Voting begins in more than 700 polling stations around the city; Barkat leading Porush in polls.
By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
In a race being hailed as a turning point in determining the city's character, Jerusalem elects a new mayor Tuesday amid increasing concerns over the capital's demographic makeup and economic future.
Voters will get to select both their choice for mayor and their preferred list for the city council, where 13 parties are vying for 31-seats.
The mayoral election is expected to be determined by the level of non-haredi turnout and the critical vote of the national-religious sector.
A candidate must garner at least 40 percent of the vote to win outright; otherwise, the two top vote-getters face a run-off election in two weeks.
Jerusalem opposition leader Nir Barkat, a hi-tech millionaire who has served on the city council for the past five years, is running against MK Meir Porush of the United Torah Judaism Party, a veteran haredi legislator who was selected by his party to replace Mayor Uri Lupolianski, and Russian-Israeli tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak.
Gaydamak entered unchartered territory in the campaign by avidly courting the city's Arab voters.
An eleventh-hour candidate, Dan Biron of the Green Leaf Party - which favors legalizing marijuana - rounds out the list, but he is expected to garner only a symbolic show of support.
More than 700 city polling stations opened Tuesday at 7 a.m. with nearly 530,000 people eligible to vote. Most of the stations will stay open until 10 p.m.
The number of actual voters is expected to be much smaller - five years ago only 180,000 people cast their ballot - since Arab residents of the city traditionally boycott the election so as not to "recognize" Israeli sovereignty over the city.
The Interior Ministry is operating a toll-free voter information center at 1-800-300-059, which offers both automated information and live operators speaking five languages, including English, for residents uncertain where their polling station is located or who have other election-related questions.
The official election results are expected early Wednesday morning.
The Jerusalem mayoral race comes at a time of growing concern among many secular residents over the increasingly haredi makeup of the city, the outward migration of young people, who leave in search of better jobs and more affordable housing, and the sharply contrasting level of services provided to Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of the city.
The race, according to polls, has split largely along sectoral lines: the haredi residents will vote nearly unanimously for Porush, while most of the secular and modern Orthodox residents are supporting Barkat.
Meanwhile, a still-unknown number of Arab residents who may defy warnings by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority to boycott the vote are said to be backing Gaydamak.
To win, Barkat, who has presented detailed economic and educational working plans for the city, needs a strong turnout - and support - among secular and national-religious voters.
Only a third of non-haredi voters turned out to vote in the last elections, compared to 85% of the haredi public.
This year the turnout is expected to be significantly higher among the non-haredi public. Still, the fact that three secular candidates are running against one haredi candidate in a city where one in three voters is haredi could hurt Barkat's chances of victory, even though polls have consistently shown him to be the front-runner.
In the 2003 mayoral election, Lupolianski defeated Barkat by just over 15,000 votes, while nearly 10,000 votes went to four other secular candidates.
"Barkat is still leading, but it is not so certain," said political scientist Avraham Diskin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Porush is facing his own problems within the usually rock-solid haredi sector this year, with some Gerrer hassidim actively campaigning against him because they believe Porush offended their rebbe during his campaign, with a "secret plan" that would oust them from their central position in the haredi education system.
With a whopping 11% of the public still undecided in the last poll, both Barkat and Porush's campaigns believe that the national-religious vote could swing the election in either one's favor.
For the last two years, Barkat has been avidly courting the vote of the city's national-religious residents, breaking his former ties with the ruling Kadima Party to launch a public campaign with the likes of former minister Natan Sharansky against the division of Jerusalem.
The move, and his increasingly hawkish stance over the last year, seemingly endeared Barkat to the Right. But the far-Right and the Porush camp have played on his past association with Kadima, plastering placards on city billboards showing Barkat dividing the Western Wall, wearing a Kadima T-shirt.
To Barkat's dismay, the National Union-National Religious Party has remained decidedly neutral, despite the private murmuring of support for Barkat by various leading Zionist rabbis, who believe that the non-Zionist Porush could not effectively represent their community's interests.
In addition, Barkat's political views have lost him some of his erstwhile allies on the Left, with some Meretz supporters, who would generally oppose a haredi candidate, openly supporting for Porush rather than Barkat.
For his part, Porush has stumbled twice in the campaign during his effort to get out the non-haredi vote.
First, he suggested that the Temple Mount should be under Arab control, with Jews only retaining control of the Western Wall, only to backtrack shortly thereafter.
Then, in what was considered his biggest misstep of the campaign, he was taped telling a haredi audience that within 10 years there will be no more secular mayors in Israel, rekindling the fears among many non-haredi voters that Porush, as mayor, would implement policies that strongly favor the haredi sector.
Porush is expected to remain in the Knesset if he loses the race, while Barkat will likely return to the business world in the event of an election upset.
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