Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to secure a solid parliamentary majority in Israel's election, according to TV exit polls early today which predicted no clear winner.
The right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu's Likud party had a slight edge but was in a tight race with a grouping of centre, left and right-wing parties looking to unseat him.
Who are the main players?
Netanyahu is the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation. He campaigned on Israel's world-beating COVID-19 vaccine rollout but also ran under a cloud of corruption allegations. A polarising figure, he has denied all wrongdoing in his corruption trial which is set to resume in April.
In the last three elections, he faced rivals from the left. But this time he was also up against right-wing contenders. And while his stewardship of the vaccination campaign drew praise, critics accuse him of mismanaging the pandemic during lockdowns that hit Israel's economy hard.
The party led by 57-year-old Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and TV host, is predicted to come second. The centre-left Yesh Atid – "There is a Future" – party campaigned to "bring sanity" back to Israel with a clean government and moderate leadership. Lapid hopes to achieve what seems almost impossible and unite half a dozen disparate parties from across the political spectrum. All want to see Netanyahu removed but are not obvious bedfellows.
Naftali Bennett, 48, a former Netanyahu aide, defence minister and high-tech millionaire who heads the ultra-hawkish Yamina party, is vying to be the next leader of the Israeli right.
Though his party is predicted to take only seven seats, Bennett has positioned himself as a potential king-maker, refusing to commit to Netanyahu or against him. Some analysts believe he is more likely to back his fellow conservative, Netanyahu.
Fifty-four-year-old Gideon Saar, a former cabinet minister who quit Likud to set up the New Hope party, vowing to end Netanyahu's reign.
Like Likud, his party opposes Palestinian statehood. Saar's campaign centred on clean government and jump-starting the economy. New Hope is predicted to win only about six seats but he is seen as a highly-skilled politician in the anti-Netanyahu camp who could perhaps help bring together factions from across the left-right spectrum.
The final tally is expected by Friday, but the numbers are updated as vote-counting proceeds, so a clearer picture will emerge as exit polls give way to results.
It takes a long time to count because Israel uses paper ballots and 4.5 million Israelis voted.
A party must pass a threshold of 3.25 per cent of the votes to enter parliament. Around 12 parties have a real chance of qualifying.
What happens after the results are published?
Israel's president will consult with party leaders about their preference for prime minister. By 7 April he is expected to choose the legislator with the best chance of putting together a coalition.
That nominee has up to 42 days to form a government. If he or she fails, the president asks another politician to try.
No party has ever won an outright majority and coalition negotiations often drag on for weeks.
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