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Voter turnout in Haifa was only 18 percent by 7 P.M. yesterday - less than the national average at the same time - although it is usually higher than the national turnout.

Adam Fish, who heads the city's elections committee, attributed the low voter interest to the assumption that the incumbent mayor, Yona Yahav, would win.

"This is significant for Haifa because over the years, the voter turnout in the local election campaign was higher than the national average," said Fish. But this time around, he said, the public was apathetic because the local media had already declared Yahav the winner.

"This is what I was afraid of," Yahav said yesterday, projecting an uncharacteristic sense of concern. "It's hard to evaluate what's happening here. You hear good things, but low voter turnout causes a distortion of the results."

Yahav was welcomed warmly in Haifa's Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, though in several other polling stations there was no one to greet him, as the people working the colorful Yahav campaign stalls outside the polls were by and large left with nothing to do, as the voters just weren't showing up.

One voter who did show up was Yahav's first-grade teacher, Aviva Shadmon-Hofshi, 86. She told Yahav when she unexpectedly encountered him that she had earmarked him for great things back when he was in her class.

But perhaps more typical was Selly Zohar, who explained why she didn't vote yesterday by saying, "We send the kids to a private school, and the garbage is collected by everyone."

Low voter turnout is expected to help Yaakov Borovsky, Yahav's leading opponent. Borovsky won the support of sectarian groups whose voting rates in Haifa are generally low, like the ultra-Orthodox members of Agudat Yisrael, the Russian immigrants, some Shas supporters and a group of young residents.

"The feelings are good," said Borovsky. "This will be a close race that will be determined by whoever can bring the most voters."

At his campaign headquarters, Borovsky urged on his workers, "Hard work! Hard work!" and "Every vote is important."