Jerusalem, Mar 23 (PTI) Israelis returned to polling stations on Tuesday for an unprecedented fourth time in two years in what is being largely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuance at the helm of affairs amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges as well as his handling of the pandemic.
However, the voter turnout showed a steady decline as the day progressed, with parties sending out panic messages to their supporters to come out and cast their ballots.
Despite the election day being a holiday in Israel, it failed to drive voters to the polling booths -- the reasons attributed partly to 'voter fatigue' and the Passover festival over the coming weekend which kept many people busy in cleaning work at home.
The voter turnout as of 4 pm stood at 42.3%, as per the Central Election Committee, as compared to 47% at the same hour in March 2020 polls. The voter turnout at 10 am was slightly higher at 14.8%, as compared to 14.5% in the last election, but then went on declining to 25.4% as compared to 27.6% at 12 pm and 34.6% against 38.1% at 2 pm in March 2020 polls.
Some of the Arab dominated areas have reportedly recorded particularly low voter turnout.
The elections were called barely seven months after the last government was formed after the Likud and Blue and White party failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.
The two parties had fought each other bitterly in the three ultimately inconclusive elections throughout 2019 and 2020 but agreed in May 2020 to form a power-sharing government with a rotating premiership between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
The unity government collapsed in December.
As per the election commission, 6,578,084 Israelis are eligible to vote for any of the 38 parties running in the elections in 13,685 polling stations across the country, including 750 special polling stations for the sick and quarantined due to COVID-19.
Exit polls will be broadcast by the leading channels Tuesday night but the final results will be out only on March 31 after the votes from special polling stations, of soldiers, emissaries and prisoners are also properly tallied by Thursday or Friday.
Netanyahu, 71, and his wife Sara cast their votes in Katamon, Jerusalem.
Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid head, said his party has the 'chance to restore sanity to Israel' and create 'a government that will fight corruption and reject religious coercion.' President Reuven Rivlin cast his last vote as president at the polling booth close to his residence in Jerusalem and called on all Israeli citizens to go out and vote.
'I beg of you - go out and vote! I'm voting for the last time as president, but above all as a worried citizen - a very worried citizen,' he said.
Buoyed by a successful vaccination drive, one of the fastest in the world per capita, Netanyahu has put it at the forefront of his campaign, claiming that under his leadership Israel has become the first country in the world to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.
He yet again faces a tough challenge of putting together a coalition post-elections with some determined 'friends turn foes' looking to end his long-run.
Netanyahu has made Israel's handling of the pandemic, especially its robust vaccine drive, personal by regular appearances in nationally televised addresses towards the beginning of the pandemic and later obsessively negotiating vaccine deals with pharmaceutical companies.
Israel has reported 828,764 coronavirus cases, including 6,109 deaths.
Netanyahu's early recognition of the perils of the pandemic has been hailed by several global leaders and political analysts who appreciated his political acumen in identifying an opportunity in a crisis while most of the world failed to grasp the intensity of the problem. Netanyahu hailed the country's 'green' COVID-19 vaccination passports recently, saying Israel was 'coming to life'. and his latest campaign slogan, bringing Israeli society 'back to life', may be his best chance at keeping his political career alive.
The Likud campaign has made two consistent promises - a government it leads will prioritize economic recovery from the pandemic and that it will expand the circle of peace treaties already signed with four Arab nations over the past year to include as many as four additional countries.
The vexed Palestinian issue has been largely out of political discourse.
Netanyahu is fighting charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies the accusations, terming them politically motivated.
A sixth term for Israel's longest-serving prime minister could protect him from an ongoing corruption trial.
Opinion polls have consistently predicted the ruling Likud party gaining the most seats and an overwhelming majority for the right-wing bloc, which was also seen in the previous elections, but he failed to bring them all together under his leadership.
The number of parties and right-wing leaders opposing Netanyahu's continuance as prime minister has only grown with his main rival in the Likud party, Gideon Saar, breaking away to form a separate party with the declared intent to unseat Netanyahu.
Opinion polls suggest 13 parties could cross the electoral threshold and secure representation in the 120-seat Knesset.
A party needs to win 61 seats to be able to form a majority government. If no bloc can achieve a workable majority, a fifth-round of elections could be called.
Netanyahu has been in power continuously since 2009, having served an earlier three-year term in the late 1990s. PTI HM NSA AKJ SCY SCY