Dog days of campaign as Israelis return to polls

Joe Dyke
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There had been fears of voter disenchantment as Israelis were called to the polls for the second time in five months but early turnout was high

There had been fears of voter disenchantment as Israelis were called to the polls for the second time in five months but early turnout was high (AFP Photo/Jack GUEZ)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Elections are the only time Israeli Gruny Tzivin regrets naming her dog after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but lately it always seems to be election time.

Tzivin, who arrived with her dog as polls opened at 7:00 am to vote in Tuesday's parliamentary election, is a former Netanyahu voter.

But she has become increasingly disillusioned with the corruption allegations against him and his style of running the country.

So when circumstances meant she was forced to take on the shaggy brown and white three-year-old, she named the dog "Bibi", the widely used nickname for Netanyahu, whom she brands a "dictator".

"I think it is funny," she said as Bibi the dog wandered the sports field outside the school where polling was taking place.

"But I regret it at election time and unfortunately in this country there are always elections."

Tuesday's vote is the second time Israelis have been called to the polls in five months.

In April, Netanyahu's Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies won the most seats, but he failed to form a government.

This time Tzivin backed the centrist Blue and White coalition, led by former armed forces chief Benny Gantz.

"In any situation power corrupts," she said of Netanyahu, who is facing a series of graft allegations. "It's time for a change."

Polls suggest Netanyahu, prime minister for a total of more than 13 years, is again neck and neck with Blue and White, and the campaign is seen by many as a referendum on his polarising leadership.

Simcha Davison had backed Likud.

"Bibi has done a tremendous job in helping Israel, in protecting Israel from her enemies, and really making Israel a safer place to live in," he said.

- 'Waste of money' -

Early on Tuesday morning, only a few people were trickling in to a polling station in central Jerusalem.

But initial turnout figures showed fears of election fatigue may not materialise.

By 10 am, turnout was 15 percent, the highest level at that time of day since 1984, according to the election committee.

All parties have warned supporters that low voter enthusiasm and turnout was a risk -- and perhaps it was having an effect.

While security is a common theme in all Israeli elections, the cost of living is a significant issue, even if it is not often addressed in the campaign.

Tzivin, a teacher, said she struggled to get by.

"I don't know any teacher that comes home at the end of the day and doesn't have another job to make ends meet."

Some voters expressed anger at the political classes for failing to compromise and form a coalition following April polls.

"I think the new election is a disgrace. It is a waste of money, a waste of time," Tony Sachs, 64, said as he emerged from the polling booth.

"The important part of the nation that should be voting is probably going to be either on the beach or overseas."

Netanyahu has posted an interview with his American pollster on social media, warning that polls indicated left-wing voters were more enthused. He used similar tactics during April's election.

Outside a second polling station in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighbourhood, Ariel Iluz, 31, was erecting a stand for Likud.

He said the party was pulling out all the stops to get its voters to the polls.

He was not blind to Netanyahu's faults, he said, but credited him with curbing the violence seen during his youth in the second Palestinian intifada of the early 2000s, when suicide bombings were common.

"Even if it is not Netanyahu keeping Israel safe, I don't have the privilege of taking the risk," he said.

But at the stand for the left-wing Democratic Union, a volunteer who didn't want to be named said the election was the "final chance" for Israel.

Another Netanyahu victory would be a "disaster," she said.