Borderline Views: Exercising the right to vote

It is crucial that as many as possible of Israel’s citizens have their say in determining the future of the country.

Israeli Ballot (R370) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli Ballot (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is expected that 65-70 percent of the Israeli population will participate in the forthcoming elections. While this is still regarded as a high figure in comparison with most Western democracies – many of whom barely pass the 50% mark – this will be similar to the all-time low (69%) which was experienced at the elections four years ago.
Traditionally, Israel has enjoyed extremely high participation rates amongst its citizens. Until 15 years ago it was common for participation rates to be in excess of 80%, and there were times when it approached 90%.
But participation rates have been on a constant decline during the past four elections. This partially reflects an apathy towards politics in general and a belief that none of the parties or leaders have anything new to offer, whether it be on the security front or relating to social and economic issues.
The low key election adverts and the relative lack of election posters and graffiti on every spare wall are evidence of the general lack of interest in the elections.
Some of this has switched to new media forms, such as websites, Facebook and Twitter (or the intrusive but uninvited phone calls and sms’s) but this does not compensate for what was, in the past, a much higher profile during the immediate pre-election period.
Low participation rates are also due to a growing distrust of politicians and political parties in general. They are perceived as untrustworthy – as people who represent their own interests rather than the interests of the public, are prepared to make political deals with their political enemies if it will keep them in power, and who will backtrack on their election promises, as it suits them.
The fact that politicians in Israel find it so easy to switch their allegiances from one coalition to another, to leave their parties and create new, unelected, Knesset factions, or to found entirely new political parties just weeks before an election campaign if they are unable to find a safe seat in an existing party, does not exactly endear them to the general public.
The large number of senior political figures who have been the subject of criminal charges during the past decade, be it for financial fraud, such as Der’i, Hirschenson, Olmert, Lieberman, or sexual offenses, such as Ramon, Katzav, Mordekhai, have brought the status of elected officials to an all-time low among large sectors of the Israeli public.
DESPITE THE fact that there are 34 party lists contesting the elections, it is commonplace to hear people say that they have no party which speaks for them and that they may just as well stay at home and abstain from voting altogether.
It is by no means certain that having a public holiday on election day does anything to increase the participation rates. Israel is one of only a few countries which allows itself this luxury.
Many will prefer to use the day for vacation and travelling, rather than to stand in long election queues. Those who vote anyway, will vote whether it is a working day or a holiday; while those who are not bothered, will not necessarily be convinced by the fact that they have a holiday – for which alternative uses can be found.
Studies of elections throughout the world show that higher participation rates are to be found among supporters of the smaller ideological parties, while the fall-off in participation rates tends to hit the largest parties most. The former are committed to a specific cause, for which they are prepared to campaign and to be active, while the larger parties tend to display an unclear message as they try to appeal to many different groups and interests.
It is not therefore surprising that parties with clearly defined but narrow sectoral interests, such as the haredi parties or the Bayit Yehudi, are showing up well in the polls, as they expect a higher percentage of their supporters to actually come and vote on election day.
Participation rates also tend to be higher among better educated, higher socioeconomic groups within society because of their awareness of political issues in general. Paradoxically this is not necessarily the case in Israel.
One of the reasons why the left-of-center parties (such as Meretz or the Labor) are not showing up well in the polls is because their potential supporters – highly educated, secular, middle class, professionals – are the most disenchanted from the political system. Neither do they feel the same commitment and activism which is so apparent on the right of Israeli politics, and among the various religious parties.
Last week’s failed attempt of the three party leaders – Sheli Yachimovitz, Tzippy Livni and Yair Lapid – to create a united front, a coalition-blocking alliance prior to the elections, will only serve to reduce even further their belief in politicians and their true interests.
It is clearly in the interests of the Left-wing parties to undertake a major campaign aimed at getting people out to vote, as the lower participation rates will hit them much harder than the right wing.
THE ARAB population has also experienced major decreases in their participation rates.
In the past they had some of the highest participation rates among the Israeli population. But this has reversed during the past decade, as they have ceased voting for Israeli-Jewish parties (such as Meretz or the Labor) altogether.
In the past two elections they have chosen either to vote for Arab parties or to disengage from the Israeli political system altogether, due to their growing mistrust in a system which they see as discriminating against the country’s major ethnic minority.
In the long term this damages their own interests, but since no Israeli government – even those of the left – have ever been prepared to rely on Arab parties to prop up the coalition or to include Arab MK’s as fully fledged Cabinet ministers, a growing number of young, educated, politically aware, Arab citizens are simply opting out of the system altogether.
It is not good for any democracy when participation rates decrease.
In a country where so many critical and existential issues are still to be decided, this should raise major alarm bells among those who are concerned about the future of the country and the potential involvement of young citizens as the next generation of leaders and decision makers.
Democracy is not only about elections, but there cannot be a democracy which does not hold free elections.
For the citizens to turn their back on that process is self-defeating.
It behooves every citizen of the State of Israel to exercise their right to vote, even if it means standing in long lines and casting the ballot for people and for parties who have not been entirely convincing.
It is crucial that as many as possible of Israel’s citizens have their say in determining the future of the country.The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.