SYDNEY (Reuters) – Voting began in a Australian by-election on Saturday that could determine how long Scott Morrison’s two-month-old premiership lasts, with the outcome keenly watched in the Islamic world after Morrison’s brazen bid to woo Jewish voters.
Morrison, Australia’s sixth prime minister in eight years, needs the ruling Liberal Party to hold onto Wentworth, an affluent Sydney harborside constituency, to keep his center-right coalition government’s one-seat majority in parliament.
The seat was vacated by Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted in August by in-fighting among Liberal lawmakers.
To boost his party’s appeal in a constituency where 13 percent of voters are Jewish, Morrison proposed that Australia could follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision last December by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there.
Arab diplomats expressed their worries to Canberra this week, and neighboring Indonesia, the country with the biggest Muslim population, warned that Australia was risking its trade and business relationship with the entire Islamic world.
Dave Sharma, the Liberal candidate in Wentworth, is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who is credited with first making the proposal to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector that it annexed after the 1967 Middle East war, as its capital.
The Jerusalem proposal was the most controversial element of an already heated campaign. Turnbull’s own son called on voters to shun the Liberal Party, while Sharma was scolded for using an unauthorized endorsement from a prominent rabbi.
Sharma’s strongest rival is Kerryn Phelps, an independent candidate, who has said during campaigning that defense, trade and security implications need to be considered for any decision to be taken on Jerusalem.
Should the government fail to win Wentworth, it will need support from independent lawmakers to survive any no confidence motions.
Two independents have already ruled out supporting the government, and others have warned Morrison that he will have to pay a hefty price for their backing.
While the gambit on Jerusalem has been welcomed by some members of Wentworth’s Jewish community, the proposal has hardened the views of others.
“I’m not thinking of voting Liberal anyway, but doing things like this makes me more inclined to vote Greens,” said Jo Sharp, a 47-year-old resident, referring to the left-wing party.
Less than 0.5 percent of Australia’s population is Jewish, while Muslims account for over 2 percent.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore