Polls close in fateful Likud primaries after jump in turnout
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Polls close in fateful Likud primaries after jump in turnout

Results in country’s largest primary expected early Wednesday after bruising campaign marked by Netanyahu attacks on rival Sa’ar

Likud members cast their votes for the party list in primaries at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Likud members cast their votes for the party list in primaries at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Voting booths across the country closed in the Likud primaries at 10 p.m. Tuesday night, after a day that saw activists cast ballots in a vote seen as a test of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on the party.

Some 119,000 eligible voters had a chance to cast their ballots in a complicated ranking system for national and district candidates in 113 polling stations across the country. Around 69,000, or 58.4% of those eligible, eventually voted, a jump from the 52% turnout in the last primaries held in 2014.

Polling booths had opened at 10 a.m. and over the following 12 hours voters cast their ballots in a primary election dominated by an open assault by Netanyahu on a key rival, former minister Gideon Sa’ar, who was returning to politics after a four-year hiatus.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu voted at a specially built polling station for the couple in their official residence in Jerusalem.

A spokesperson for prime minister said the private polling booth, never before implemented, was in order “not to disturb polling stations” with excess security measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara, center, vote in Likud party primaries at a specially set up polling booth in the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, February 5, 2019. (Government Press Office)

Results were expected to emerge after midnight Wednesday, with ballots being counted by hand at the Kfar Maccabiah hotel complex in Ramat Gan. The process was expected to take several hours.

One hundred and forty-two candidates were competing for the top spots on Likud’s electoral slate, all hoping to score high enough to ensure certain entry to the 120-seat Knesset. Among incumbent MKs and influential newcomers, there was intense competition for the highest spots on the ticket, which all but guarantee a position at the cabinet table.

With Netanyahu keeping the top spot as party leader and veteran Likud lawmaker Benny Begin retiring (again) from public service, 28 currently serving MKs and ministers were bidding for the first 18 spots on the electoral slate, which are designated for candidates running in the nationwide ballot. They were joined by three heavyweights returning to the party or running for the first time, including Sa’ar, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant (who recently defected from the Kulanu party).

The main candidates for the top five spots were Knesset Speaker MK Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamilel, and Sa’ar.

Gideon Sa’ar, a former minister, casts his vote during primaries elections at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Party protocol holds that anyone who has served as MK needs to run on the national slate, which fills spots 2-18, 20, 23-25 and anything beyond 35. Party members who vote in the primaries picked their 12 preferred candidates (from the 73 running on the national list) to fill these spots, and these will then be ranked according to the total number of votes.

The rest of the slate is populated by district candidates, who compete against each other for specific slots representing various regions or groups within the party. In a change introduced in this year’s primary, only members of the Likud Central Committee were able to cast votes for the district nominees, giving the party’s key decision-making body considerable power and influence over the electoral ticket.

Additionally, party members voted Tuesday on a proposal that would see the prime minister appoint candidates to the 21st, 26th and 36th spots, in a move that could allow him to merge the Likud slate with a smaller party, without getting separate permission from the Central Committee.

In the first episode of his new “Likud TV” webcast Sunday evening, Netanyahu again claimed Sa’ar was working to unseat him, and sources close to the prime minister later said he was working to ensure Sa’ar did not emerge as the top vote-getter in the party primaries.

Sa’ar, who had hit back at Netanyahu and accused him of spreading “fake news,” said on Tuesday that he was looking to the future and hoped he could work with Netanyahu, not against him.

For his part, Netanyahu said Tuesday he did not take a back a word he had said.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev casts her primaries vote at the Likud polling station in Rosh HaAyin on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Primaries were introduced to Israeli politics in the early 1990s, when several major parties sought to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process.

Since then, however, most new parties have forgone internal elections, opting instead for a system in which the party leader or a committee of officials chooses a “perfect” slate, unsullied by the caprices of party members.

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