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Local elections across Israel marred by boycott, scandals

Oct. 22, 2013 12:51 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 23, 2013 3:55 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israelis were Tuesday voting in municipal elections in a poll expected to be shunned by much of the public who see local authorities as tainted by corruption.

Polling stations in 191 municipalities opened their doors at 7.00 a.m to allow Israel's 5,469,041 registered voters to cast their ballots for both a mayor and a list of local council candidates.

A total of 767 candidates are running for mayor while 1,912 are contending for seats on local councils.

At a polling station in a south Jerusalem school, a slow but steady trickle of residents could be seen turning out to cast their ballots, most of them elderly, as activists for the various candidates hovered expectantly outside, an AFP correspondent said.

Turnout figures have traditionally been low in local elections, with only 51.85 percent participating in the last vote in 2008.

And participation this year looks set to be further harmed by a series of corruption scandals plaguing several local authorities.

As revelations continue to emerge from the trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is fighting bribe-taking allegations in a massive property scandal from his time as Jerusalem mayor, four mayors have been arrested in the past year and four others indicted for serious wrongdoing.

A survey last week showed that 63 percent of Israelis think their local authority is corrupt, 19 percent believe the opposite while only 57 percent of the 501 people interviewed said they planned to vote.

Local elections do not reflect the same political map at a national level, with the vote largely based on personalities. Mayors are often reelected, as was the case in 2008 when two thirds won another term in office.

But in certain cities, like Jerusalem where there is significant tension between religious and secular Israelis, the battle could be close.

Outgoing mayor Nir Barkat, a 54-year-old businessman who made his fortune in hi-tech ventures, is leading the opinion polls and has the backing of secular residents and some religious groups.

His biggest rival is Moshe Leon, an accountant from the ruling rightwing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has become the candidate of choice for both religious and rightwing voters.

He has the support of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party as well as that of the hardline Yisrael Beitenu of Avigdor Lieberman.

Although Barkat leads by several points, Leon could pull off a surprise win if he manages to rally the 21 percent of undecided voters, many of them from the city's large ultra-Orthodox population which turns out in droves to vote.

Palestinian boycott

More than a quarter of Jerusalem's residents are Palestinians, but they have traditionally boycotted local elections to demonstrate their refusal to accept Israel's seizure and annexation of the eastern sector of the city after the 1967 Six Day War.

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, a former fighter pilot and Labor party member who brought the city international visibility, cultural growth and economic success, is practically assured reelection. He has already served 15 years.

His most serious rival is Nitzan Horowitz, an MP with the leftwing Meretz party who has campaigned on a platform of environmental issues and gay rights but is trailing far behind in the polls.

Meanwhile, the election looks set to more than double the number of Arab women serving on local councils, according to a forecast by the Women's Coalition, an umbrella group representing Arab women.

In 2008, only six Arab women were elected to local office, but this year, that number is seen rising to 15.

Of the 1,912 candidates running for local office, 173 are Arab women, up from 149 in the previous elections. And this year, the women are placed much higher on the local slates.

In Nazareth, the city with the largest Palestinian population in the country, Haneen Zuabi is running for mayor although polls show she has little chance of winning office.

A member of the leftwing Arab-Israeli Balad party, Zuabi is a firebrand critic of the government who won notoriety for her participation in the 2010 flotilla of activists which tried to break Israel's naval blockade on Gaza.
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