Middle East

Israel election: High turnout as Netanyahu eyes victory

Israelis have been voting in large numbers in a general election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be returned to office.

Election officials said turnout was 66.3% as of 20:00 (18:00 GMT), the highest level at that time since 1999.

Before the vote, analysts had said high turnout would help centre-left parties.

Polls suggest that Mr Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu alliance will win but with a reduced majority, having lost ground to a new party Habayit Hayehudi.

On Tuesday evening Mr Netanyahu posted a Facebook message urging Likud supporters to cast their vote.

"The Likud government's rule is in danger. I ask that you leave everything and go out to vote now. This is very important to ensure Israel's future," the message read.

Some observers say this call to vote could be part of the party's political strategy rather than panic.

"The nervous messages Likud officials are getting out might be a spin to urge their supporters to go and vote," the Haaretz newspaper's diplomatic correspondent, Barak Ravid, tweeted.

First results are expected overnight, although the process of forming a government may take several weeks.

Unlike in previous elections, the parties' campaigns have focused largely on social and economic issues, rather than the prospects for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.

There have been unprecedented protests against the rising cost of living and a recent report said nearly one in four Israelis lived in poverty.

'Something new'

More than 5.65 million people are eligible to vote on Tuesday, with the 10,131 polling stations scheduled to stay open until 22:00 (20:00 GMT).

Preliminary results are expected about two hours after voting ends, while the final outcome should be known by Wednesday morning. For the first time the public will be able to follow the counting of ballots in real time on a government website.

Thirty-two parties are competing under a system of proportional representation for the 120-member Knesset. Parties must win at least 2% of the total national vote to secure seats.

A high turnout has in the past benefitted centre-left parties, who often struggle to persuade their supporters to vote, and worked against smaller religious parties which could struggle to reach the 2% threshold.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has issued numerous calls to Likud supporters to go out and vote, amid reports that turnout in traditionally pro-Likud areas has been low.

According to final opinion polls, the joint electoral list of Mr Netanyahu's Likud party and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of his former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman will win about 32 seats.

That would be 10 fewer than the two parties' combined total from 2009 but still enough to form a coalition with other right-wing and religious groups that would have a majority of about 63.

Voting early on Tuesday at a polling station in Jerusalem with his wife and two sons, Mr Netanyahu told reporters: "We want Israel to succeed, we vote Likud-Beitenu... The bigger it is the more Israel will succeed."

Likud-Beitenu's right-wing dominance has been challenged by Habayit Hayehudi, led by millionaire businessman Naftali Bennett - Mr Netanyahu's former chief-of-staff.

He has advocated annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank and rejected the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Mr Bennett said he was confident a strong result at a polling station on Tuesday, adding: "Something new is starting for the people of Israel."

Habayit Hayehudi is forecast to take up to 14 seats and become the third-largest party in the Knesset.

The second-largest party is expected to be Labour, which currently has eight seats but is predicted to make a comeback with about 17, due in large part to growing anger over the rising cost of living.

Labour's leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has ruled out joining a coalition led by Mr Netanyahu.

After casting her vote in Tel Aviv, Ms Yachimovich urged Israelis to reject Likud-Beitenu.

"This is not a dream, this can be done," she told reporters. "A few more mandates and Bibi (Benjamin Netanyahu) will not be prime minister."

The new secular centrist party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), led by TV personality Yair Lapid, and centrist Hatnua (The Movement), led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, are also set to do moderately well. Both leaders have said they would consider joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Ms Livni was greatly encouraged by the high turnout on Tuesday. She told the Haaretz newspaper: "Suddenly people are coming out of their homes. Maybe there will be a revolution here."

Turnout among Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens - about 20% of the population - is expected to be lower than in the last election.

Many are said to have become increasingly frustrated by Arab politicians' focus on the stalled Middle East peace process rather than domestic issues such as crime and poverty. There has also been a social media campaign by a group of young activists calling for a boycott.

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