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‘Sharongate’ rocks poll race

Jerusalem, Jan. 9 (Reuters): A corruption scandal embroiling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon turned Israel’s election campaign into an open race today after opinion polls showed support for his front-running Likud party plummeting.

In a further blow to the Israeli Right, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on two prominent Arab candidates for parliament in the January 28 election, a move that could bring more Arab voters who normally identify with Leftists to the ballot box.

An aide said the Prime Minister would show documents refuting allegations of wrongdoing over a $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman, Cyril Kern. “Whoever is disseminating this libel... has one single aim — to bring down the Prime Minister,” Sharon said yesterday in his first remarks on the “Sharongate” affair.

The scandal has fired up a lacklustre campaign in the runup to voting in which opinion polls had originally forecast the Right-wing Likud would crush its main opponent, the Centre-Left Labour Party led by dovish Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna.

A new poll in the Left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper found Likud would win only 27 seats in the 120-member parliament, a drop from 31 predicted in a survey last week and down from 41 estimated in early December.

Separate polls in the Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth newspapers found Likud taking 30 and 28 seats respectively. The three surveys were conducted after the loan scandal broke this week.

The polls indicated Sharon could still form a Right-wing coalition controlling 61 parliamentary seats. But a narrow majority could lead Sharon to seek a broader coalition including Centrist and Left-wing partners likely to push for a softer line towards the Palestinians, waging an uprising for statehood since September 2000.

The allegations against Sharon focus on funding irregularities in his 1999 Likud election campaign and include accusations that he received a loan from Kern. Israeli law bans political funding from abroad.

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