Polls show Kadima's lead shrinking ahead of Israeli vote


JERUSALEM -- On the eve of Israel's parliamentary elections, the large lead held by Kadima, the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon before he was felled by a stroke, appeared to be eroding, final public opinion surveys indicated.

Kadima was still expected to win the biggest share of seats in the 120-member Knesset in today's vote, but a smaller-than-hoped-for margin of victory would complicate efforts to assemble a stable governing coalition.

The vote pits Kadima, led by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, against the left-leaning Labor Party and the conservative Likud, led respectively by Amir Peretz and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some surveys suggested that Netanyahu and the once-dominant Likud might be outpolled by the Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right grouping with strong appeal to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. If that happened, Netanyahu might quit politics, stepping down as party head and giving up his parliamentary seat, political observers were predicting.

Although compelling issues are at stake in the vote - including Olmert's plan to define Israel's permanent borders within four years, uprooting many West Bank settlements in the process - the campaign has been characterized by a distinct apathy.

The country traditionally has one of the highest voting rates among Western democracies, but turnout was forecast to be low by Israeli standards. The English-language Jerusalem Post called it "the most complacent campaign in Israel's history."

Polls published yesterday in the Yediot Aharonot and Haaretz dailies forecast that Kadima would win 34 seats, slipping from 36 predicted last week and from a high of 45 when Sharon was stricken nearly 2 1/2 months ago.

Labor held steady at about 21 seats, and Likud languished in third place with a forecast 14 seats.

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