JERUSALEM (AFP) – Members of Israel’s ruling Likud began voting Wednesday for their party leader with rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking another term at the helm ahead of snap elections in March.
The primary, in which 96,651 members are eligible to vote, is the first electoral hurdle for Netanyahu who is hoping to secure a third consecutive term in office.
Political analysts say Netanyahu is expected to win the party vote in the face of just one challenge from Danny Danon, a former deputy defence minister and outspoken member of the party’s far-right fringe.
Members are also voting to determine the frontrunners on the party list for the March 17 general election.
The primary polls opened at 9am (0700 GMT) with voters casting their ballots at 115 locations across Israel and settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
Polling stations will close at 10pm with the results due early on Thursday.
The last time the party held a primary was in January 2012 when members voted out three leading moderates, heralding a notable shift to the right which is likely to be further cemented in Wednesday’s ballot. Recent polls suggest Likud is likely to face a challenge in the March election from a centre-left alliance of the opposition Labour party and the centrist HaTnuah of former justice minister Tzipi Livni.
Writing in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, which traditionally holds an anti-Netanyahu stance, commentator Yoaz Hendel said Likud was a party “fighting for survival” with little to offer in terms of dynamic leaders likely to garner votes.
“Today’s Likud has no new, youthful, charismatic energy, and there is also no range of opinions,” he wrote, saying the party had forgone its traditionally successfully approach of mixing “proud nationalism with liberalism”.
“When Likud loses the ability to present itself as a rightwing, liberal, pragmatic party, it also loses its ability to govern. It loses its ability to attract voters from the centre.”