Voter turnout in the elections for the 17th Knesset dropped to an estimated 63.2 percent, a decrease of 5.7 percentage points compared to the previous general election in 2003. The drop on Tuesday was a continuation of the downward trend that has marked participation in elections ever since the State of Israel was created.
But while some experts see the decline as cause for concern, others are not particularly perturbed.
According to figures published by the Central Elections Committee, voter participation in the elections for the first seven Knessets between 1949 and 1969 topped the 80% mark in all but one election.
Starting in 1973, and for the next three decades - including the election for the 15th Knesset in 1999, the figures were consistently just below 80%.
A dramatic change took place in the 2001 special election for prime minister between Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak when only 62.3% of eligible voters cast their ballots. The figure went up to 68.9% in 2003, when the old parliamentary system was restored and the direct election of the prime minister abolished.
Throughout Tuesday the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballots consistently lagged 5% behind voter participation in the 2003 elections. At 4 p.m. voter participation was 39% compared with 44.2% in 2003. At 6 p.m. the figures were 47% compared with 52.8% and at 8 p.m. the figures were 57% compared with 62.8%.
"Not good," said Haifa University political scientist professor Asher Arian in response to the figures. "The percentage of voters went down in 2003 and now it has gone down even more." Arian added that the trend in Israel was similar to developments in the rest of the world and appeared to reflect a disenchantment with the ability of the state to solve problems. "It is a general unease, not one that is directed at the democratic system per se."
According to Arian, research indicates that the members of society who are most likely not to vote are those who are least networked. In Israel, these groups include the young, recent immigrants, Arabs and some far-right religious nationalists protesting last summer's disengagement.
Despite the decline in figures, Israel does not compare too badly with other Western countries. "The numbers are still reasonable," he said. "They put Israel somewhere in the middle."
Still, he found little comfort in that. "The situation does not reflect a terminal illness but it indicates an ailment that must be paid attention," said Arian.
But Bar-Ilan University professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig told The Jerusalem Post he was not as worried. Unlike other countries where citizens who are abroad on Election Day can still vote, almost no Israelis have the same privilege. Considering the number of Israelis who still appear in the Population Registry even though they are no longer living here, the thousands of post-army Israelis who are traveling abroad, and ordinary tourists and businessmen, the number of genuinely eligible voters is between 10% to 15% less than the official figures, said Lehman-Wilzig.
In addition, he said, there may be positive reasons for the growing indifference to Election Day not only in Israel, but throughout the democratic world.
"Many people are more comfortable today and do not regard everything as a matter of life or death. These people feel less of an urgency to vote."
In Israel, furthermore, this election has been "an anomaly and a watershed because people no longer identify with the political parties as they used to. It is not only that the people are less loyal to the parties. The fact is the parties have been less loyal to the people."
Lehman-Wilzig pointed to the split in the Likud and the election of a representative of the poorer classes to head the one-time upper middle-class Labor Party as examples of these changes.
"Many people find they can't vote for the party they were used to but at the same time can't bring themselves to vote for anyone else."
Other reasons he mentioned include some voters being fed up with corruption among elected officials and others feeling they have been beaten down by the system and no longer believe in politicians.
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