Lengthy Delays in Likud Primary Vote, as Polling Hours Extended Past Midnight

Despite all the long and exacting preparations, yesterday's computerized primaries in the Likud were plagued by numerous problems and delays at quite a few polling places. Long lines, a low turnout and the fears of Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu that all these problems would play into the hands of Moshe Feiglin and his right-wing supporters in the party spoiled the celebration of democracy in the Likud yesterday.

Netanyahu's worry that the "Feiglins" might perform well despite his enormous efforst to block the camp, led to the decision to extend the voting by two hours until 1:00 A.M. Earlier Netanyahu had wanted to extend the voting until today at some point between 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M., but he feared an appeal to courts and damage to the party's image. In addition, numerous logistical problems kept him from choosing this option.

Feiglin's camp claimed there were numerous irregularities in the voting, as well as fraud, and accuse Netanyahu of behaving hysterically in an attempt to damage their chances in the primary.

The pressure on Netanyahu and his supporters grew yesterday from midday on, as lines lengthened even though turnout remained low. Netanyahu saw for himself what was happening in the polling places, as people left in desperation, without casting their ballots, after lengthy waits in long lines.

At 10:30 P.M., voter turnout had reached only 44 percent. At that point, the party chairman sent out a recorded phone message to all Likud members urging them to come out and vote, and apologizing for the problems.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, this was the worst of all possible scenarios. It gave the organized voting of Feiglin and his people the advantage. While "regular" voters despaired of the wait, thousands of Feiglin's more ideological supporters devotedly waited their turn to vote.

As the day wore on and evening approached, senior Likud politicians started to blame the "organization" for the fiasco. Among the complaints were: Too few polling stations, only about 90 to serve 99,000 party members. In comparison, the Labor Party had 180 polling places for 60,000 voters.

The computerized voting system designed by Malam-Team may not have collapsed, as did the computers in the last week's Labor primary, but even after a long series of tests under extreme conditions, the computers still did cause significant delays.

Originally, voting was to close at 11:00 P.M., with Netanyahu scheduled to appear at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds around midnight to present the party's new Knesset slate.

Instead, Netanyahu and his advisers crowded into a room and tried to deal with the crisis, including considering alternatives to raise the turnout. When Netanyahu arrived at the his fairgrounds command center at around 4:00 P.M., he publicly called on Likud members not to give up and to exercise their right to vote.

Netanyahu was worried that low voter turnout would spoil the Knesset list as he envisioned it, and hurt those candidates he was pushing. An overly right-wing list, with Feiglin and his supporters in realistic Knesset slots, was Netanyahu's nightmare - and would probably cost the party a number od seats in February's general election. This is what Kadima was hoping for, and even before the primary it had begun preparing its "Feiglin campaign."

The first signs of problems appeared early in the morning in Jerusalem, after a Bezeq communications cable was damaged, delaying the start of voting at the capital's International Convention Center by about two hours. This was a particularly large voting site, with about 20 voting booths. Huge lines were backed up there for most of the day, especially toward evening, when voters showed up after work. The Bezeq fault also affected voting in Mevasseret Zion, outide the capital.

Another complaint related to the amount of time it took to actually vote once made it into the polling booth. Receiving an explanation of how to use the computerized voting system often took minutes for each voter, and many asked for help behind the curtain in voting.

Likud executive director Gad Arieli found that his fears were realized. Arielei had devoted the past month to the computerized voting project, and on the eve of the primary he said he felt the chances of a major problem were tiny, though he did joke beforehand that he was keeping a plane ticket to Australia ready in his pocket just in case. Yesterday morning, he said, "I did not sleep all night, and while I wasn't sleeping, I prayed."

After 10 hours of voting, turnout had reached only 33 percent. That is when Netanyahu realized that he had a real problem on his hands, and the unprecedented idea to extend voting over to today day was raised.