Hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel’s election on Tuesday, claiming victory despite unexpected losses to resurgent center-left challengers.
Exit polls showed the Israeli leader’s Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.
If the exit polls compiled by three local broadcasters prove correct - and they normally do in Israel - Netanyahu would be on course for a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied land.
But his weakened showing in an election he himself called earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.
Netanyahu on Tuesday night thanked the public for electing him as premier for new term in office, and pledged to create a coalition “as broad as possible.”
“I wish to thank millions of Israelis who realized their democratic right today,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“Based on the results in the exit polls, it’s clear the citizens of Israel determined they want me to continue as prime minister, and that I form a government as wide as possible,” he wrote, saying he would immediately begin “efforts to form a government which was as broad as possible.”
Voting stations across Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank opened their doors at 0500 GMT on Tuesday, the start of the country's legislative elections.
The elections were widely expected to return Netanyahu to office. The next government will face old foreign policy challenges, such as the threat of Iran's nuclear program. It will also have to deal with changes in the region caused by the Arab uprisings.
Besides this, if Netanyahu is kept in power he will look to battle stubborn domestic economic issues, moving quickly to pass a tough austerity budget in a bid to tame Israel's deficit, while managing public discontent over the cost of living and income inequality.
Some 5.65 million Israelis are eligible to vote in the parliamentary election, with 10,132 polling stations open for 15 hours. Exit polls are traditionally broadcast immediately after voting ends.
Polls leading up to the election have consistently projected that the joint list of Netanyahu's Likud faction and the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu will come out far ahead of its rivals.
The center-left opposition Labor party is expected to come in a distant second, with the hardline religious nationalist Jewish Home projected to make an almost unprecedented showing and take third place