Voter Apathy Threatens Israel with Political Instability
With 48 hours to go before the polling stations open for Israel’s 17th Knesset election, 4.5 million voters are holding the three leading party blocs in high suspense.
At the last sampling, one-third of the 120 parliamentary seats were undecided. What most rocked campaign managers was the frank admission by 21-28-year olds that they do not intend to turn out at all, because they do not regard a single party leader, whether Kadima’s acting prime minister Ehud Olmert or opposition leaders, Binyamin Netanyahu (a former Likud prime minister) and Amir Peretz of Labor, worth the candle.
If they bothered to vote at all, many younger voters said, it would be for fringe parties like Green Leaf (which is campaigning to legalize marijuana), the environmentalist Greens or the Senior Citizens.
As the final deadline approaches, the campaign managers are at sea for a way to pin down wayward segments of the electorate and criticize the performance of the principal candidates.
The pollsters and pundits have stopped guesstimating the outcome, for lack of data to determine the key to a Knesset seat. They agree that a low turnout will hit the main parties and deny all three the strength to form a stable government coalition, but none bar surprise results.
This uncertainty about outcome so close to balloting is rooted in four elements:
1. None of the three parties has produce a platform or a leader with appeal for the average voter. Israelis have not been persuaded that any of the candidates is up to the job of prime minister.
2. The ruling Kadima’s electioneering tactic has misfired and caused the party to slump in the polls. It hinged on a pledge to embrace the legacy of its founder, the ailing prime minister Ariel Sharon’s. But his successor, Olmert is short of the stature to fill the large mantle bequeathed him, as proven by the soaring crime rate, the sluggardly handling of bird flu and other crises. Moreover, the electorate has strong reservations about that legacy. The twentysomethings, in particular, clearly want to move on from the wrenching evacuations ordered last summer by the Sharon government, with the wholehearted support of Olmert and his Kadima team.
3. Netanyahu, finance minister under Sharon, is bitterly blamed for creating a whole new underclass in the name of rescuing the national economy from the ruin generated by five years of Palestinian terrorist warfare. He has never explained how under his tutelage the social gap widened 15 times over, or been able cast off the taint of a policy that made the rich richer at the expense of the needy, large families, the infirm, the aged and the single parents. These classes add up to a sizeable segment of the electorate.
4. Peretz is the only one of the top three who has made some attempt to empathize with the average voter, or rather the working man. His Labor has therefore edged past Likud to hover at around 20, although not fast enough to put him ahead of Kadima. The Labor leader’s main shortcomings are his simplistic approach to Israel’s relations with the Arab world and the Palestinians and his inexperience in security and foreign affairs, where most of Israel’s national crises tend to occur. Peretz is rather too dovish to suit the majority voter and has surrounded himself with a team which fails to inspire.
5. Since the largest section of absentee voters is made up of freshly-demobilized members of the Israeli military, most of whom still serve as reservists, their experiences in uniform will have contributed overwhelmingly to their repugnance for elected authority of any stripe.
The deployment of soldiers to evict settlers from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip was a traumatic experience for the army, as well as Israeli society at large. Many deeply resented their commanders’ decision to allow the IDF to be employed for the first time to serve a political end. Until the summer of 2005, the separation of the armed forces and civilian authority was scrupulously observed. The break with this rule has shaken many ex-soldiers’ faith in the robustness of Israel’s democracy.
Voter apathy may be the Israeli version of the orange and velvet revolutions that overtook two former Soviet Union republics – or even the prelude to a stronger form of collective hostility for an estranged political elite. At the last count, Kadima was still ahead with an estimated 33 seats, according to opinion polls. If it falls any further – and is not overtaken by either of its rivals – any government that is put together will be deeply fragmented and therefore short-lived. Israel would then face a period of high political volatility.