Analysis: Why it's hard to bring out voters for local elections

The fact that local authorities in Israel don't have a great deal of power causes indifference.

man votes in election 298.88 (photo credit: )
man votes in election 298.88
(photo credit: )
As polls closed, it looked like voter turnout had dropped below the levels it has been at for the past 30 years. "I am looking at four different polling stations and almost all of them are virtually empty," Bar-Ilan University political scientist Asher Cohen said. "Here it is, after work hours and still there is only a drizzle of voters," he added. In fact, one hour earlier, only 20 percent of eligible voters had bothered to cast their ballots. But Cohen said the low turnout phenomenon in local elections didn't surprise him. He gave three reasons to explain why so relatively few Israeli citizens and residents over the age of 17 take an interest in them. "In the first place," he said, "our problems in Israel are primarily of a national nature. Issues of survival, state and religion, foreign affairs, defense and economics top the agenda. "There are only so many problems that one can deal with. So local issues tend to be downplayed." Secondly, Cohen continued, there was a world-wide trend of waning interest in politics on all levels. Israel was no exception. For example, only 63% of Israeli voters participated in the last Knesset elections in 2006. This was less than four percentage points above the turnout for the last local elections in 2003. The third cause of indifference was the fact that local authorities in Israel don't have a great deal of power. This is particularly true of the poorer ones who don't generate much income from local taxes. These authorities are dependent on the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry for a large percentage of their budgets and, as a result, don't have a great deal of financial independence. Most of their spending is dictated and monitored from above. Thus, said Cohen, the true significance of the local elections is not as great as local politicians would like to make it sound. Having said all of this, the fact is that some mayors have made a great difference to their cities, among them Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, who served as mayor of Yavne; former Ra'anana mayor Ze'ev Bielski and legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek. The difference in the leadership in Israel's northern cities was very apparent during the Second Lebanon War. The residents of cities like Ma'alot-Tarshiha and Karmiel fared dramatically better than their neighbors in Safed and Kiryat Shmona. The races this year in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv pit very different personalities against one another and each victorious candidate could put his personal imprint on his city's development over the coming years. Personal leadership is not only a pragmatic question. The morale and coping ability of cities in crisis, like Sderot, may also be determined by whoever is elected to lead them.