Municipal elections: For whom the bellwether tolls

Municipal elections tend to have a greater impact on the everyday lives of Israelis than national elections for prime minister and the Knesset.

October 22, 2013 05:47
2 minute read.
A father and a daughter vote, January 22, 2013.

Father and daughter vote 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Municipal elections tend to have a greater impact on the everyday lives of Israelis than national elections for prime minister and the Knesset.

Yet turnout is expected to be less than the 66.6 percent of the January 22 general election, due in part to the lack of a national work holiday for municipal races. The fact that many mayoral races are not expected to be close will also keep people at home.

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Unlike national races, in which party affiliation is critically important, the most popular mayors run independently, and city council lists often shun the burden of a national ticket. There are municipalities in which three national parties run together and some where Likud, Labor or Bayit Yehudi have split into competing lists.

Despite all those factors, Tuesday’s vote will still be seen as a bellwether on the staying power of the leaders of all the parties in the Knesset.

Midterm elections have traditionally acted as a harbinger in democracies around the world.

In the United States, midterm races tend to bring bad news for the president’s party.

Over the past century, the party of the president has lost 30 seats on average in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate.

If Likud loses power in mayoral races, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s critics will no doubt see it as a sign of weakness, even though it will have very little to do with him. Netanyahu campaigned for several Likud mayoral candidates, but only at the last minute.

The prime minister made a point of staying out of the race in Jerusalem, in which his former director-general Moshe Lion is trying to unseat his friend Nir Barkat. If the race is as close as Friday’s Jerusalem Post poll predicted, that decision will undoubtedly be questioned.

The three party leaders who most have to succeed in Tuesday’s races are Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett, and Arye Deri of Shas.

Yacimovich purposely timed the Labor leadership race one month after the municipal election, because she expected to receive a boost from its results. She will have to find a way to spin the results as a victory no matter what they are.

Bennett is using the races to display his party’s strength nationwide, especially in poor development towns that have tended to be a stronghold of Shas. He purposely decided to go all out in the race, running more lists than any other party and emptying his party’s coffers in hopes of making an impressive statement.

But the leader under the most pressure is Deri. This election would have been a test for him even if Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had not died, because it is his first as party chairman since his political comeback.

Yosef’s death makes this race life-or-death for the party he left behind. If Shas gets fewer seats, it is a sign that without the rabbi, the party’s days are numbered. If it gets stronger, Deri will be able to boast that Shas’s future is guaranteed.

Even though the municipal elections are about local issues that have nothing to do with national politics, when they are over, grades will be given on a national level and party leaders will be held accountable.

When the votes are counted, it will be clear for whom the bellwether tolls.

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