Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is on the verge of political collapse just a year after taking office. He has been undermined by violence by his own ruling Fatah Party and weakened by the loss of popular support and international funding.

Palestinian polls show that in parliamentary elections Wednesday, voters could hand a substantial number of the legislature's 132 seats to the militant Hamas group and end nearly four decades of near-absolute control by Fatah.


A poll released Jan. 20 by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center, a Palestinian research group, indicated Hamas would win 30.2% of the vote, and Fatah would win a slim plurality with 32.3%. The results signal that for the first time in decades, Fatah would not have as free a hand to set policy and enact laws for the Palestinian people. (Related news: Fatah, Hamas show interest in working together after vote)


A greater political role for Hamas also could complicate the Middle East peace process. Israel and the United States have branded Hamas a terrorist organization and refuse to have formal dealings with it.


Although the outcome wouldn't mean Abbas would have to step down - his four-year term ends in January 2009 - it could derail his efforts to unify and bring order to the Palestinian territories and return to peace talks with Israel after five years of violence. In an interview on Dec. 18 with the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, Abbas, 70, warned he may step down if he is unable to pursue his policies.


It's not clear, however, what Abbas has been able to achieve during his year in power. He was elected president last January with a 62.5% mandate, promising better relations with Israel and a cleanup of the corrupt, inefficient Palestinian Authority. Abbas initiated a Palestinian cease-fire last February and coordinated the Palestinian side of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.


Recent events have tested Abbas' mettle. Basem Ezbidi, a political scientist at Birzeit University in Ramallah in the West Bank, says the mild mannered president's problem is that he "is a man who ended up analyzing the Palestinian situation rather than changing it."


Key areas where Abbas so far has failed to make a mark:


•Relations with Israel. Abbas has been unable to persuade Israel's prime minister to agree to a face-to-face meeting. Last week, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, standing in for Ariel Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke Jan. 4, said Israel would begin talks with the Palestinians only after Abbas disarmed groups such as Hamas. Abbas has said that he would wait until after elections to decommission the militias as called for by the U.S.-brokered "roadmap" plan that sets out steps to restart talks.


Abbas also was unable to capitalize on Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians looted the abandoned Jewish settlements and farms. Thousands flooded across the Gaza-Egypt border after Israeli forces left their security posts. Abbas is still struggling to control anarchy in Gaza.


Ahmed Sobeh, the Palestinian Authority's deputy information minister, says Israel hasn't removed checkpoints or allowed Palestinians to travel freely. "How can anything get done when we are under siege?"


•Financial problems. Last week, the European Commission announced it would suspend half of its aid to the Palestinian Authority, citing a lack of budgetary discipline. "Donor countries are getting tougher, and we have raised wages and the number of employees," Sobeh says.


Palestinians complain of Fatah's corruption and weakness.


"We need a strong party to negotiate with Israel," says Alam Kharaz, 35 a construction worker in Nablus who supported Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, but now intends to vote for Hamas. "Fatah has shown that it is good at corruption and defeat at the hand of the Israelis. That's all."


U.S. contributions to the Palestinian Authority have raised questions. TheWashington Post reported Saturday that the U.S. Agency for International Development provided $2 million to promote the authority's projects ahead of Wednesday's vote.


State Department spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged Monday that the United States has been assisting the Palestinian Authority since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in August. "We are trying to help the Palestinian people build democratic institutions that will serve them," he said. Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Samir Huleile said the money was aimed at "only general issues," not particular candidates.


Abbas, who is media shy and seldom appears in public, helped found Fatah in 1959. Born in 1935 in Safad, now part of northern Israel, he and his family fled to Syria in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war. He has a law degree from the University of Damascus and earned a Ph.D. in history from Moscow's Oriental College.


He became a key player in Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas secretly worked with Israeli representatives on the 1993 Oslo peace accords that established the Palestinian Authority and set a timetable - later abandoned - for Palestinian statehood. He became the first Palestinian prime minister in March 2003, but resigned after six months citing Arafat's refusal to share power.

Birzeit University historian Samih Shabib predicts the Palestinian president "won't last a year" after Wednesday's elections. He cites internal politics, the unchecked lawlessness in the Palestinian territories and Hamas' political aspirations.

Abbas also has been unable to connect with his people. Last week, Ramallah was festooned with Fatah election banners that promoted Arafat, who died Nov. 11, 2004, and young Fatah leaders as "the protector and the future." Abbas' face was nowhere to be seen in the city that hosts his presidential compound.

In El-Bireh, a town near Ramallah and a perennial bastion of Fatah support, resident Bahjat Itayem, 45, criticized Abbas. "His inability to make a decision has incapacitated our whole country," says Itayem. "Gangs, not the authority, control my streets. And that is scary."