With over 90 percent of the votes tallied, Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion widened his lead over rival Ofer Berkovitch by several thousand votes as Tuesday’s runoff took a dramatic turn.
At midnight the 35-year-old secular activist-turned city council member found himself way ahead of the ultra-Orthodox-backed Lion, widening his lead by as much as 10,000 votes with 50 percent of the ballots counted.
Jerusalem, it seemed, was poised for an upset. Lion had formerly been seen as a shoo-in for the post.
But Berkovitch’s advantage was gradually whittled down, with Lion ahead by 6,000 votes as the tally topped the 90 percent mark. He held 51% to Berkovitch’s 48%, according to initial results.
The preliminary results, posted by the municipality and continuously updated, are not final and the outcome could yet change.
Polls closed on Tuesday night at 10 p.m with turnout rates in the capital reported at 31.5 percent, in a tight race largely overshadowed by an outbreak of violence in southern Israel. According to the Interior Ministry, 200,000 Jerusalem residents, out of 638,000, had exercised their right to pick their next mayor.
A second round of municipal voting was held Tuesday in 54 cities, towns, and regional councils on Tuesday — areas in which no single candidate garnered at least 40% of the vote on October 30. The national turnout average was 41%.
The most nail-biting contest in the country took place in Jerusalem, where no clear winner was discernible between the two candidates seeking to be mayor of the capital.
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.
Lion has the backing of much of the ultra-Orthodox community in the capital and the endorsements of both the Haredi Shas and Degel Hatorah factions. Berkovitch, meanwhile, has led the vanguard of the secularist flank of the city with his Hitorerut party. In the first round of voting 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 is being 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.
Agudath 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 has not endorsed either Lion, the former director-general of his bureau, or Berkovitch.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.