Coffee morning

The voter turnout in Tel Aviv was low because the outcome was inevitable. But in Jerusalem, when the outcome of the race was unknown until election day, what was the excuse?

Canvassing on the street 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Canvassing on the street 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Excuse me, do you happen to know where the voting station is?” “I have no idea. Wait a minute – are the municipal elections today?” This is not the opening dialogue of a comedy show nor an attempt to create a scenario for a new TV series called “Indifference.” This was a real life conversation that took place at 12:05 p.m. on October 22 on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv – the same street that two years ago was overflowing with tents and later became the symbol of the largest social protest in Israeli history.
Just two years later, the hackneyed stereotype of the indifferent Tel Avivian appeared before me in the flesh. People were just not particularly interested in municipal elections. Anyone who was interested in a real struggle and serious debate about the direction the city of Tel Aviv will take in the future was surely disappointed. Whoever was looking for activists out in the streets holding up signs, blaring campaign slogans into megaphones and distributing flyers was seriously disappointed.
The atmosphere on the streets was like any ordinary day and not one of anticipation to see who would be elected to control the city’s agenda for the next five years.
“No, I don’t have an opinion – and I’m not going to vote, anyway,” was the most common response I received when talking with people who were out and about that day. And the final numbers backed up my personal experience: Voter turnout dropped from 35 percent in 2008 to 31.5% this year.
Rabin Square, where the municipality is located, was like a ghost town that afternoon. Apart from some people who were hanging out on the grass enjoying the sunny weather, no special activity seemed to be taking place.
I wandered around the main streets of the city but didn’t find anything going on there, either.
Dizengoff, Frishman, Ben-Yehuda and Ibn Gvirol streets showed no signs that the metropolis was in the midst of an election day. One longtime Tel Aviv resident confided in me, “To tell you the truth, people just don’t care.”
Another person said angrily, “Either this guy or someone else will win, and nothing will change, so why would it help if I go vote?” It was as if he had prepared in advance his explanation for why he wasn’t exercising his democratic right.
Iris, who’s been living in Tel Aviv for 33 years, preferred to sit at the café at the corner of King George and Zamenhof streets instead of going to vote. “There aren’t any quality candidates. Not even one of them is interested in making any real changes,” she said as she sipped her hot chocolate.
“It won’t make any difference if I go vote.”
“THERE’S NO doubt that the decision not to make municipal election day an official holiday is a show of disrespect by the central government toward local government and their residents,” said Ophir Paz-Pines, director of the Research Institute for Local Government at Tel Aviv University and former interior minister. “There’s no reason in the world that it should be this way. It’s like telling the public that they’re not important enough.
They’re not saying this in so many words, but the subtext to the public is: Don’t bother voting. I don’t think that voter turnout would reach 100% if municipal election day were turned into an official holiday, but the numbers would certainly increase. It’s absolutely disrespectful and must be changed.”
The indifference of Israeli citizens when it comes to voting is a phenomenon that decision-makers in Israel should be very concerned about. When I spoke with people on the street, they gave me a variety of reasons for not going to vote. These ranged from corruption among mayors across the country to the fact that local authorities don’t really have the authority to make significant changes.
“Maybe the current form of democracy has run its course,” commented a new resident to the “city that never sleeps,” who had moved from Ramat Gan the week before. “It doesn’t feel like voting is the best way to make a change anymore.”
“The 2013 election campaign just never got off the ground,” said Pe’er Visner, chairman of the Green Party, who ran in the past against Ron Huldai for mayor and served as deputy mayor. On election day, Visner stood outside a Tel Aviv polling station and called on voters to support the Green Party.
“Even when we tried to liven things up and turn the day into a sort of carnival, they wouldn’t let us,” he said.
“The municipality’s aim was to keep things as calm as possible – and they succeeded. There was no room left for any real debate. For some reason, Nitzan Horowitz, who could have provided a serious alternative, ran a lethargic campaign and, as a result, wasn’t much competition for Huldai.”
Meirav Ben-Ari, who was fourth on the Rov Ha’ir party list, believes there is another reason for the indifference on the street.
“People were really energized by the national elections,” Ben-Ari said. “They got incredibly involved – they went out to the streets to promote their ideas. But after a few months, disappointment set in when people realized that nothing had really changed. And now they’re being asked to go vote again, but it’s hard to get them excited again.”
A FEW kilometers north of Tel Aviv – but within the 03 telephone area code – Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s headquarters, together with the Hitorerut B’yerushalayim Party, organized a bus to take Jerusalemites who live in Tel Aviv but are still listed as living in Jerusalem to the capital so they could vote. Additional buses from BenGurion University in Beersheba and the Technion in Haifa also descended upon the capital. Granted, the dozens of voters that Barkat brought from outside of Jerusalem did not tip the scales, but they did reflect the intense battle that took place in the capital and the lengths to which some Jerusalemites went to make their voice heard.
The expression “Every vote counts” aptly describes what happened in Jerusalem last week. The atmosphere was completely different than in Tel Aviv. Posters and signs covered every available space, and activists from the various parties took to the streets, handed out flyers at mall entrances and called out to citizens to exercise their right to vote. And on voting day itself, a substantial number of volunteers from the various parties marched through the streets with megaphones and drums in an effort to wake the residents up and cajole them to go out to vote.
But interestingly enough, despite the fact that everyone knew that the race between Nir Barkat and Moshe Lion, who have completely different worldviews, was going to be neck and neck, voter turnout in Jerusalem was still low. When voting stations closed, only 35.9% of the population had voted, compared to 43% in 2008.
In Tel Aviv, it was clear from the outset that Huldai, the incumbent, would be reelected, but the situation in Jerusalem was completely different; and yet voter turnout was still disappointing. The festive atmosphere did not succeed in bringing out more voters.
“Local authorities have tremendous power and a great responsibility. In many spheres, the local municipality has much more effect on citizens’ daily lives than the national government,” Paz-Pines said. “There’s a dissonance between the importance of municipal elections and the poor voter turnout.”
So why did he think so few people voted? “For several reasons. Firstly, people did not get a day off from work. Secondly, in most municipalities, the winner was known in advance. Thirdly, the national media did not cover local election activity over the last few months, and the public got the message loud and clear. And when the media did cover local elections, it was only in the context of corruption among mayors.”
Paz-Pines had serious complaints about the atmosphere of local elections, and I could feel his anger toward the police and local law enforcement agencies through the telephone.
“Local candidates’ campaigns were ugly and nasty,” Paz-Pines said. “There was a tremendous amount of verbal violence, slander and slurs launched at opponents.
The first thing we need to do is bring back the prestige of the local authorities and of the person who is chosen to represent the citizens.
“It’s not clear what the rules of the game are anymore. There’s a feeling that it’s a free-for-all, that anything goes. The police is not doing its job when it comes to local elections. Everyone knows that campaigners do horrible things – actual criminal activity. People showed up with forged identity cards, and tens of millions of shekels of undocumented funds were used in campaigns across the country. We should be asking where this money came from and what its donors are getting in return. Where are the state comptroller and the police? We need to stop treating local authorities like some backstreet operation where anything goes. This situation is outrageous,” he fumed.
The ball is now in Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s court.
He has committed himself to looking into the issue. The question remains: Will the newspapers be inundated with the same sort of articles in the next elections in five years’ time or will the Interior Ministry and the government find a real solution to the problem? Why and when did the local authorities lose their significance in the eyes of the average citizen? •
Translated by Hannah Hochner