Comment / Israelis Follow Politics More Than People in Other Democracies

Survey: Israelis are not apathetic about politics, despite lower voter turnout in recent Knesset elections.

The issue of voter turnout in this year's Knesset election was discussed at the President's Conference on democracy last week. Prof. Tamar Hermann, who presented the 2009 Israeli Democracy Index prepared by the Israel Democracy Institute, noted that voter participation as a percentage of eligible voters has been steadily dropping: from 77.4 percent in 1992 to 65.2 percent in 2009. Hermann and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud), who also spoke at the conference, expressed concern, saying the trend is evidence of alienation between parts of the public and the state's democratic institutions.

But the survey also noted that the percentage of Israelis who are interested in politics and regularly follow what is happening in the political arena is much higher than in other democracies. Countries where the democratic ethos is deteriorating generally show a decreasing level of interest in politics. Israelis are not apathetic, but quite the opposite.

We also need to consider three developments related to voter turnout. First, the voter rolls include citizens who no longer live permanently in Israel, but are still listed in the Population Registry and are therefore registered voters. Their children are also listed. Since 1992, the number of Israelis who have left the country, including new immigrants who received an Israeli passport and moved on to other countries, has grown - and this shows up in the voting figures. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live overseas and do not participate in elections distort the numbers. This has no connection whatsoever to an alleged drop in voters' belief in democracy.

Next, the very high voter turnout in the past resulted, among other things, from parties bringing groups of new immigrants to the polls, after which these immigrants would vote as a bloc under the direction of party hacks. Once the immigrants became acclimated to Israel, they broke free of such a herd mentality. This is a good sign for democracy and voter independence.

Third, in the past, voter turnout in the Arab sector was higher than in the Jewish sector, due partly to the structure of the extended family and clan. Rising educational levels have made Arab voters more independent of their extended family. Moreover, even though there was no explicit public call for an election boycott within the Arab community, there is an atmosphere of hesitancy about voting, as voting confers a kind of legitimacy on the State of Israel's existence. This also contributes to lower voter turnout among the Arab public.

Therefore, it is clear that the real fall in voter turnout was actually smaller than the raw numbers that appear in the survey.

Sa'ar erred when he proposed changing the electoral system to make it more district-based. He argues that voters would know the candidates better in a district-based system, and that would increase their faith in democracy, and voter turnout along with it. But that is simply not true: As the survey shows, voter turnout in local elections is even lower than in Knesset elections. Since 1978, the former has been stuck in the 50 to 60 percent range.

There is room to fix some elements of Israeli democracy, but low voter turnout does not seem to need immediate attention. We must not only count and measure, but also analyze and understand.