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Israel votes in keenly contested general elections

world Updated: Feb 10, 2009 15:10 IST
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Braving strong winds, Israelis on Tuesday began voting in a general elections in a tight race between ultra-rightist Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to elect a new government.

Though the country is still in combat with the Hamas militants in the Gaza strip despite a cease-fire, voters started trickling to polling stations from early.

Election commission officials announced the opening of 9263 polling stations across the country at 7 am local time to let around 53 lakh voters cast their votes on an off day from work, but a stormy weather may keep the undecided voters away leading to low voter turnout.

Opinion polls held till about four months ago predicted a clear victory for Netanyahu but in the aftermath of Gaza war, a major chunk of his hardline voters deserted him for Yisrael Beteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who professes 'transfer of Arabs' and whose slogan 'No loyalty, No Citizenship' has struck a cord with younsters, bringing Likud close to its Kadima rivals. Leaders of the leading parties made a last ditch effort on Monday to consolidate and bring back lost support but a seemingly lacklustrous poll has suddenly acquired significance in lieu of the closing gap between the two top contenders as the single largest party normally gets a call from the President to form the new government.

Former prime Minister Netanyahu, avowed to keep the whole of Jerusalem with Israel and not dismantling settlements in the west Bank, looked troubled with the dip in opinion polls while a surging Livni appealed to the centrist voters to get Kadima past Likud even if by a single seat.

However, a likely commanding majority for the rightist bloc in the next parliament will make the task of forging a stable coalition for the foreign minister, aspiring to become the first woman to lead the country in forty years, a difficult task and certainly a major stumbling block in her quest for peace with Palestinians.

Lieberman is predicted to emerge the 'kingmaker' following polls with Labour party leader Ehud Barak humbly accepting defeat on Monday by declaring he is merely trying to save his defence portfolio for which he needs 20 seats.

Barak's popularity saw a surge following the Gaza war due to his handling of the offensive, but while Israelis would not mind seeing him continue in the coveted office, would not vote for his party over ironically security concerns.