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Voter turnout in Tuesday's election for the 16th Knesset appeared headed for an all-time low, as much as three percentage points lower than the 75 percent figure notched in the general elections of 1949.

With two hours remaining before polls were to close at 10 P.M., the Central Elections Committee said 63.5 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots. Political Scientist Avraham Diskin, head of the CEC's voter projection unit, estimated that the total voter turnout will reach 72 percent. The lowest such figure in past Knesset elections was recorded in 1949, when 75.1 percent of eligible voters reached the polls.

Immediately after polls close, the three major Israeli television stations will announce predictions of the election results. Twenty-seven parties are competing for the 120 seats in parliament, but particular attention will be paid to the results attained by the ruling Likud, its traditional rival Labor and the upstart secular Shinui - expected to be the top three vote-getters.

The seats won by a range of hawkish parties will also be a focus of attention, as a strong showing by the right could put pressure on Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form a narrow right-wing coalition.

Throughout the campaign, Sharon maintained that he sought a broad unity government anchored by his Likud and Amram Mitzna's Labor. But Mitzna has vowed to rebuff any offer to join a Sharon-led government, and has left Labor little room to backtrack on the rejection pledge.

Tuesday's 6 P.M. turnout of 54 percent was almost seven percent lower than the 6 P.M. turnout for the last election for Knesset parties. In the last two elections, in 1999 and 1996, a two-ballot election system was in place, in which voters chose a Knesset party and a prime minister using two separate ballots.

Central Elections Committee Chairman Justice Mishael Cheshin said Tuesday afternoon that the low voter turnout was worrying, and added that he is considering the possibility of fining those who do not vote, a practice several countries - including Australia - have already instituted. Cheshin earlier called on voters to arrive at polling stations, but his statement did not dramatically affect voter turnout.

In 1999, 60.9 percent of eligible Israelis had voted for a Knesset party by 6 P.M. Tuesday's voter turnout at 4 P.M., of 45 percent, was similar to the voter turnout in the 2001 prime ministerial elections, boycotted by most of the Arab population, in which the turnout was 43.2 percent by 4 P.M.(Click here for Ha'aretz correspondent Yossi Verter's analysis of the elections.)

The overall Arab-sector turnout was about 30 percent at 2 P.M., Army Radio reported, but some Arab areas had a much lower turnout. About 10 percent of Arabs in the Lower Galilee had voted by Tuesday afternoon, Itim reported, and only about 1.5 percent had voted in Arab towns around Acre.

About one quarter of new immigrants had voted by the afternoon, poll-takers found. In the last election, immigrant turnout was similar to that of the general population, and was 3 percent higher in the 1999 prime ministerial elections. Observers have anticipated a low immigrant turnout, speculating that there are no issues in this election that particularly affect the immigrant population.(Click here to view the Elections 2003 picture gallery)

Some sectors, however, exhibited a higher turnout than in previous elections. By Tuesday evening, more than 90 percent of IDF soldiers had voted; units in which soldiers finished voting Monday reached a 99 percent turnout. On kibbutzim, 56 percent of eligible voters had voted by 2 P.M., a higher turnout than in the last elections.

Nearly 8,000 polling stations opened at 7 A.M. on Tuesday, with 4,720,074 Israelis eligible to vote in the election for the 16th Knesset.

Two polling stations had already closed by Tuesday afternoon: one in the Neve Tirzah women's jail, and the second in Nafha jail near Mitzpe Ramon. All the 7,500 convicts and jailers registered at those polling stations have voted.

All Israeli citizens with valid Israeli identity cards are eligible to vote, regardless of their permanent residence.

Early Tuesday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cast his ballot at a Jerusalem polling station, shortly after Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna voted at a Haifa school. Sharon expressed the hope that the next elections would be carried out after the Knesset completes a full term, while Mitzna promised that he would lead Labor to victory "if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow."

The complete tally, including as many as 200,000 votes by soldiers, prisoners, hospital patients and overseas envoys, is expected early Friday morning, although the makeup of the next Knesset is expected to be clear by Wednesday morning.

Tuesday's vote is the climax of a campaign that has seen the Likud, headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lead from the outset. Sharon has consistently said he wants to form a unity government similar to the one that broke up last fall, leading to the elections.

The scandalThe campaign's decisive moment was not an incident about the two-year-old violent conflict with the Palestinians or the tattered economy, but a January 9 press conference held by Sharon. The press conference, broadcast live in prime time, was intended to shed light on a foreign loan provided to Sharon's son Gilad to repay illegal foreign campaign contributions to the premier's 1991 primaries victory in the Likud. Accusations about the loan compounded an already shrinking Likud lead due to revelations of corruption in the party's central committee election process for choosing its Knesset candidates.

Prior to the press conference, the Likud's lead over Labor had shrunk to only three Knesset seats. However, Justice Mishael Cheshin, chairman of the Central Elections Committee, ordered TV and radio stations to cease the live broadcast because the prime minister was attacking the Labor Party. Cheshin ruled that the press conference was "election campaigning," which is not allowed beyond the commercial time slots allotted to each party.

Likud strategists realized that after Cheshin's move, they would win back voters who, feeling their "home" was under attack, would rush back to defend it. Within days, the Likud resumed its comfortable lead, so much so that Sharon spent Monday at his Jerusalem office rather than on the campaign trail. But the prime minister did meet with campaign organizers last night to hear a final briefing on the party's Election Day plans. Since the press conference, the prime minister has refused to supply answers to the press about the loan, which turned into a controversy over freedom of the press, since a prosecutor was revealed to be the source of the leak to Ha'aretz regarding the police inquiry over the loan.

