JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is holding its fourth election in two years on Tuesday, with nearly 6.6 million citizens eligible to vote for the 24th Knesset, or parliament. It is widely seen as a one-issue referendum, with the electorate almost evenly divided on whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should remain in power.
Here is a closer look at what to expect:
The March 23 vote is Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in two years. The national unity government formed in May 2020 by Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally-turned-rival Benny Gantz collapsed in December after seven months of bitter infighting. The two had struck a power-sharing agreement that would have seen Gantz take over as prime minister in November 2021, but parliament automatically dissolved after the fractious government failed to pass a budget by a legally mandated deadline.
THE MAIN CONTENDERS
Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009, seeks a decisive victory and promises to form a “full-on right-wing” government supported by his traditional ultra-Orthodox allies and hard-line nationalists. The long-serving leader has campaigned aggressively as Israel's vaccinator-in-chief, claiming sole credit for the country's successful efforts to vaccinate the vast majority of the adult population against the coronavirus.
Against him stands a loose coalition of opposition parties and disgruntled former lieutenants who seek to oust him. Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition in the Knesset, is projected to head the largest of those parties, and has cast himself in the final week of the election campaign as Netanyahu's main challenger. But his potential coalition partners in the anti-Netanyahu camp come from hawkish and dovish sides of the political spectrum, and only share disdain for the prime minister. Uniting them in a government may prove impossible.
FITNESS TO RULE
Netanyahu has refused to step down while on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges. He was indicted in late 2019 and proceedings began shortly after he swore in his unity government last May. He has denied wrongdoing and says he’s the victim of a witch hunt by police, prosecutors and the media.
Demonstrators have staged weekly protests outside his residence in Jerusalem, calling on him to resign, for the past nine months. While voters may be weighing other issues — such as the economy, the conflict with the Palestinians, religion and state, relations with the U.S. and Diaspora Jewry — this election more than anything is a referendum on Netanyahu's fitness to rule and management of the past year of the pandemic.
All 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, are at stake. Thirty-eight parties are in the running, but only a handful are expected to break the threshold of 3.25% of the vote needed to win the minimum four seats in parliament. These parties include electoral shoo-ins Likud, Lapid's Yesh Atid, and New Hope, a party founded by a former Netanyahu confidant who shares his hard-line ideology but despises his autocratic style of rule. There are also the midsize stalwarts such as the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, the Joint List of Arab parties, a constellation of smaller parties, and an assortment of minuscule and often eccentric factions that have little chance of getting in.
TURNOUT AND FATIGUE
Compared to the United States, Israel often has a relatively high voter turnout. Election day is a national holiday, a measure aimed at getting people to participate.
Turnout in the past three elections has crept up from 67.9% in April 2019 to 71% in March 2020. But voter fatigue in this fourth election cycle is high, and many voters are reported to still be undecided in the days before polls open.
No Israeli party has ever won an outright majority in parliament, which forces larger parties to cobble together ruling coalitions with smaller allies.
Reaching a final tally is expected to take longer than usual — perhaps up to a week — because of the extraordinary number of absentee ballots and the beginning of the Passover holiday next Sunday, normally a work day. Unlike previous elections, people sick with coronavirus or in quarantine will be casting “double envelope” ballots along with Israeli diplomats overseas, soldiers and prisoners. Those take longer to count because they're sent to Jerusalem for tallying.
After the election, Israel’s president will meet with party heads and select the party he deems most capable of forming a coalition. That party, which is usually but not always the largest faction, then has four weeks to form a coalition. A new government will be given a four-year term, but disagreements between coalition parties often result in early elections.
Polls published in the run-up to Tuesday's vote indicate the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs running neck and neck, albeit without a clear majority. The hard-line nationalist Yemina party has not vowed to join either camp, and its alliance with either side could prove decisive.
But if neither side manages to form a coalition, the country's two-year-long political crisis could drag out into a fifth election.
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