soldier votes 298.88.
(photo credit: IDF)
Judging from the odd lack of interest and energy in this election, turnout is expected to be low in Israeli terms. "Low" turnout is not the crisis for democracy that it is sometimes made out to be, but the case for voting, even when the decision is difficult, is a strong one. In the most general terms, staying away is an abdication of every citizen's democratic right and privilege to help decide his or her country's fate.
Israeli voter turnout is historically among the highest in the democratic world. One international comparison, of lower house elections between 1960 and 1995, found that voter turnout averaged 80 percent here, compared to 95% in Australia (where voting is compulsory) and 54% in the US (in House elections coinciding with presidential ones).
Oppressive regimes are characterized by absurdly high turnouts for meaningless elections. Among democracies, by contrast, there seems to be little correlation between the health, stability, and maturity of the system and the proportion of the public that bothers to vote.
Low turnout can be a sign of complacency, apathy, satisfaction, or despair - and sometimes all of the above. Non-voters may have concluded - untenably in Israel's case - that all politicians are essentially the same. Again untenably in our case, they may not expect that different election outcomes will have an impact on their lives.
The expected low turnout may also be a function of our system: This newspaper has argued and will continue to argue strongly for electing at least some of the Knesset by district, thereby increasing the accountability of MKs - and the relevance of elections - to the voter.
That aside, high voter turnouts are associated with close elections, or when there seems to be a sharp contrast between the alternatives. The voters this time seem to perceive that neither condition applies.
This perception is somewhat of a mystery to us. True, polls that have consistently portrayed Kadima as the victor have produced a sense of inevitability that the next government will reflect that party's line. Yet it is today's vote, not the surveys, that matter, and this election presents an unusually sharp choice to the voter on a matter of existential significance.
Despite his unfortunate refusal to engage in a direct television debate with the other candidates, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has done the electorate the service of being much more explicit than Ariel Sharon was before he took ill.
Sharon said he had "no plans" for further withdrawals - and almost no one believed him. Olmert has clearly pledged an attempt to "converge" behind a unilaterally-defined border over the next four years.
This election, as both Kadima and its principal (in terms of policy differences) opponent, the Likud, have defined it, is a referendum over disengagement in general and Olmert's plan in particular. It is our first chance, as a nation, to vote on a historic paradigm shift that in Gaza is a fait accompli, but could either be completed or not in Judea and Samaria.
Unilateralism, as much as it seems to reflect a widely held public position, is a radical and risky approach. It is a rejection of both of the ideologies that dominated our politics for so many years: the Left's pursuit of a negotiated peace and the Right's insistence on peace through strength.
Unilateralist approaches - on the Left to withdraw and on the Right to de facto or de jure annex - have always been around but neither captured the imagination of the mainstream. Sharon combined these previously fringe approaches into one by proposing to withdraw and essentially annex at the same time and succeeded in striking a politically resonant chord.
The decision to proceed unilaterally is hardly an abstract one. All concerned should remember that it would entail the evacuation of tens of thousands of Israeli citizens from their homes in settlements outside the new borders the government would attempt to define.
Though the decision to dismantle the settlements in the Gaza Strip was ratified by the cabinet and the Knesset, and was therefore clearly legal, many understandably feel that because it was never tested in a full popular vote, the decision did not accord with the full spirit of democracy. This election is a chance for the public to retroactively and, even more importantly, proactively, weigh in on this central question for the nation's future.
It behooves every citizen to cast a vote on this momentous proposition; every citizen, after all, will have to live with the consequences.
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