The underdogLabor - and the peace camp - fought an underdog's race, which began when the party pulled out of the unity government it had joined when Sharon formed his coalition in 2001.

Led by Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, who came out of the northern city to win the party chairmanship from then-defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Labor was wracked by internal disputes. Mitzna posited a sharp alternative to the outgoing government's policies regarding the Palestinians, and vowed not to join a unity government. His platform to undertake unilateral disengagement from the territories, while at the same time fighting terror and engaging in peace talks with the Palestinians, immediately identified him as a "leftist" - yet the polls showed that the public favored his plans for accelerating construction of a separation fence.

Mitzna was scorned by Likud leaders, who turned down his call for a debate, and pitied by Meretz and Shinui, which predicted he would be thrown out by his colleagues. Most of the Labor campaign indeed was hampered by backbiting, but in recent days, as the party continued to slide in the polls to less than 20 seats, party leaders appeared to line up behind Mitzna.

On Monday they all manned a bank of telephones to conduct a last-minute telemarketing blitz to the unprecedented large number of undecided voters, whom they hope will decide at the last minute "to return home" to the party, lest it face what veteran Labor MK Haim Ramon on Monday called "an ignominious defeat."

"We will struggle until victory," Mitzna, 54, said during a campaign stop in Ramat Hasharon yesterday. "If we don't succeed this time, we will continue to be an alternative in the future." He said Labor is "a responsible party, and will provide a safety net for the government on matters of peace with the Palestinians or war with Iraq. But we don't need a [chauffeur-driven ministerial] Volvo to do so."

That leaves Sharon, 74, the option of forming a narrow coalition of right-wing and religious parties - the polls suggest he might have as many as 67 seats in such a coalition. But he turned down the option of bringing the right-wing National Union into his government when Labor pulled out - and he is said to be already applying pressure on Shinui, expected to be the third-largest party, to give up its refusal to join a coalition with the religious parties.Voter turnout reached 54 percent as of 6 P.M. Tuesday, four hours before polling stations are to close, according to figures released by the Central Elections Committee - the lowest figure for Knesset elections since the creation of the state. A CEC official estimated that the total voter turnout will reach 72 percent.

Tuesday's 6 P.M. turnout was almost seven percent lower than the 6 P.M. turnout for the last election for Knesset parties. In the last two elections, in 1999 and 1996, a two-ballot election system was in place, in which voters chose a Knesset party and a prime minister using two separate ballots.

Central Elections Committee Chairman Justice Mishael Cheshin said Tuesday afternoon that the low voter turnout was worrying, and added that he is considering the possibility of fining those who do not vote, a practice several countries - including Australia - have already instituted. Cheshin earlier called on voters to arrive at polling stations, but his statement did not dramatically affect voter turnout.

In 1999, 60.9 percent of eligible Israelis had voted for a Knesset party by 6 P.M. Tuesday's voter turnout at 4 P.M., of 45 percent, was similar to the voter turnout in the 2001 prime ministerial elections, boycotted by most of the Arab population, in which the turnout was 43.2 percent by 4 P.M.(Click here for Ha'aretz correspondent Yossi Verter's analysis of the elections.)

The overall Arab-sector turnout was about 30 percent at 2 P.M., Army Radio reported, but some Arab areas had a much lower turnout. About 10 percent of Arabs in the Lower Galilee had voted by Tuesday afternoon, Itim reported, and only about 1.5 percent had voted in Arab towns around Acre.

About one quarter of new immigrants had voted by the afternoon, poll-takers found. In the last election, immigrant turnout was similar to that of the general population, and was 3 percent higher in the 1999 prime ministerial elections. Observers have anticipated a low immigrant turnout, speculating that there are no issues in this election that particularly affect the immigrant population.(Click here to view the Elections 2003 picture gallery)

Some sectors, however, exhibited a higher turnout than in previous elections. By Tuesday evening, more than 90 percent of IDF soldiers had voted; units in which soldiers finished voting Monday reached a 99 percent turnout. On kibbutzim, 56 percent of eligible voters had voted by 2 P.M., a higher turnout than in the last elections.

Nearly 8,000 polling stations opened at 7 A.M. on Tuesday, with 4,720,074 Israelis eligible to vote in the election for the 16th Knesset.

Two polling stations had already closed by Tuesday afternoon: one in the Neve Tirzah women's jail, and the second in Nafha jail near Mitzpe Ramon. All the 7,500 convicts and jailers registered at those polling stations have voted.

All Israeli citizens with valid Israeli identity cards are eligible to vote, regardless of their permanent residence.

Early Tuesday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cast his ballot at a Jerusalem polling station, shortly after Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna voted at a Haifa school. Sharon expressed the hope that the next elections would be carried out after the Knesset completes a full term, while Mitzna promised that he would lead Labor to victory "if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow."

An unprecedented number of undecided voters in Monday's final public opinion polls indicate a possible turnout as low as 70 percent. Rain in the north and center of the country also raised fears in the Central Elections Committee of a low turnout.

Twenty-seven parties are competing for the 120 seats in parliament. Polling stations will close at 10 P.M., at which time TV stations will broadcast predictions of the results.

The complete tally, including as many as 200,000 votes by soldiers, prisoners, hospital patients and overseas envoys, is expected early Friday morning, although the makeup of the next Knesset is expected to be clear by Wednesday morning.

Tuesday's vote is the climax of a campaign that has seen the Likud, headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lead from the outset. Sharon has consistently said he wants to form a unity government similar to the one that broke up last fall, leading to the elections.