Former prime minister Ehud Barak apparently defeated Labor MK Ami Ayalon to return to the Labor Party leadership, according to exit polls on the three television networks and preliminary results available by press time.
A Dialogue poll broadcast on Channel 1 gave Barak the lead, 52 percent to 48%. Channel 2's poll had Barak ahead 50.5%-49.5%, while Channel 10's poll gave him a 51%-49% victory.
Out of Labor's 103,498 members, 66,785 came out to vote, a turnout of 64.5%, slightly lower than the first round two weeks ago. There was a high turnout of 70% in Labor's largest sectors, kibbutzim and Arab communities. There was a low turnout in Ayalon's strongest sector of Tel Aviv and the Negev sector of his ally, outgoing Labor chairman Amir Peretz.
Barak won the kibbutzim sector that Ayalon won last time and defeated him by a very large margin in the Arab, Druse and moshavim sectors.
Ayalon won in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba and Peretz's hometown of Sderot.
The Barak campaign reacted with cautious optimism to the results.
Barak's supporters at his Tel Aviv headquarters applauded when the exit polls were broadcast. Sources close to Barak, who spoke to him late Tuesday, said he was glad that he would be returning to the Labor chairmanship and he was anxious to return to the Defense Ministry.
Barak's associates said Ayalon lost the race because of his mistaken decision to join forces with Amir Peretz.
"Barak wants to enter the government as soon as possible," a source close to him said. "He wants to immediately start dealing with the security situation and the Kassam rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip."
Ayalon suggested he might lose earlier Tuesday, saying, "If I don't win, I will later on down the line." A source close to him accused Labor members of "having very short memories" and forgetting Barak's many mistakes as prime minister. But another Ayalon associate said he would concede the race with pride.
The Ayalon campaign said all the polls were within the 4.5% margin of error. Ayalon's associates said they intended to appeal the results in several Arab and Druse towns due to forgeries and incidents of violence.
"The towns we complained about have more than 600 votes," an Ayalon associate said. "That's enough to change the outcome of the election. We don't plan to let Barak steal the election."
The head of a polling station in Shfaram was caught stuffing dozens of ballots for Barak. In Tira, police came to the polling station after its chairman complained he was attacked by a Barak loyalist. The Ayalon campaign asked to stop the voting in Julis, because people were voting there without identification.
Labor's central elections committee decided that none of the complaints were justified. A committee spokesman said there were several complaints, but they were merely technical problems that were dealt with properly.
The Barak campaign called Ayalon's complaints "whining and alibis of losers."
Olmert's associates said they were sure either candidate would want to be defense minister, despite their promises to not serve in an Olmert-led government.
Barak has said that aside from replacing Peretz as defense minister, he would maintain the current makeup of the cabinet. He intends to seek a socioeconomic portfolio for Peretz and perhaps a junior ministry for Ayalon.
Peretz's daughter Shani came to Labor headquarters to remove her father's belongings Tuesday morning, ending the Peretz era in Labor.
Ron Friedman contributed to this report.
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