A Defeat for Everyone

There is still a good deal of time until Election Day to try to persuade eligible voters to cast their ballots. But is this really possible?

One of gravest results of the 2006 elections related not to the balance of political power but to the political system as a whole: Only 63.5 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot. The rest voted with their barbecues, espresso mugs and shopping bags, expressing their lack of confidence in the political system and lack of interest in the outcome of the elections.

This happened in a country that until 2001 maintained an impressive voter turnout of about 80 percent. And even the rate of 63.5 percent was achieved only because at the last moment it turned out that the Pensioners Party was likely to pass the electoral threshold after all, prompting masses of people to flock to the polling stations to help them out.

The shock led several Knesset members to propose abolishing the Election Day holiday for those who do not vote. But it soon became clear that such a penalty would be both ineffective and problematic. It would be ineffective because most eligible voters - soldiers, students, the unemployed, housewives, pensioners and many of the self-employed - do not benefit from the holiday anyway. And it would be problematic because many employees who do benefit from the holiday have no option of working that day in any case, so they cannot be faced with the choice of either working or voting.

The problem thus remains unresolved, while the crisis of confidence between the public and its elected representatives continues to deepen. In recent days there have been signs that in the coming election, not only will the turnout rate not increase, it might even fall below 60 percent. A glaring warning was flashed by a Geocartography Institute survey, which found that half of Israeli Jews between 18 and 35 are uncertain they will vote. The reasons given by the respondents included "it doesn't interest me," "it's not important to me" and "there's no one to vote for." Evidently there will be no shortage of excuses for not going to the polls. And you don't need to be a prophet to predict that February 10, Election Day, will be cold and perhaps rainy, meaning it will be no fun to go to the polling station and wait in line.

Admittedly, the local elections earlier this month saw a rise in turnout to 55 percent from 50 percent in 2003. But this increase is largely because there were exciting races in several large cities. And even this increase carries a warning: Despite these fierce electoral battles, turnout was only 41 percent in Jerusalem and 37 percent in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that the battle between Benjamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak is less interesting than the battle between Ron Huldai and Dov Khenin.

Shortly after it takes office, the new government will have to enact a painful economic program and make the fateful decision of whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities - a decision liable to entail mass Israeli casualties. It may also want to secure Knesset approval for an agreement with the Palestinians or Syrians that would entail painful withdrawals and evacuations. A government elected with the votes of only half the country's eligible voters will find it very difficult to claim it has a mandate for such decisions.

Officially, anyone who declines to vote has chosen to leave the decision to others. But in practice, the growing number of nonvoters reflects a refusal to play the game and a no-confidence vote in democracy in general and our system of government in particular. An additional decline in voter turnout is liable to bolster the idiotic idea of switching to a presidential regime, from which the road to dictatorship is far shorter.

There is still a good deal of time until Election Day to try to persuade eligible voters to cast their ballots. But is this really possible? Before the municipal elections, the Interior Ministry prepared an advertisement aimed at getting voters out of their houses. That was important, but it seems the increase in turnout stemmed more from initiatives such as "Jerusalem Gets Off the Fence," in which people went door to door urging others to vote, and Internet campaigns via Facebook.

Jerusalem residents had a relatively simple goal - electing a secular mayor. In the Knesset elections the goal is far more complex: Persuading voters that everyone must participate in determining our future, and that people who fail to vote are essentially strengthening their opponents. The question is whether there is anyone to pick up this gauntlet. Institutions such as the Israel Democracy Institute, for example? Students and graduates of the pre-military academies? Veterans of "Jerusalem Gets Off the Fence"? But one thing is certain: Regardless of who wins these elections, a voter turnout of less than two-thirds would be a defeat for everyone.