Sharon's party to win March election, opinion polls

Ariel Sharon's centrist Kadima Party would win the March 28 general election even without the prime minister at the helm, according to an opinion poll published Friday. Sharon, who was in a medically induced coma Friday following a massive stroke, had established Kadima in November, after quitting his hard-line Likud Party. Kadima scored high in opinion polls, a reflection of both Sharon's popularity and growing Israeli support for more territorial concessions and a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Kadima's fate was seen as being closely tied to the charismatic Sharon, and was given little hope of political survival without him. However, a survey published Friday suggested that Kadima's popularity among voters remained largely unchanged, and that it would win the most parliament seats of any party, despite the widespread expectation that Sharon will not return to politics.

It is not yet clear who will lead Kadima into the March elections. Likely candidates are acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon's closest ally, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a rising star in Israeli politics and a Sharon protege. The poll also measured the popularity of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who left the moderate Labor Party to support Sharon, but stopped short of joining Kadima.

A survey in the Yediot Ahronot daily Friday indicated that an Olmert-headed Kadima would win 39 of 120 parliament seats, compared to 36 seats if Livni were the party leader. A Peres-led Kadima would net 42 seats. Under Sharon, Kadima was expected to get about 40 mandates.

The next largest party, Labor, was holding steady with about 20 seats, while Likud would capture 16 seats, according to the poll among 500 people. The survey had an error margin of 4.4 percentage points.

Meir Sheetrit, a Kadima legislator, dismissed forecasts that Kadima would now crumble. "Kadima ... is a path, not just a man," he told Israel Radio. "We believe in the path charted by the prime minister and the group of people that stands behind the prime minister will continue to manage the Kadima party and will run in the election and in my opinion will also win the election," Sheetrit said.

Olmert met with Peres on Friday, and media reports said the acting prime minister would try to persuade Peres to stick with Kadima and offer him a post in the next government, reports the AP. I.L.

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