Labor Voters Came to the Polls Anyway

The Labor Party primary election attracted an unexpectedly high turnout of 50 percent, according to returns late last night. Voting for seats on the party's 18th Knesset list had been postponed for two days following a computer breakdown, and voters cast their votes manually rather than electronically. Vote counting was set to continue through the night.

Immediately after forming its Knesset list, Labor is set to kick-start its election campaign, which will attack Kadima in an effort to bring "home" votes it has lost to that party.

Labor leaders, who had feared that the system crash on Tuesday coupled with the party's dire standing in public opinion polls would keep party members away from the polling stations, heaved a sigh of relief yesterday at the sight of long lines outside the ballots.

Party chairman Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was busy during the day with the evacuation of the House of Contention in Hebron, went to vote at noon with his wife Nili Priel. He said he was optimistic about the party's ability to emerge from the crisis.

"The fact that we're standing in line to vote 48 hours after [Tuesday's events] means there's life in the party," he said.

Labor is now preparing its opening shot in the election campaign, intended mainly to bring back the votes it has lost to Kadima. These votes are estimated to be worth about seven Knesset seats.

Labor is planning to paint Kadima, its main rival, as a "political refugee camp." Its campaign will say that Kadima has a clearly right-wing section led by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, which will join the Likud after the elections. Therefore voting for Kadima is tantamount to voting for the Likud.

Kadima chairman Tzipi Livni will be shown as inept as a leader and stateswoman, compared to Labor leader Barak.

Labor has decided not to attack Meretz and the new left-wing party so as not to harm the left bloc, and because polls show it has only lost one Knesset seat to Meretz. The campaign will also try to neutralize Barak's image problems, conveying the message that Barak is not a buddy but a leader.

Labor's leaders are pinning their hopes on an attractive Knesset list. The polls predict no more than 10 Knesset seats, which turned the campaign into a survival battle among the MKs.

National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who renounced his reserved sixth slot on the Knesset list, conducted a lightening campaign. Yesterday he sounded confident and said the party could garner 25 Knesset seats in the upcoming general elections. "The most important thing is that Labor pursues a new path from today, a path that will end in 25 Knesset seats, after we present the best list," he said.

MK Shelly Yachimovich cast her vote on Tel Aviv's Zamenhoff Street, where she called on the Labor leaders to save their party. "Precisely because of the tough crisis, the crowds came to the polling stations and voted for a strong and principled list that can handle the battle to save the party and make it succeed," she said.

When Labor first tried to hold its primary this week, it proudly touted its pioneering use of a new computer touch-screen voting system. But just three hours into the voting, the system crashed, delaying the primary until yesterday, when party members began choosing candidates for the February 10 election expected to hand Labor a humiliating defeat. This time, voters were using paper ballots.