurking on the road to Jan. 9 elections.

The thrill of new possibilities is felt across the West Bank and Gaza Strip: the field of candidates for Palestinian Authority president gets more crowded by the day and includes a militant sheik turned moderate, a dissident once jailed by Arafat, and a prisoner of Israel campaigning from his cell.

“Now it’s real competition, the possibility of winning is there,” said pro-democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti, a physician considering a presidential bid.

However, the shift to democracy could be rough.

Armed gangs have been controlling the streets in four years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raising the threat of political violence during a heated campaign.

Democratic traditions are not deeply rooted. During his 10 years as leader of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat accepted some of the trappings of democracy, including general elections in 1996 and a feisty parliament, but always reserved the final say.

Islamic militants, who are not fielding a candidate, haven’t said whether they’ll suspend attacks on Israel; without a truce, it would be virtually impossible to hold the vote. And Israel has not yet agreed to keep its troops at a distance from the voting.

Khalil Shekaki, a Palestinian pollster, said that in the turbulent transition phase, the stakes are huge.

“We can either find ourselves plunged into a bloodbath, or we can create the most beautiful democracy in the Middle East,” he said.

Although the Bush administration is pushing for democracy in the region, and the 21 Arab countries are promising reforms, none has a freely elected government. Many rulers inherit the post and most stay in power for life, either through absolute authority or rigged elections. A few countries, like Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan, have active parliaments, though their monarchs can veto any legislative action.

In looking for signs of change at home, the Palestinians are closely watching the power struggle in the ruling Fatah party between the old guard Arafat brought with him when he returned to the Palestinian lands, and the younger generation that had grown up under 37 years of Israeli occupation.

Arafat’s interim successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is pitted against younger Fatah activists led by Marwan Barghouti, an uprising leader jailed by Israel and according to polls the most popular Palestinian politician.

Long excluded by Arafat, the younger group is clamoring for influence, but the old-timers appear to be resisting.

Barghouti, sending messages from his prison cell, wants a primary to pick Fatah’s candidate, but the old guard insists on anointing Abbas without further debate next week.

If so, Barghouti, 45, is expected to run as an independent, posing a major threat to Abbas’ election prospects. Polls suggest support for Abbas, 69, is in single digits.

Until Arafat’s death this month, after 40 years at the helm of the Palestinian independence movement, Barghouti wouldn’t have dared make his move.

At Barghouti’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, preparations were in full swing last week. Campaign posters showing Arafat holding up a photo of the jailed Barghouti were stacked in one room, ready for distribution.

Head campaigner Saed Nimr said he can muster at least 1,000 volunteers in the Ramallah area alone. He plans 30-second campaign ads to air on local and satellite TV stations.

Sensing Fatah’s weakened grip, other challengers are emerging in sectors previously excluded – devout Muslims, middle-class intellectuals and women. None are considered front-runners, but hope they can forge a winning coalition.

Other possible contenders include Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor and anti-corruption crusader once jailed by Arafat; Talal Sidr, a former Hamas leader-turned-moderate; journalist Majda al-Batch, 47, the only woman who has said she would run; Mustafa Barghouti, a distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti, who wants to speak for the “huge silent majority” unaffiliated with any faction; and billionaire Monib al-Masri who says a skillful CEO is needed to untangle the Mideast mess.

The new crop of contenders has left Palestinians excited, proud and a little confused.

“I’ve been to many Arab countries during my studies,” said Suleiman Rawaj, 29, a supporter of the militant Hamas group in Gaza City. “I think the freedom we have here in Palestine is the best among the Arab countries.”

Palestinians feel they are ahead of the Arab world on several scores.

The level of education is relatively high, and their diaspora has brought them in close contact with other cultures. A series of foreign occupiers – Turks, British, Israeli – prevented any local dynasty of despots from taking root. And the long conflict with Israel nurtured a rebellious spirit.

The proximity to Israel’s vibrant democracy may also have rubbed off, even if it never extended to them. Many Palestinian speak Hebrew, picked up in Israeli jails or on menial jobs.

Israeli analysts said it’s not enough for the Palestinians to transform themselves into a democracy, and that they must renounce violence.

Choosing Abbas, a pragmatist who has criticized the uprising against Israel, would be a step in the right direction, said Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. “What happens to him is kind of a litmus test,” said Heller.

Barghouti, accused of orchestrating shooting attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, is serving five consecutive life terms He says the attacks were legitimate resistance. At the same time, like Abbas, he’s pushing for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Younis Abu Muhsen, 37, a taxi driver in the West Bank city of Nablus, said he relishes the prospect of change. “Now, after Arafat, everything is open,” he said. “Nobody can hide anything. Nobody can suppress anyone.”

Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this story.

AP-ES-11-20-04 1258EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.