Strategic voting has distorted the conduct of our politics.
By NAOMI CHAZAN
Tuesday's elections will be decided, once again, by two key groups: nonvoters and strategic voters. Those who do not participate will be giving support, unquestionably if unconsciously, primarily to those who caused them to shun the polling stations in the first place. The mobile voters will make their choice only at the last moment, inevitably ending up with far less than what they really want.
Today, close to 40 percent of citizens are unsure if they are going to vote at all. A full 30% of those who definitely intend to vote still have, at this late stage, no idea how they will cast their ballot. No wonder political dissatisfaction rates are so high and subsequent performance levels so abysmal. All those who stay at home on February 10, along with those who decide to cast a vote that does not reflect their wishes, should not be surprised with the results. These, to a great extent, are the predictable outcome of their own electoral acrobatics.
In recent years, an increasing number of Israelis have shifted from preference to strategic voting. In the past, voters cast their ballot for the party of their choice with amazing regularity. They viewed the electoral exercise as an opportunity to express their political preferences. But something has been happening lately: In the past several general elections, there has been more mobility between parties than ever before. This movement, which unquestionably reflects shifting political tastes if not worldviews, is also the most telltale sign of the coming of age of the strategic voter.
This political creature is inordinately aware of the potential power of the ballot, so much so that he or she uses it carefully to inflict the most damage or create the most confusion. Rarely is this precious commodity used to reward the party closest to one's ideas or ideology. The tremendous amount of voter peregrination between parties in 1999, 2003 and 2006, as well as that forecast for the upcoming elections, is a direct by-product of the emergence of this purportedly hyper-rational, unsentimental electoral player.
STRATEGIC VOTERS here - as elsewhere - are motivated by three closely connected considerations. The first focuses on political personalities. Many people today are extremely wary of either an Ehud Barak or a Binyamin Netanyahu return to the prime minister's office, or, conversely, deem Tzipi Livni still inadequate for the task. Depending on their analysis of the capabilities of each of these contenders, they can either support the person they like the most or do everything possible to thwart the candidate they cannot suffer - including casting their ballot for a party they dislike intensely. If Friday night conversations and ongoing political discussions are any indication, this kind of thinking will definitely play a role come Tuesday, ironically pushing in a variety of directions and thus possibly seriously mitigating its effect.
Another motivation for strategic voting relates to parties rather than people. Some voters, wary that the party they would like to support will not pass the threshold, will transfer their vote to another party farther away from their own positions (thereby, not surprisingly, also directly contributing to the failure of their preferred list). In contrast, mobile voters concerned about the contraction of a major political party (Labor in 2003, Likud in 2006), may abandon their party of choice to give a conscious boost to that declining list. Small, ideological or single-issue parties tend to be the main victims of this party-rooted reasoning.
Perhaps the most complicated form of strategic voting relates to the composition of the future coalition. Some voters are convinced that they hold the key to the next government - that they can increase the power of a potential partner or, to the contrary, diminish the attractiveness of another. In the process, they may find themselves backing parties that diverge substantially from their own outlooks.
When all these strategic criteria come into play, they can be as profoundly discombobulating as they are superficially compelling. Strategic pundits are at their zenith these days, pondering alternatives and pontificating on options. At every turn, voters are exposed to an array of confusing arguments that have less to do with sound political analysis than with a typically convoluted logic that surfaces during the election season.
What the purveyors of this type of thinking fail to tell the gullible or the unversed is that unless a strategic vote coincides with a declared preference, then its purported rationality may actually yield less than rational results. A strategic vote, with the single ballot available here, may therefore breed cynicism, magnify dissatisfaction and frequently foster sheer and utter disaffection.
THE DISTANCE between a strategically sparked mobile voter and a frustration-driven non-voter is shorter than one can imagine. Many of those who could not be bothered to participate in recent elections are simply fed up with it all. Others - after several seemingly clever attempts to make a dent in the system - have lost faith in their efficacy and doubt their ability to make any difference whatsoever. These sentiments, coupled with a growing sense that all the parties appear similar, that they just don't offer a choice between clear alternatives, can cut voter participation in the wake of the war on Gaza to levels even below the 2006 nadir of 63.5 percent.
The errant voter has thus become the precursor - albeit hardly the only source - for the lapsed voter. Together, these prototypes have come to affect electoral outcomes almost as much as the ballots cast by any regular preferential voters. The damage they wreak, however, may be far more destructive. By subsuming ideological differences and consequently homogenizing political discourse, they have skewed results and distorted the conduct of politics.
This year voters may do well to shun the temptations of strategic voting and dispense with the lingering aftertaste of being too clever by half. Maybe now is the time to do something else - to simply go to vote for the party of your choice. It will definitely make you feel better; it might even do some good.
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