TEL AVIV // She is the most popular Israeli politician and a blue blood by Israeli standards because she comes from a famed ultranationalist family. He is a tough-talking former general believed to have mobilised an extensive network of trade unions, labour organisations and local party leaders as supporters. But whatever the differences between Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, either contender who prevails in the race for the leadership of Israel's ruling Kadima party - and likely the government - will undoubtedly have little time for a victory celebration.
The front-runnershave been vying to replace the corruption-tainted party boss, Ehud Olmert, who plans to resign the premiership but could remain caretaker prime minister until his successor patches together a new governing coalition. The final results of the voting yesterday by about 74,000 Kadima members were due to be made known this morning. But polls slated Ms Livni, the 50-year-old foreign minister, as the likely winner in a contest requiring a candidate to garner at least 40 per cent of the vote to avoid a second round next week between the top two vote-getters. A triumph would make Ms Livni the first female Israeli leader since Golda Meir, who was prime minister in the early 1970s.
Still, doubts about Ms Livni's victory seeped into the election yesterday amid reports of a low turnout. With only about half of Kadima members expected to vote, commentators warned that the results may still be surprising. The winner will be under a deadline to navigate the centrist Kadima through Israel's fractious coalition politics. He or she will need to construct a new government fast for Kadima to hold on to power and avoid early elections, which some polls show may favour Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party.
The new leader will also inherit a two-track peace process - one with the Palestinians and another with the Syrians - that could potentially break ground in the Jewish state's long-simmering conflict with its Arab neighbours. Finally, he or she will have to deal with what many Israelis consider as the biggest challenge to their country's existence - tackling the threat posed by Iran's nuclear programme.
The election has attracted little public interest. "It was a boring campaign," Raviv Drucker, the liberal political correspondent of Channel 10 TV, said. "We didn't have any new messages or visions." Although the battle was dull, the winner's challenges will be anything but. The first major test will start within hours of the victory. After Mr Olmert submits his official resignation to Israel's president - which could occur within 24 hours after the winner is declared - the latter will have up to seven days to decide who has the best chance of forming a new government, and will likely choose the new Kadima leader.
The new party chief will then have 28 days to create a new coalition and could receive a 14-day extension at the discretion of the president. The task is exacerbated by the fact that it may take place during October, a month with several Jewish holidays during which many Israelis - including politicians - go on holiday. Observers expect the new leader to opt to keep the current coalition, which has a 64-member majority of the 120-member parliament. It includes the traditionally centre-left Labor Party, the Pensioners Party and the ultra-orthodox religious Shas. Labor, the biggest coalition ally, and the Pensioners are keen to avoid early elections amid polls showing a plunge in their popularity. Persuading Shas to stay aboard will be tougher because giving in to the party's demand for a large increase in child welfare payments and funds for religious schools risks irritating Kadima's secular voters.
Ronnie Bar-On, the Israeli finance minister and a key supporter of Ms Livni, suggested yesterday he and some allies could leave the party should Mr Mofaz win. Mr Bar-On, along with others including Ms Livni and Mr Mofaz, followed Ariel Sharon to break with Likud in 2005 and form Kadima. Some fear Mr Mofaz would turn Kadima into a "Likud B". The failure to establish a coalition would lead to parliamentary elections that would most likely take place next spring. Nevertheless, even if the new Kadima leader succeeds in forming a government, many observers expect elections in months.
Under any scenario, the political turmoil is not expected to ease soon. Preoccupation with coalition-building would leave Israelis with little time to make progress on talks with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, have already been faltering, partly because of Israel's continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank, which Palestinians see as part of their future state along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Yesterday, Mr Mofaz, 60, opted to stay away from the media, while Ms Livni dispensed smiles, joking, hugging and kissing the cheeks of supporters and staff members in front of television cameras. Ms Livni - called "Mrs Clean" as she campaigned on her corruption-free record - hovered behind a light-blue ballot box at a polling station and waved a slip of paper marking her vote in front of a television camera. "If every person ? drops his note into this slot today, this evening we will see a totally different politics," she said.