Sharon's Kadima leads in polls

Representatives of Israeli political parties lined up at the parliament on Thursday, the last day of registration for March 28 elections, with the Kadima Party founded by ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon far ahead in the polls. With Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the helm, Kadima is consistently polling about twice as many seats as its nearest competitors, the moderate Labor and Likud, the hard-line faction Sharon abandoned in November because of its opposition to his unilateral pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank last summer.

About two dozen factions were expected to register by the midnight (2200 GMT) deadline. For the last election, in 2003, 28 parties signed up and 13 won seats. Sharon, 77, has been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke on Jan. 4. Olmert, 60, Sharon's closest political ally, has slid seamlessly into his place. Neither Sharon's absence nor the victory by the violent Islamic Hamas in last month's Palestinian parliamentary election has shaken his party's lead.

A poll broadcast on Israel Radio on Thursday showed Kadima winning 38 seats, Labor 17 and Likud 15 in the 120-seat parliament. Smaller parties are scrambling to reinforce their positions. The pro-settlement National Religious Party and the hard-line National Union announced late Wednesday they would run as a combined list. The poll by the Geocartographia survey firm showed the new combination willing nine seats, down from 13 as separate parties in the current parliament.

The big loser continues to be the secular rights Shinui Party, which won 15 seats in the 2003 election. Splintered now into at least four factions, the Wednesday poll showed none of them entering the parliament. The poll questioned a representative sample of 509 Israeli voters. No margin of error was given.

In a feature unique to Israeli politics, the parties competed on a first-come, first serve basis for Hebrew letters to represent them on voting slips. Kadima was first in line, posting a volunteer at the door three days before the office opened on Wednesday, and won the two-letter combination that means "yes" in Hebrew. The Green Leaf party, which advocates legalization of marijuana, took two letters that form a syllable, "ken," pronounced the same as the Kadima combination leading to speculation that the offbeat party might win some Kadima support by mistake.

However, the full names of the parties are also spelled out on the slips, and Israel's literacy rate, well over 90 percent and one of the highest in the world, makes significant mistaken voting unlikely.

Voting for parties instead of candidates, Israelis go behind a screen after receiving an official voting envelope and are confronted with a tray of party slips. The voter picks one, puts it in the envelope and deposits the envelope in the ballot box.

The votes are counted by hand, and the seats in the parliament are divided among the parties in proportion to the percentage of votes they received. However, a party must receive at least 2 percent of the vote to enter the parliament a method of limiting the number of small factions in the already raucous chamber.

The "proportional representation" system encourages large numbers of parties and makes it almost inevitable that no single party will win an outright majority. In Israel's 57-year history, all governments have been coalitions of parties, reports the AP.

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