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Page last updated at 18:46 GMT, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Turnout up amid tight Israel race

Boy casts his mother's vote in Jerusalem
The election is proving more of a contest than had been expected

Voting in Israel's general election has been slightly higher than the record low turnout of 2006, despite poor weather and fears of voter apathy.

At 2000 (1800 GMT), officials said nearly 60% of Israelis had voted - with two hours left before polls closed.

Results are expected to be close in the snap poll called by PM Ehud Olmert, who withdrew amid corruption allegations.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud is the front runner, with Tzipi Livni of the governing Kadima party.

Right-winger Mr Netanyahu had enjoyed an opinion-poll lead over Ms Livni of the centrist Kadima, but in recent weeks it has been reduced.

After Mr Olmert announced last year he was stepping down, Ms Livni attempted to form a new government without elections but failed.

Kadima had led the latest unsuccessful round of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and has vowed to continue. Likud is opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state which is the goal of the talks.

Analysts say the final turnout will almost certainly pass the record low figure of 2006, which was 63.5%, but is unlikely to be higher than previous Israeli elections.

Leaders confident

Turnout appeared brisk despite heavy rains and strong winds, as the main candidates travelled across Israel issuing last-minute appeals to citizens to get out and vote.

Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sarah cast their vote in Jerusalem.

"This felt good," the Likud leader said. "The people want a change and they will choose it today. Those who want to embark on a new path would rally with the Likud and with me."

Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu says Israelis want change

After voting in Tel Aviv, Ms Livni urged other voters to do the same.

"I have just done what I want every citizen in Israel to do - first of all to get out of the house, rain or not, cold or hot, go out, go to the polling station, go into the booth, close your eyes, and vote - not out of fear or despair - and think about hope," she said.

Ehud Barak, Israel's current defence minister and leader of the centre-left Labour party, also voted in Tel Aviv. "I am sure we will emerge stronger from this day," he said.

The head of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, voted at a polling station in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.

"There are many parties who talk, but there is one party that knows how to act not only talk. We did a good job during the elections, we will do an even better job after the elections, thank you," he said.

Voting across the country started at 0700 local time (0500 GMT) and will close at 2200 local time (2000 GMT).

Palestinians banned

Israel imposed a closure on Palestinian-run areas of the occupied West Bank, banning Palestinians from entering Israel except for medical emergencies. Israeli soldiers have already voted.

Opinion polls had suggested that about 20% of voters are not sure who to vote for - and that many others are unenthusiastic about their choices.

KEY BACKGROUND

About 5.3 million people are eligible to vote at more than 9,000 polling stations.

Pollsters think right-wing parties are likely to dominate the Knesset and Ms Livni could struggle to form a coalition even if Kadima is first in the party list.

Under the constitution, President Shimon Peres will hold talks with all parties after the vote and invite the party leader most likely to secure a Knesset majority to form the government.

BBC correspondent Wyre Davies in Jerusalem says there had been concerns about a record low voter turnout after a lacklustre campaign.

Analysts said the brisk early voting could be explained by the closeness of the race, while the bad weather might deter people from going on trips and keep them near their local polling stations.

Following the recent conflict in Gaza, many Israelis say security is what counts, and that they do not trust the peace process or the Palestinians.

Tzipi Livni at Bat Yam near Tel Aviv
Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party has staged a fightback

In such a climate, Mr Lieberman - with his strong, often anti-Arab, rhetoric - is forecast to make gains, our correspondent adds.

The Labour party, once the dominant force in Israeli politics, may come in fourth place for the first time ever.

Arab voters of Palestinian origin make up about one-fifth of the electorate.

Scuffles broke out in one Israeli Arab town when a Jewish hardliner arrived to observe the polling, in what was seen as a provocative act by locals.

National Union candidate Aryeh Eldad was escorted out of Umm al-Fahm by police, who also arrested five stone throwers.

Once the final votes are counted, the complicated process of building a coalition will begin - something that could take several weeks.


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