The polls in two newspapers were the first to test the political waters for Sharon's newly formed Kadima party since the prime minister suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage on Wednesday night and was said by doctors to be unlikely to return to public life.

A poll published in the Haaretz daily found that Kadima, led by Ehud Olmert, Sharon's deputy and now the acting prime minister, would win 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, well ahead of the right-wing Likud party and the centre-left Labour party.

Sympathy vote

Labour and Likud would win 18 and 13 seats respectively, the survey said. It noted that respondents' support for Kadima might have been influenced by a sympathy vote over Sharon's illness.

The Yedioth Ahronoth daily published similar results in its poll. It found that Kadima under Olmert would win 39 seats, but would win 42 if led by Shimon Peres, the veteran Israeli statesman who recently left Labour for Kadima.

Sharon left Likud in November to form the centrist party, saying he no longer wanted to have his hands tied in pursuing his diplomatic strategy for ending conflict with the Palestinians.