Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion declared victory early Wednesday in the runoff election, but his rival, Ofer Berkovitch, vowed his legal team would be looking into alleged “irregularities” at the polling stations.
The local ballot count from Tuesday’s vote ended with the ultra-Orthodox-backed candidate Lion ahead of Berkovitch by over 6,000 votes. Berkovitch had yet to concede the race, however, and the 8,500 votes by IDF soldiers, prisoners, and those cast in hospitals will only be counted on Wednesday, according to Army Radio. (Some 5,500 of those ballots were submitted by troops.) But Lion’s three-percentage point lead (51% vs. 48%) was deemed sufficient by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and the candidate to confidently call the contest in his favor by 2 a.m.
“Jerusalem tonight chose unity, the sense of togetherness, the good,” Lion told a packed hall of supporters, many of whom were enthusiastically chanting “Aryeh Deri.”
“I intend to be the mayor of all of Jerusalem’s residents, whoever they may be. Those that voted for me, and those that didn’t,” said Lion in a victory speech around 2:15 a.m. He also thanked his supporters, his family and incumbent Nir Barkat.
At 1:40 a.m., Berkovitch told his supporters that “the results don’t look good,” but did not concede. “Jerusalem is the winner,” he said. He later said his party’s legal team was evaluating various “irregularities” at the polling stations.
“We’ll work on it tonight and tomorrow morning,” he said, pointing to an unnamed “force that faced us using violent methods and some means that were borderline illegal” as the culprits.
“We won’t give up on victory in this round as well,” he said.
Earlier, Deri — a longtime supporter and friend of Lion — posted a video on Twitter of his phone call congratulating the Jerusalem council member on his ostensible win. “I congratulated my friend, Moshe Lion, the elected mayor of the Jerusalem municipality,” he said.
Lion enjoys the backing of both Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and ultra-Orthodox faction Shas — Deri’s party — and part of United Torah Judaism, leading to charges of backroom dealing on the national level to secure him the position. Berkovitch, meanwhile, has led the vanguard of the secularist flank of the city with his Hitorerut party.
The nail-biting tallying since the polls closed at 10 p.m. saw some preemptively cheering Berkovitch as the capital’s next mayor.
At midnight the 35-year-old secular activist-turned city council member found himself way ahead of Lion, widening his lead by as much as 10,000 votes with 50 percent of the ballots counted.
רגע הניצחון בלשכת השר דרעי pic.twitter.com/e2lqyWCPia
— ישי כהן (@ishaycoen) November 13, 2018
But Berkovitch’s advantage was gradually whittled down, with Lion gliding ahead by 6,000 votes as the tally topped the 90% mark. He then held 51% to Berkovitch’s 48%, according to initial results.
The preliminary results, posted by the municipality, must still be confirmed by the Interior Ministry. Should Lion be confirmed mayor, he will need special permission from the ministry to run the city council, after his party failed to garner a single seat on the 31-member panel in the first round of voting on October 30. Berkovitch’s Hitorerut party won 7 seats on the city council.
Polls closed on Tuesday night at 10 p.m with turnout rates in the capital reported at 31.5 percent. According to the Interior Ministry, 200,000 Jerusalem residents, out of 638,000, had exercised their right to pick their next mayor.
Hasidic religious leaders in Jerusalem on Monday ordered their followers to refrain from voting in the runoff, splitting the ultra-Orthodox vote in a maneuver seen as buoying candidate Berkovitch and placing him neck-and-neck with the front-runner in the first election, Lion.
In the first round of voting two weeks ago, Lion received 33% of the vote, followed by Berkovitch with 29%.
East Jerusalem residents, some one-third of the city’s population, boycott the municipal elections.
The runoff between the two contenders was held after none of the five candidates in the first round — Lion, Berkovitch, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch, and Avi Salman — successfully won 40% of the vote. The turnout in the first round stood at 39%.
Despite Lion’s broad Haredi support, brewing animosity between the Lithuanian non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah and largely Hasidic Agudat Yisrael prompted the latter’s rabbinical council to decide, a day before the vote, that it would stay home on election day and not back Lion, in what some saw as tacit support for Berkovitch’s candidacy.
In the final hours before the vote ended, many Hasidim surged to the ballots, according to Hebrew reports. Among them was United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, a confidant of the leader of the Gur dynasty and Israel’s deputy health minister.
Agudat Yisrael broke ranks with the other ultra-Orthodox groups in the first round of the vote, tapping its own candidate — Yossi Deitch — rather than supporting Lion. The Hasidic sects were also rumored to be a decisive factor in incumbent Nir Barkat’s narrow victory over Lion in 2013.
The tightened race also came after Lion received several high-profile endorsements. He was backed by incumbent Barkat, the local chapters of the Likud and Jewish Home parties, and several Likud ministers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not endorse either Lion, the former director-general of his bureau, or Berkovitch.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.