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The outcome of the 2006 elections and the composition of the next government may yet be determined by those who stay at home. While all the parties are busy chasing the elusive floating vote, they are neglecting the significant number of citizens who have no intention of going to the polls at all.
All recent surveys show that 20 percent to 25% of the electorate is reluctant to divulge their political preferences. Less than two weeks before the elections, between 24 and 30 seats are up for grabs. Or are they?
The truly undecided - uncertain whether to vote for Likud or the National Union/National Religious Party, Labor or Meretz, Kadima or the party they supported in the past - will make up their minds either in the next few days or at the last moment.
But this group is quite different from the no-shows. If participation rates in the coming election fall below 70%, as most pundits now predict, then the solid bloc of absentees will emerge as the most politically influential group in the country.
Israel has traditionally boasted an unusually high voter turnout, averaging over 80% in the first two decades of the state, and over 78% between 1973 and 1999. Given the fact that at any given time more than 10% of the population is abroad, Israel has justly prided itself on having one of the most highly involved electorates in the democratic world.
This trend is changing. The low turnout rate in the prime ministerial elections of 2001 - easily explained by the boycott of Israeli Arabs - was viewed as an exception. But in the 2003 general elections the participation rate dropped to 68.9%. Many fear that this time it will dip even lower.
What accounts for this wholesale voter disengagement? Non-voters fall into two distinct categories: the alienated and the apathetic. The former are consciously disaffected; the latter are simply indifferent. Members of these separate groups differ not only in composition; they are propelled by very divergent motives. The only thing they appear to share - besides their self-induced exclusion - is that the results of their electoral celibacy are precisely the reverse of their declared intentions.
Many discontented Israelis will not enter a polling booth on March 28 as an act of defiance. Fed up with the corruption of leading politicians, disappointed with their performance, and distrustful of their promises, these citizens firmly believe that their abstinence is, in fact, a strong ideological statement.
For them, not voting is the only way to express their sheer and utter distaste for what is taking place in the public arena. In extreme cases, it is an act of disgust bordering on complete despair. Alienated voters use their inaction as an instrument of principled protest. Ironically, in their eagerness to punish politicians, they may very well expedite the political return of those they despise the most. What started as a scathing indictment may end up as a painful form of political masochism.
AN EVEN greater number of potential voters (according to research conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute) are totally uninterested in the elections. Skeptical about their political efficacy, doubtful about their ability to make a difference, and unconcerned with changing their surroundings, they do not see themselves as an integral part of Israeli society. Absenting themselves from the polling stations is a sign of profound political withdrawal.
These passive abstainers are not trying to convey anything in particular. They are neither cynical nor fed up. They really just don't care. On March 29 they will wake up to find that their sense of ineffectiveness proved to be powerful beyond belief.
The electoral disengagement syndrome, already familiar on the local level, is increasingly evident in all sectors of Israeli society. To be sure, Arab citizens may purposely stay at home in large numbers, as they have in recent elections. So, too, will many Russian speakers (65% to 70% voted in 2003; it is estimated that less than 60% will turn out this time). But most of the non-voters are average, middle-of-the-road, fairly secular, and relatively young. Their absenteeism fortifies those they diverge from the most - the haredi parties whose supporters turn out in full force on election day.
It may be too late to stem this worrisome tide. There is no time to introduce major changes and it is probably inadvisable to do so now. Compulsory voting, as practiced in Australia and Belgium, is not the answer, since the ballot is a right and not a duty. Introducing a first-past-the-post system is not a palliative - majoritarian systems have far lower participation rates than proportional ones. Calling on citizens to vote or shaming them into so doing has never proven to be an effective antidote.
A closer contest in the remaining days can possibly spark more interest. But perhaps the most compelling argument for exercising the vote is that responsibility for the results is shared among those who participate and those who do not. Staying away makes the objects of alienation more powerful and the sources of apathy more pronounced. Only by taking part in elections can these outcomes be averted.
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