Labor, the left-leaning party that favors a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, came in a strong second. The hard-line Likud Party, which dominated Israeli politics since 2001 and opposed Olmert's plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank, trailed much further behind, according to the exit polls broadcast on state television.
The surprise of the evening was the strong showing by smaller parties that had been considered marginal. The hard-line Israel Beitenu Party of Avigdor Lieberman, who advocates redrawing Israel's borders to exclude Israeli Arabs, was expected to win 12-14 seats, making it the third largest party in parliament.
Lieberman was the chief aide to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His party has two representatives in the current Knesset.
The Pensioners' Party, not represented in the current parliament, was expected to win six-eight seats, and Kadima officials said the party was a natural coalition partner.
According to television projections, Kadima could win 29-32 seats in the 120-member parliament, Labor 20-22 seats and Likud 11-12 seats. Going into the election, opinion polls showed Kadima winning more like 34 seats. Analysts had said it would be a clear victory for Kadima if it won more than 35 seats.
The Kadima win is expected to establish a broad majority in parliament for a unilateral pullout from the occupied West Bank, like Israel conducted last year in the Gaza Strip. But Olmert and Kadima will have to form a coalition with other parties if they are to achieve a working majority of 61 seats.
The final shape of the coalition may not be clear for weeks, but the apparent weakening of Kadima's totals, according to the exit polls, will make it harder for Olmert to create a stable coalition and he will have to give up some important ministries to other parties.
The turnout, which appeared to be about 60 percent compared with 67.8 percent in 2003, may have hurt the larger parties, because it reduced the number of votes required for smaller parties to pass the threshold of 2 percent of the vote necessary to get seats. The low turnout came even after vote turnout efforts that included Kadima sending text messages to voters' cell phones urging them to go to the polls.