Peres unseated in Israeli Labour Party race

Fiery union leader Amir Peretz won a stunning victory over Shimon Peres in the leadership contest for Israel’s Labour Party, officials said on Thursday, dealing the party’s elder statesman the latest in a long line of defeats and promising to shake up the country’s political system.

Peretz has promised to pull Labour out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s governing coalition, raising the likelihood of early elections. The defeat also could spell the end of Peres’s distinguished, six-decade political career. Peres had been heavily favoured to win.

With more than 95% of the votes counted, Peretz led with 25 374 votes, or 41,5%, to 24 995 votes, or 40,7%, for Peres.
A third candidate, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, trailed with 17% and conceded the race.

Party officials declared Peretz the winner on the radio early on Thursday, and the labour activists scheduled a formal victory announcement later in the day.

The outcome will have deep implications for Sharon’s shaky coalition.

Peres, a former prime minister who is now vice-premier, wanted to keep Labour in the government until elections scheduled in November 2006.

Peretz wants to steer the party back to its socialist roots, pull out of the coalition and force early elections. His message resonated with Israelis disenfranchised by government cuts in social spending and the country’s growing gap between rich and poor.

Sharon’s Likud Party is deeply divided following his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Without Labour’s support, he will struggle to keep his coalition intact until the next election, raising the likelihood of early elections.

Opinion polls had forecast a resounding victory for Peres in Wednesday’s primary. But after two exit polls gave conflicting results, party activists hunkered down for a long night.

Reports of ‘wrongdoing’

Peres called a surprise news conference at 3.15am local time to say he suspected fraud had occurred in the vote. Peres did not directly accuse Peretz of foul play, but said reports of wrongdoing had to be checked.

“At this stage, we ask to check the complaints,” he said. “We are turning to the legal institutions of the party to look into this.”

But party officials rejected the fraud claim, clearing the way for a Peretz victory.

The defeat was a major embarrassment for Peres, who enjoyed double-digit leads in opinion polls, and cemented his image as a perennial loser.

While Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is widely revered abroad, he has had trouble connecting with Israeli voters and failed in five previous elections for prime minister.

Peres (82) has repeatedly emerged from the political wilderness.

But political analyst Hanan Crystal said the defeat might mark the end of his career.

“This could be his wake. What can he do after this?” Crystal said. He said Peres’s other options include becoming Peretz’s deputy or splitting off from the party.

Peres led Labour into the government this year to shore up support for Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal. The pull-out divided Sharon’s Likud Party, and without Labour’s support, the plan could not have been carried out.

Peres believed that remaining in the coalition would allow him to push forward with peace efforts. Since the Gaza pull-out, he has led negotiations with the Palestinians to resolve key disputes, such as control over Gaza’s borders, and to help rebuild Gaza’s shattered economy.

Peretz’s plans

Peretz said that with the Gaza withdrawal complete, the party should pull out of the government and focus on the economy. Labour has adopted more free-market economic policies in recent years, drawing criticism from its traditional supporters in the unions, working class and farming sectors.

“I think that there are a lot of people waiting for the moment that someone will fight for their right to make a living with respect, to grow old with respect,” Peretz told Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday.

Peretz said that if he wins, he will either negotiate an early election with Sharon or seek a parliamentary majority to topple the government.

Peretz could also face difficulties within the Labour Party.

Pulling out of the coalition will mean that eight senior members will have to step down from coveted positions of government ministers.

Crystal said these party leaders are content with being the junior coalition partner and in no hurry to head to elections.

Sharon remains the country’s most popular politician and Labour leaders believe they are in no position to unseat him, Crystal said.—Sapa-AP

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