Update, 3:05 p.m.: According to the AP, exit polls indicate a "narrow" victory for Netanyahu and his "hard-line allies."
Original post: After a short but sweet three-month campaign, Israeli voters are out in force for today's national elections, but most are not expecting all that much to change. The coalition of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud Party and the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party is expected to retain power when the polls close tonight, but the joint ticket may still lose one or two seats in the Knesset.
Turnout was near 50 percent of eligible voters by 4 p.m. local time, already besting the percentage from the same time in 2009, and leading poll watchers to hope for the highest numbers since 1999. The turnout figure is also much higher than predicted by pre-election pollsters, leading to chatter of a coming surprise when the final tally comes in later this evening. Those same polls predicted an easy victory for Netanyahu, but even his party is expressing concerns about turnout for their bloc, urging Likud voters to get out and vote.
There seems to be a lot of anxiety over Netanyahu's leadership, given the prospects of war with Iran, a just-finished mini-war in Gaza, a shaky economy, and the growing influence of the settler movement. Even some Likud voters are becoming disaffected, but the difficulty seems to be in finding a reasonable electoral alternative. One of the more prominent opposition parties, Labor, has been unable to build its own coalition challenger, and is likely to win only a small minority of seats in the legislature.
Not that Netanyahu's critics haven't tried to come up with an alternative — they've tried very hard in this at times ferocious campaign. One of the most scathing anti-"Bibi" editorials is titled "Vote as if your life depended on it. It does."
With over 30 parties representaed on the ballott, Israel politics can get a a little confusing. Thankfully, Haaretz has published this handy chart to help you figure out who's who: