The result of next week’s elections will be determined by the level of voter participation. There has been a significant decrease in voter turnout during the past decade, sinking to a low of 69 percent three years ago. This in a country where everyone used to be interested in politics, where every taxi driver could deliver a lecture on what and who should be running the country, and where Friday night dinners were the scene of long and heated political discussions and arguments.
Until 15 years ago, Israel had some of the highest participation rates in the world, close to 90%. The only other democratic countries that surpassed that figure were those where voting was required by law, under penalty of fine. Compared with the United States or the United Kingdom, where participation barely reaches 50% and sometimes falls below this figure, 69% turnout is still relatively high. But compared to the situation in Israel until 20 years ago, we are witnessing a continuous decline in the number of people exercising their democratic right to vote.
Despite all the noise, the media adverts and the mass rallies taking place at this very moment, there are no indications that this figure will increase next week, although surveys do indicate that they will not decrease any further.
Ask people in the street whether they listen to the political debates on radio and TV, the election adverts or even the Netanyahu speeches at AIPAC and in the Congress, and most will tell you that they have better things to do.
How do we account for these falling participation rates in a country where the Israel-Palestine conflict and the growing regional threat have heightened, rather than decreased, in intensity? Either you believe that the creation of a Palestinian state and a withdrawal from the occupied territories will be suicidal and bring about an end of the Jewish state (a la Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman), or you believe that the continuation of occupation will eventually bring about demographic parity between Jews and Arabs resulting in either an apartheid or single binational state, the end of the Jewish democratic state (a la Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Zehava Gal-On).
The existential nature of these two diametrically opposed positions, both of which seek to ensure the long-term survival of the State of Israel have, in the past, resulted in high electoral turnout on election day.
Not only has this basic dilemma not changed, it has become even more entrenched in recent years. So how do we account for this significant fall in participation, and why are there no indications that this will change in any big way in next week’s elections? Talking with many of my students and neighbors, people with a high degree of political awareness, I hear the following messages about what concerns them in contemporary Israel.
First of all, there is a growing and general apathy toward politics and politicians.
The increase in the number of senior politicians who have been indicted for various offenses, including a former president (Moshe Katzav) in prison for rape, a former prime minister (Ehud Omert) on his way to prison for financial fraud and a former chief rabbi (Yona Metzger) who will soon be on trial for financial improprieties, has only served to lower the already negative image of politicians in the eyes of the public. Political leaders currently standing for reelection to the most senior of positions, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Liberman (along with other Knesset members from Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party) are also under police investigation.
Simply put, the people do not trust their elected leaders, and do not see them as representing their values and norms – and certainly not as having the right to tell them how to behave and lead their lives.
Many potential voters do not believe that, regardless of who is elected, there will be any solution to the political or the economic problems facing the country at present. They do not see charismatic leadership, nor do they really believe that things will change significantly, whoever becomes the country’s next prime minister. They are tired of Netanyahu, but do not necessarily see an alternative charismatic leader who could command the respect of the people and put clear and fresh ideas on the table.
Many of those who voted for the “third way” of Yesh Atid just three years ago no longer see a failed finance minister, Yair Lapid, as a potential alternative.
Three years ago they voted for the new party which, they believed, offered some hope of social and economic change, but Lapid has proved to be a major disappointment. This time round, there is no new magical third party, and given the fact that the Zionist Union is as much centrist as it is left-wing, there is no vacant space on the political continuum for such a party to develop.
Comparative data from many other countries shows that having a public holiday on election day does not guarantee higher participation rates.
Most countries no longer have a public holiday because of the impact on the economy, although they do guarantee the rights of every worker to take time out during the day to go and vote. Many respondents, especially those who have limited vacation time from their jobs during the year, take the day out to holiday with their families, rather than spend the time in a long line waiting for their turn to vote.
Most surveys show that the lower the participation rate, the greater the impact on the left-wing parties. In many countries this is because the blue-collar workers prefer to spend the time with their families, but this does not necessarily explain the Israeli situation where, ever since the days of Menachem Begin, the poorer groups in society have voted for the Likud or, more recently, for sectoral parties, notably Shas.
In Israel, the decline in voter participation has impacted parties on the Left for different reasons. Much of the middle class has become disaffected with the Labor Party and, more recently, has also turned away from Meretz, which is increasingly seen as being out of touch with the issues facing a country in which public opinion has moved from the Left to the center, and from the center to the Right, during the past decade.
Within the Arab sector there has also been a significant decrease in voter participation among a younger, educated generation of voters who have become disillusioned with a country where they see themselves as second- class citizens, and with a leadership which continues to control the destiny of the Palestinians without offering any real solutions aimed at ending the occupation.
Based on recent polls and the atmosphere at Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, there is a feel in the air that real change could take place next week. Growing dissatisfaction with Netanyahu even among his own ranks, and the attempt to reclaim the Zionist mantle by Herzog and his reincarnated Labor Party following a decade in which the term “Zionism” has been hijacked by parties of the Right, has made the results of this election more open and uncertain than any recent campaign.
But for change to happen, people must get out and vote. The more people that vote, the more chance there is for some real change to begin to take place. This is not a time for vacationing, nor is it a time for intellectual questioning. No post-election excuse or complaint can be justified by anyone who did not go out to vote – even if they are not convinced that the current parties or their leaders offer solutions to the complex problems facing the state.
This is the name of the game and anyone who wants to see change take place must exercise their democratic right to vote.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.