Israel's media declared an end to the tumultuous Ariel Sharon era yesterday as the prime minister lay fighting for his life after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage.
Commentators were united in the belief that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would find it next to impossible to return to office even if he were to survive his hospital ordeal and that all previous calculations about the outcome of a general election on March 28 would have to be revised.
"Even if he does recover, he will have a very hard time convincing the public of his ability to serve four more years, after undergoing two strokes in two and a half weeks," wrote Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn.
"One can cautiously say that it appears that the era in which Sharon stood at Israel's helm came to a tragic end on Wednesday," he wrote.
Nahum Barnea, the chief columnist of the best-selling Yediot Aharonot daily, agreed that Sharon would struggle to convince voters that he was physically of withstanding the rigors of high office.
"Even if the prime minister emerges, miraculously, unscathed, his political situation will have changed," he said in a front-page opinion piece.
"The first CVA [stroke] that he suffered some two weeks ago raised doubts. The stroke he suffered last night was far more severe and was the second in a series: it cast a heavy shadow on his ability to return to functioning in the near future and to withstand the pressures that an Israeli prime minister has to deal with for another term in office."
Sharon's Kadima party, formed by the prime minister just six weeks ago, had been cantering to victory in the election but, even before he suffered his first stroke on Dec. 18, it was widely seen as a one-man band.
No politician has ever dominated the political scene to the extent that Sharon has in recent years, whether planning the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, pulling settlers out of the Gaza Strip or splitting from the Likud party.
Finance Minister Ehud Olmert has taken the reins of power from Sharon but, while admired, he lacks the charisma and authority that Sharon exudes.
"The Kadima party, which was registered formally yesterday, was born as a one-man party. Sharon was the leader and the message. The shadow that was cast last night on Sharon's candidacy diametrically changes Kadima's situation at the ballot boxes," said Barnea.
The right-wing Jerusalem Post concurred that Kadima's electoral prospects had suddenly taken a major change for the worse.
"The question that remains is not what will happen with Sharon -- we all wish him good health -- but he is out of the picture at least for the coming elections that will have to be held on time," it said in an editorial.
"The question is whether Kadima has a future without Sharon. A significant number of politicians and public figures have joined the party, following Sharon. With him gone, internecine squabbling over the leadership could well break out."