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Middle east

Higher than expected turnout in tight elections

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2009-02-10

Israelis began voting in parliamentary elections with early participation high. Exit polls showed right-of-centre Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni locked in a tight race, followed by far-right candidate Avigdor Lieberman.

FRANCE 24 Observers comment on the forthcoming elections


Read our special report on security in the spotlight as Israelis prepare to vote


With the Gaza offensive still fresh in their minds, voters headed to polling stations across Israel on Tuesday in a general election that pollsters predict will see the Israeli parliament swing to the right.

Despite predictions of a low turnout, more Israelis had cast ballots in the first nine hours of voting than during the same period in the 2006 general election, according to officials.


For weeks, rightwing former premier Benjamin Netanyahu was leading in the polls against centrist Kadima head Tzipi Livni, who nonetheless managed to regain some ground in the final days of the campaign.


More than five million Israelis are eligible to vote. But party officials have warned that the turnout might be low after a lacklustre campaign focusing on security issues.


“Israelis found the campaign insipid and boring,” says FRANCE 24’s Marc de Chalvron in Tel Aviv. “Normally Israelis are enthusiastic about elections, but this time the campaign was dominated by military operations in Gaza and voters don’t feel candidates have anything new to offer.”


In the aftermath of the Gaza offensive which began late December and ended on Jan. 18, some 16,000 police were deployed nationwide for the elections. For security reasons, Israel also closed doors to the occupied West Bank, the army said.

Israel’s massive offensive in Gaza also put political rallies on hold and considerably dampened the campaign season.

Cold and rainy weather throughout the country is also expected to deter Israelis from heading to polling stations.


“Voting is not compulsory in Israel and the weather is not good,” says FRANCE 24’s Annette Young in Tel Aviv. “As a result, party officials are very worried there will be a low voter turnout, which would not favour the centrist parties.”


After five hours of voting, 23.4% of Israeli voters had cast their ballot, a two percent increase on the last poll three years ago, election officials told reporters.


No single party is expected to secure more than 30% of the 120 Knesset seats, meaning the party with the highest number of votes will almost certainly have to form a coalition to govern. The race could be determined by smaller parties, critically right-wing parties such as the ultra-orthodox Shas party and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party headed by controversial politician Avigdor Lieberman.


Tuesday’s poll was called by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is standing down in the face of corruption charges. An attempt by Livni to form a new government following Olmert’s announcement collapsed after Livni failed to seal a deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.


Record number of undecided voters


Opinion polls show a record 20% of the electorate was undecided shortly before polls opened.


Anatoly Vorobey, an Israeli software engineer working in Tel Aviv, says he is an undecided voter who will probably give his vote to the less “evil choice”.


“I haven’t decided who I’ll be voting for yet but I think I’m inclined to vote Kadima or Likud. They’re a less evil choice,” he told FRANCE 24, adding that Labour had not demonstrated their capacity to negotiate with the Palestinians in the past. 


Opinion polls also show that Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is likely to displace Labour as the third party in the Knesset. Pledging to get tougher with Palestinians, including Israeli Arabs, Lieberman has garnered much support over the past few weeks.


Defence Minister Ehud Barak of the once dominant Labour party was trailing in fourth place, though his poll numbers have more than doubled since the Gaza offensive. He reminded voters that Labour was the only genuine left-wing party in the race.

Date created : 2009-02-10