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Israelis vote in local polls after corruption scandals
Netanyahu casts his vote during the municipal elections in occupied Jerusalem (AFP)
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AFP - Israelis voted in municipal elections Tuesday expected to be shunned by much of the public, who see local authorities as tainted by corruption.

In 191 municipalities, 8,771 polling stations were open from 7:00 am (0400 GMT) to 10:00 pm to allow almost 5.5 million voters to cast ballots for both a mayor and a list of local council candidates.

There are 767 candidates running for mayor, while 1,912 lists are contending for seats on local councils.

At a polling station at a Jerusalem school, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israelis to "go and vote," pledging that "as long as I am prime minister, Jerusalem will remain our united capital."

Turnout figures have traditionally been low in Israeli local elections, with only 51.85 percent participating in the last vote in 2008.

And participation this year was expected to be lower still because of a series of corruption scandals plaguing several local authorities.

About an hour before the polls closed, the interior ministry announced a national voter turnout of 42.6 percent. In Jerusalem, turnout was at 40 percent and 31 percent in Tel Aviv.

As revelations continue to emerge from the trial of former premier Ehud Olmert, who is fighting bribe-taking allegations in a massive property scandal from his time as Jerusalem mayor, four mayors have been arrested in the past year and four others indicted for serious wrongdoing.

A survey last week showed that 63 percent of Israelis think their local authority is corrupt, 19 percent believe the opposite and only 57 percent said they planned to vote.

Local elections are largely based on personalities, with mayors often re-elected, as was the case in 2008 when two-thirds won another term in office.

But in certain cities, like Jerusalem, where there is significant tension between religious and secular Israelis, the battle could be close.

Outgoing mayor Nir Barkat, a 54-year-old businessman who made his fortune in hi-tech ventures, is leading the opinion polls and has the backing of secular residents and some religious groups.

His rival is Moshe Leon, an accountant from the ruling rightwing Likud party of Netanyahu, who has the support of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party Shas as well as that of the hardline Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman.

Traditional Palestinian boycott in Jerusalem

More than a quarter of Jerusalem's residents are Palestinians, but they have traditionally boycotted local elections to demonstrate their refusal to accept Israel's 1967 seizure and annexation of the mainly Arab eastern sector of the city.

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, a former fighter pilot and Labour party member who brought the city international visibility, cultural growth and economic success, is practically assured re-election after 15 years in office.

His top rival is Nitzan Horowitz, an MP with the leftwing Meretz party, who has campaigned on a platform of environmental issues and gay rights but is trailing far behind in the polls.

The election looks set to more than double the number of Arab women serving on local councils, according to a forecast by the Women's Coalition, an umbrella group representing Arab women.

In 2008, only six Arab women were elected to local office, but this year, that number is seen rising to 15.

In Nazareth, the city with the largest Arab population in the country, Haneen Zuabi is running for mayor although polls show she has little chance of winning.

A member of the leftwing Arab-Israeli party Balad, Zuabi is a firebrand critic of the government who participated in the 2010 flotilla of activists in a bid to break Israel's naval blockade on Gaza that ended in a deadly Israeli raid.

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