Preliminary results show Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appears to have won 47% of votes to replace Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the head of the Kadima party. Her opponent Shaul Mofaz secured at least 37% of the vote.
Also read: Ruling Kadima Party votes to replace Olmert
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won a Kadima party vote on Wednesday to replace Ehud Olmert, putting her on track to succeed the scandal-plagued prime minister as head of the government, exit polls showed.
The polls from three different television stations showed her winning between 47 and 49 percent of the vote, with a lead of at least 10 points over her main opponent, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, giving her a clear victory.
Livni, who has been leading US-backed negotiations with the Palestinians, would have 42 days to form a government if she hopes to avert snap elections that polls say would bring the right-wing Likud party to power.
"People know they can make a change," the former Mossad spy said after casting her ballot in Tel Aviv.
"The change begins here, at the polling booth," said Livni, whose reputation for integrity has kept her out of the scandals that have plagued Kadima and Olmert.
Polling ahead of the election had showed Livni, already regarded as Israel's most powerful woman, as the front-runner, followed by Mofaz, a hawkish former general.
Two other ministers competing in the election trailed far behind.
The election, though decisive, looks unlikely to end the political turmoil brought on by graft accusations against Olmert, as it remains uncertain whether Livni will be able to form a government and take over the premiership.
The political turbulence further dims chances of reaching a Middle East peace deal by the end of the year, a goal Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had set at a US conference that relaunched talks last November.
Olmert, who announced on July 30 that he would step down once his Kadima party has picked a new leader, has faced public uproar over a string of corruption investigations that could lead to criminal charges against him.
Kadima was expected to officially announce the name of its new leader early on Thursday if the winner garners at least 40 percent. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will head to a September 24 run-off election.
But Olmert is likely to wait until after the Jewish New Year celebrations and formally resign early next month, according to Israeli media.
The next Kadima leader will have to assemble a majority in the 120-member parliament or Knesset, during which time Olmert may head an interim government.
The election drew little excitement among Israelis, with editorialists generally unenthusiastic about the candidates.
"It is not an easy choice. Choosing between Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz is like choosing between two shades of grey," the top-selling Yediot Aharonot said ahead of the vote.
Like Olmert the two contenders had left Likud to join Kadima under the leadership of the party's founder Ariel Sharon in late 2005, but they ran on sharply contrasting platforms.
Livni, 50, advocates withdrawing from most of the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem in order to reach a two-state solution.
Mofaz, 59, a former army chief of staff and defence minister, opposes making gestures to boost the secular Palestinian president as long as the Islamist Hamas movement controls the Gaza Strip.
About 74,000 party members were eligible to vote, and exit polls estimated around 50 percent participation.
Date created : 2008-09-17