Political listlessness ahead of the election

In the past voters identified closely with the political party that represented them, and those parties were present in local government, in unions, in their communities and other areas of society.

AN ELECTION campaign poster – is anyone paying attention?  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
AN ELECTION campaign poster – is anyone paying attention?
If you google the words “unnecessary elections” in Hebrew, you’ll find tens of thousands of results.
If you take a stroll through your local neighborhood, you may not even notice the number of political campaign posters that are not festooned from the balconies and windows of houses and apartment buildings.
And if you stop at a major intersection, you will likely not be harassed by eager young activists waving fliers of one political party or another.
All this is somewhat odd, given that a general election is just a matter of days away. And it is not as if Israel’s major challenges have melted away over the last few months.
The country still faces hostile, terrorist-guerrilla militias on its northern and southern borders, while Iran is ramping up uranium enrichment for its nuclear program once again.
The budget deficit is on the rise, GDP growth has slowed down, and the cost of living is still one of the highest in the OECD.
Given all these issues, not to mention strong societal divisions between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, the apparent lack of interest in the coming election is somewhat surprising.
Yes, Israelis did just go to the polls less than six months ago, but none of the challenges facing the country have been resolved during that time.
GIDEON RAHAT, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), starts out by saying that voter fatigue is, however, a significant cause behind current voter apathy.
He points out that Israelis went to the polls in October last year for nationwide local elections, 13 of which went to a second round, including in major cities such as Jerusalem and Rishon Lezion.
Then there was the general election of April this year, and citizens are now being asked to vote for a third time in less than 12 months in the new general election scheduled for September 17.
Given that it was political infighting and maneuvering that stymied the formation of a coalition after the April poll, Israelis might well be forgiven for feeling somewhat disenchanted with the current state of politics at present.
Indeed, data published this week by the IDI showed that some 39% of Israelis were less interested in the upcoming election than they were in the April one, 36% were following to the same extent, while only 17% were more interested in the September vote.
Rahat says, though, that there is more than election fatigue at work. He sees the principal cause in the declining health of stable political parties and the political mobilization that they can affect.
“Today we don’t really have political parties, we have personality politics, not party politics,” says Rahat. “Some of these parties are not really parties, just a gathering of people who decided to run just before the election.”
The professor points to parties such as Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience, which merged with Yesh Atid to become Blue and White, along with Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party, which merged with Meretz to become Democratic Union, as prime examples of pop-up parties driven by personality politics.
These parties have no real grassroots support, no large pool of members, and are often transient, meaning that they never develop a loyal base of supporters and voters.
Rahat notes that one of the stars of the Democratic Union, MK Stav Shaffir, ran for the leadership of the Labor Party and less than a month later jumped ship to Barak’s party for its merger with Democratic Union.
The Likud remains a strong party with a huge membership of around 150,000 people, but has nevertheless been largely taken over by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his brand of personality politics, says the professor.
In the past voters identified closely with the political party that represented them, and those parties were present in local government, in unions, in their communities and other areas of society.
With this strong, on-the-ground presence, parties were able to mobilize their electorate much easier than the Astroturf parties of today, leading to greater political participation and election turnout.
Today, the fluidity of political allegiance, the instant parties, and the personality-driven nature of politics have had an effect on the electorate, who are now less loyal and devoted than people previously were to their political team.
Mitchell Barak, a pollster and political analyst, is of similar mind to Rahat. He, too, sees today’s political parties as ephemeral, and their personality-driven model as having damaged public interest in politics, pointing to similar examples of this trend, such as Shaffir and Gantz.
“There has been a seismic change in loyalty. People see politics more as politicians maneuvering in order to get jobs. There’s no ideology anymore, and this has done long-term damage to people’s interest in politics,” says Barak. “The Israeli public sees all this as a lack of integrity.”
In one realm, political participation of a kind is booming, however, and that is social media. Videos, tweets, Facebook posts, comments and mutual recriminations all abound on social media, while the personalities leading the parties all have wide followings on these platforms.
Rahat notes that even though canvassing on the ground is much rarer nowadays, Netanyahu can reach 1.6 million people at the press of a button, while other party leaders such Ayelet Shaked, Ehud Barak, and Gantz can reach tens of thousands of people in the same way.
Mitchell Barak acknowledges the new prominence of this medium in formulating political participation, but questions its value, asking whether people shouting within their own social media bubble really has much effect on the ground.
DESPITE THE great apathy that is apparently the theme of these elections, it is possible that the warnings from both Left and Right about this very apathy will stir the masses from their political slumber come September 17. 
Both sides and their leaders have engaged in panic (so-called “gevalt”) campaigns in the final stages of the election season; and given today’s political tribalism, it may be enough to rouse the electorate from the political listlessness we have witnessed over the summer.