JERUSALEM — Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, narrowly won a primary election on Wednesday to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as leader of Israel's Kadima Party, edging past her main rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, according to official results.
When polls closed at 10:30 p.m. local time, television news exit surveys indicated that Livni had swept to victory with a 10-point lead. But as counting of the nearly 40,000 votes progressed, the gap narrowed sharply. On Thursday, Livni was declared the winner, with a lead of just over one percentage point, according to official results.
Mofaz's supporters quickly called for the disqualification of certain ballot boxes and said that they were going to call for a recount.
Neither candidate issued a statement and it seemed possible that a legal battle might ensue.
The difference between Livni, a diplomatic 50-year-old lawyer who has led peace talks with the Palestinians, and Mofaz, a hawkish 59-year-old former general who has derided those talks, appears substantial. The winner of the primary will be given the chance to form a new government.
If Livni is ultimately declared the winner and succeeds in putting together a majority coalition of the 120-member Parliament, she will be the first woman to lead this country since Golda Meir in 1974. If she or Mofaz fails to do so, the country will go to general elections three months later. Polls show the right-ring Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu a very strong contender in such a race.
Olmert, the object of several investigations alleging that he took money illegally while mayor of Jerusalem and industry minister, called Livni to congratulate her and promise full cooperation before the race narrowed tightly. He has agreed to step down once his replacement is chosen so that the police investigation does not further interfere with matters of state, but he is likely to remain in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.
Coalition options for both candidates are complex, and the smaller the victory the less clear the mandate would be to form a government without elections.
The current government, headed by the centrist Kadima Party, includes the left-wing Labor Party, the Pensioners Party, and Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party. There have been sharp tensions between Livni and the Labor leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but if she wins he seems likely to join her in a coalition to seek to avoid elections that could bring Likud to power.
On the other hand, Labor has less in common with Mofaz, who might turn to Likud.