Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to have faced down a fresh challenge to his power on Thursday when his Likud party held a leadership vote in the run-up to a March national election, the country's third in under a year.
An exit poll cited by the political correspondent for Channel 12 news predicted that Netanyahu, head of Likud for the past 14 years, would retain the right-wing party's leadership with 71.52% of votes.
The challenge by Gideon Saar, whom the exit poll gave 28.48% of votes, has added to pressures that have mounted this year on the four-term premier, who is under indictment and fighting for political survival.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu and his main challenger MK Gideon Sa’ar painted a conflicting picture of the Likud leadership election’s voter turnout.
Some 116,048 members of the Likud party began voting at 106 polling stations across the country on Thursday morning to set the stage for a showdown that presents the most serious challenge to Netanyahu's Likud leadership in years.
By the time the polls closed at 11 pm, it appears some 48.94% of the party's 116,000 eligible voters had cast ballots.
Netanyahu claimed the turnout is “extremely low,” urging his voter base to beat the inclement weather and come out to vote.
“I’ve been calling people and they tell me: 'We want you tremendously and we're sure you will win anyway,’” he said. "Because those people are convinced that I will win, they don’t come out to vote, narrowing the gap.”
Meanwhile, Sa’ar’s official HQ directly contradicted Netanyahu’s claims. “The voter turnout is higher than average,” said the official statement.
The Likud administration also seemed to be dissatisfied with the turnout, urged the party members to come out and cast their ballot. "Do not give in to the cold weather, do not give up your democratic right to vote and make a difference,” said the party in a statement.
The final results are expected early Friday.
First published: 22:18 , 12.26.19