Kadima, headed by Ehud Olmert, will probably form the next coalition, following its win in yesterday's elections, although it garnered a smaller number of seats than had been predicted over the past weeks.
The Pensioners' list, Gil, was the big surprise of yesterday's elections, according to last night's exit polls, published after the closing of polling stations at 10 P.M. The Pensioners' Party, which did not manage to pass the electoral threshold in the last elections, received eight to 10 seats, depending on the exit poll.
Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, also chalked up a major achievement, going from seven seats to an expected 12 to 14; it is now the third largest party.
The Likud was apparently shunted into fourth place with 11 to 12 seats predicted by the exit polls.
Kadima is expected to receive between 29 to 32 seats, down from the 36 to 38 predicted by opinion polls over the past weeks.
The exit polls gave Labor between 20 and 22 seats, slightly better than the polls before the elections. The gap between Labor and Kadima will dictate to a great extent the nature of coalition negotiations, and it was predicted differently by the various TV exit polls. Channel 1 projected the smallest gap - seven seats, while Channel 10 forecast the largest - 11 seats.
Meretz is expected to enter the 17th Knesset with five seats, one less than in the 16th Knesset, while Shas seems to be keeping its number steady at 10 to 11. United Torah Judaism, with five or six seats, may have one more MK in the 17th Knesset. The United Arab List-Ta'al received three to four seats; Hadash, two to three, while Balad is teetering on the brink of the threshold of a seat.
The distribution of seats according to the exit polls show that the National Union-National Religious Party's eight to nine seats will not allow it to form an obstructing bloc even if it were joined by the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last night that the public had said yes to the convergence plan he presented three weeks ago in the media. He also reiterated that if Israel were not able to negotiate with the Palestinians, it would take its fate into its own hands and act unilaterally.
Labor chairman Amir Peretz said yesterday in private conversation that he would not join a cabinet with Lieberman, since he saw the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman as a "new kind of Le Pen." Peretz was said to be interested in Shas and Meretz coming into the cabinet with Labor to create a "social bloc" that could influence economic policy. The number of seats Labor received will allow Peretz to keep the peace in the party by appointing six or seven Labor ministers.
At 63.2 percent, voter turnout was the second lowest in the history of the state (the lowest occurred in the 2001 elections), according to a sampling taken by the Central Election Committee at 409 polling stations throughout the country.
By 10 A.M., three hours after the polls opened, only 9.9 percent of the electorate had cast its ballots, as opposed to 10.1 percent in 2003. At noon, the rate had only reached 21.7 percent, as opposed to 24 percent in 2003. By 2 P.M., the percentage had risen to 30.9 percent, as opposed to 35.3 percent in 2003. Two hours later, the gap grew larger than in previous years, with a 39 percent voter turnout compared to 44.2 percent in 2003. At 6 P.M., the number of voters still had not reached half the electorate. By 8 P.M., 57 percent of the electorate had voted, compared to 62.8 in 2003.
The largest turnout in Israel's history was in the 1949 elections, when 86.9 percent of the electorate cast a ballot.
Avraham Diskin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who prepared the sample for the Central Election Committee, said he believed the low turnout was due to "a lack of confidence in the political system and alienation from the parties." However, Diskin added that compared to other countries, voter turnout in Israel was high.
Central Election Committee chair Justice Dorit Beinisch conceded she was disappointed in the voter turnout, but refused to say whether she supported the proposal to fine registered voters who do not go to the polls. "According to our laws, there is no obligation to vote; it is a privilege, but it is our civil obligation to do so."
Following the elections to the 16th Knesset in 2003, then-chairman of the Central Election Committee Mishael Cheshin suggested fining people who do not vote, calling a fine "a good idea." Cheshin said such fines were imposed in Italy and Belgium.
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