Major Mayoral Races Come Down to Wire

A Channel 1 telephone poll gave secular businessman Nir Barkat an eight-point lead over ultra-Orthodox rival Meir Porush in the Jerusalem mayoral race, the television station reported, after polls closed at 10 P.M. yesterday.

Barkat is believed to have garnered 50 percent of the vote, while Porush lagged behind in the poll with 42 percent. Russian billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak came in a distant third, winning just 7 percent.

But Barkat was not ready to celebrate until the final tally came in, fearing a repeat of the last election, give years ago, in which campaign activists opened up the champagne too early, only to find out before dawn that Barkat had lost to Uri Lupolianski.

The race in Jerusalem was one of several that captivated the country as Israelis flocked to the polls yesterday for municipal elections, with Arab and ultra-Orthodox voter turnout exceeding expectations.

In Tel Aviv, partial ballot counts close to midnight showed the incumbent mayor, Ron Huldai, had a slight edge over challenger Dov Khenin in the surprisingly tight race. With ballots from 125 out of 646 polling stations counted, Huldai had 48 percent of the vote and Khenin had 34 percent. If Huldai fails to win 40 percent of the vote, he will face Khenin, an MK from the Hadash party, in a two-way runoff.

Local radio polls gave incumbent Haifa mayor Yona Yahav a slim three-point lead over Yaakov Borovsky, and indicated that Be'er Sheva's incumbent mayor, Yaakov Terner, was on the way out. The radio poll gave Terner 35 percent of the vote, leaving him trailing his deputy, Rubik Danilovich, who reportedly snagged 58 percent.

More than half of all eligible voters - 55 percent - made their voices heard in yesterday's municipal elections, Channel 2 reported around midnight. Thirty-eight percent of those eligible to vote cast their ballots in Tel Aviv, and 41 percent voted in Jerusalem. Haifa saw only 18 percent of its turn out; Be'er Sheva's voter turnout reached 41 percent, and in Kiryat Shmona, which is fielding nine candidates for mayor, the voter turnout stood at 33 percent.

Ultra-Orthodox voter turnout, and participation voters in Arab municipalities, was hovering around 30 percent. In the Bedouin town of Lakia in the Negev, however, voter turnout reached 59 percent. The turnout in Netanya, though, stood at 7 percent.

Despite what was inevitably a high voter turnout nationwide, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit voiced the fear during the day that voters would remain apathetic.

"The most serious thing that could happen is low voter turnout, indicating the voters' apathy," Sheetrit said. He said higher turnout among some sectors of the population could significantly affect the election results. "If the ultra-Orthodox sector shows up at the polls in full force and the secular don't, it's clear that the results will be distorted."

In Jerusalem, voters from the Gerrer Hasidic sect carried out their threat to snub Porush and vote for the secular Barkat instead. At two polling stations in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Geula, large groups of Hasidim were seen laughing and smiling as they arrived to vote. Upon leaving, they said they had voted for Barkat.

At a voting station on Lapidot Street in Jerusalem, a number of Border Policemen were lightly injured when they scuffled with dozens of ultra-Orthodox who tried to disrupt the voting. One of the protesters was arrested. Meanwhile, Barkat campaign officials said his Web site had been attacked by hackers. Surfers who entered it were redirected to Porush's campaign site.