Politics

Center-right Kulanu party is projected to win between eight and 10 seats in election

Once a popular minister from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, Moshe Kahlon could well find himself in the position of kingmaker after Tuesday's general election.

Kahlon's center-right Kulanu party, which he formed after leaving Likud, is projected to win between eight and 10 seats in the 120-member Knesset -- trailing a fair distance behind his former party's 21, and the 24 of the center-left Zionist Union.

There are 25 lists contesting the polls but under Israel's complex electoral system, the task of forming a new government does not automatically fall to the party that wins the largest number of votes.

The winner will be the one who can succeed in cobbling together a coalition commanding a parliamentary majority of at least 61 seats.

Gil Cohen Magen (AFP)

And with polls predicting the right-wing and religious bloc will take up to 57 mandates, compared with 54 for the center-left and Arab parties, Kahlon's decision on who to back is likely to play a crucial role.

Both Likud and the Zionist Union have already offered him the finance portfolio, he says, in return for his backing.

The 54-year-old, who has a justifiably wide smile, announced he was stepping down from politics just before the last election in 2013, which he did not contest.

But he returned to the political stage in October at the head of a new party called Kulanu, Hebrew for "All of Us".

Two months later, Netanyahu called snap elections after firing two centrist ministers: finance minister Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid; and justice minister Tzipi Livni who leads HaTnuah.

Tackling big business

Kulanu's campaign has focused almost exclusively on the housing crisis -- a key concern for voters who are struggling with soaring property prices, with Kahlon pledging to lower costs which have hit the middle classes hardest.

Not surprisingly, he has concentrated on beefing up his own credentials by highlighting the successes he chalked up while serving as communications minister between 2009 and 2012.

During his tenure, Kahlon broke a years-long monopoly within Israel's mobile phone industry, opening it up to competition and slashing the cost for the consumer.

He has sworn to follow suit with regard to housing.

AFP/ Gil Cohen Magen

After his telecoms triumph, Kahlon announced in late 2012 he was taking a "break" from his political career, refusing to join Netanyahu for the 2013 election.

An Israeli of Sephardic origin -- a term for Jews who originate from the Middle East and North Africa, and who make up the bulk of Israel's working classes -- Kahlon won huge popularity through his battle against big business.

Breaking the telecoms monopoly came after hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in 2011 to protest against the high cost of living, in a move which significantly enhanced his reputation.

But commentators warn such achievements will be difficult to match a second time, and that he will unlikely make gains on the current eight-seat prediction in the polls.

Detractors say he lacks the charisma of some of the more experienced politicians, despite his perpetually positive image.

Despite being among Likud's more hawkish members when it came to foreign policy, Kahlon has since made an apparent U-turn, saying he would be prepared to make concessions for peace with the Palestinians.

Once an opponent of Palestinian statehood, Kahlon in December suggested he would be prepared to "give up territory" in order to make peace.

But for campaigning purposes, Kahlon has swept issues of foreign policy under the carpet, preferring to focus on domestic affairs.

Which colors he will show in the coming weeks, as coalition negotiations gather steam, have yet to be revealed. 

(AFP)

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