Israel Election: High Voter Turnout Could Be a Nightmare for Small Parties – and Boon for Netanyahu

Voter turnout will determine whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a coalition and whether a slew of smaller parties will make it into the Knesset at all

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Campaign posters for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Naftali Bennett's Yamina party yesterday, one week before the election.
Campaign posters for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Naftali Bennett's Yamina party yesterday, one week before the election.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Six days to Israel fourth election in two years, parties on the left and right are scrambling to ensure their supporters show up at the moment of truth. The most significant variable in next Tuesday's election could prove to be a game changer: voter turnout.

Turnout will determine whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a coalition, whether any of the prime minister's challengers can stage an upset, and whether a slew of smaller parties will make it into the Knesset at all.

Why is Netanyahu still standing after all this time? LISTEN to Haaretz's Election Overdose podcast

-- : --

Some researchers expect a robust turnout. “The percentage of people who say they aren’t voting is small,” says Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Viterbi Center for Public Opinion and Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Most people are saying they’ll vote. I’m not sure if they really will, but we have no indication of apathy or disinterest.” Hermann adds that there are those who think voter turnout could be higher than in past elections because of the scarcity of flights abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Yaya Fink, CEO of the Darkenu organization, paints a different picture. “People are in relative despair over the political system and the politicians,” he says. “This translates into a drop in the voter turnout. We see a larger number of people who may not vote and those who haven’t decided yet.”

A survey conducted by the organization shows an eight to 15 percent drop in voter turnout in countries that did not allow remote voting during the pandemic.

In an effort to raise turnout, this week Darkenu launched a new app, "The Democrator," which allows users to send messages to their contacts on Election Day, encouraging them to vote or to volunteer at polling stations. “We want a quarter of a million messages to be sent during the 24 hours surrounding Election Day,” Fink said. “The campaign slogan is, 75 percent turnout and Israel stays democratic.’”

Smaller parties won’t necessarily be pleased by a high turnout, notes Hermann. “The higher the number of voters, the more supporters the small parties will need to enlist to cross the electoral threshold,” she says.

The Arab community

Arabic campaign posters for Likud and the United Arab List in the Bedouin city of Rahat, last week.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

There are 102,000 more eligible voters than there were in the electorate a year ago. Of them, 17 percent live in Arab communities and 11 percent in Haredi locales. In total, there are around 6 million eligible voters. During the three last elections, the voter turnout grew consistently, from a 68.4 percent in April 2019 to 71.5 percent in the March 2020 election. Factors that could suppress voter turnout this time include voter fatigue over and the lack of a clear head-to-head campaign for the premiership, which motivated voters during the last three elections. Coronavirus fears will certainly keep some people away from the polls, not to mention that there are still thousands of voters who are ill or in quarantine.

Moreover, this time there is likely to be a sharp drop in Arab votes. Polls predict 52 to 56 percent voter turnout in Arab communities. In the March 2020 election, nearly 65 percent of Arabs voted, up from 59 percent in the September 2019 election. In April 2019, because the Arab parties ran separately, only 49 percent of Arab voters cast ballots.

Arab voter turnout will be critical in this election. Several parties see the Arab voters as a safety net. Likud is trying to win two to three Knesset seats from the Arab community, while there is serious concern that Meretz – without sufficient support from Arab voters – will have difficulty crossing the electoral threshold. Then, of course, there is the Joint List which will, according to the most recent polling data, struggle to win the 15 Knesset seats they won when the recently defected United Arab List (UAL) was part of the electoral alliance of predominantly Arab parties.

“Only in the Arab sector are we seeing people who plan to avoid the polls,” confirms Hermann. “We are seeing a lot of confusion.” She added, “On the one hand the Joint List, in which they’d placed so much hope, has broken up; on the other hand, there is anger at the Joint List in certain sectors. And on the third hand, [UAL Chairman] Mansour Abbas has decided to move toward a civil partnership with a decidedly right-wing prime minister.” Abbas is gaining in the polls and it appears that his party will make it into the Knesset.

Meretz serves as another interesting case. In recent weeks, the small left-wing party has dropped below the threshold in some polls. The party fears that if too many polls show them dropping below the threshold, its voters will seek safer alternatives. One Meretz source argued that the media distorts reality by over-emphasizing polling data, often resulting in self-fulfilling prophecies. “The margin of error in these polls is 4.2 percent, which is equivalent to five Knesset seats. The electoral threshold [3.25 percent] is lower than the margin of error.”

Over the next few days, Merets is expected to send the message that its inclusion or exclusion in the Knesset will determine the government.

A Meretz campaign poster saying "Without Meretz, he has 61 [seats]," referring to Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured with other right-wing politicians. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“If Meretz doesn’t cross [the threshold], Netanyahu will have a majority to form a government,” says a party source. “At least a third of Meretz votes will go to Likud, because the Bader-Ofer formula [which reallocates the valid votes of those parties that don’t cross the threshold] favors large parties in surplus-votes agreements. Another third of Meretz votes will go to the right-wing Haredi parties, while only a third will remain in the center-left bloc.”

Anti-Haredi sentiment

In-depth surveys conducted by center-left parties reveal that many voters harbor strong anti-Haredi sentiment due to the mass violations of the coronavirus guidelines during lockdowns. Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman hastened to exploit this and has been conducting a campaign excoriating the Haredi parties and their political influence.

Meretz devoted some of its campaign to similar messaging, but discovered that the issue is of lesser interest to solid left-wing voters. “It’s more persuasive among secular centrists,” say Hermann. “The radical left more vocally champions multiculturalism and says, ‘You have to understand the Haredim.’”

She notes that Lapid is also benefiting from anti-Haredi sentiment even though he has barely expressed himself on the matter. “Lapid will benefit without saying a word. He has that coupon in his pocket. He’s playing his cards very well when he doesn’t play them bluntly. He’s better off looking like a liberal.”

Ultra-orthodox Israelis congregating on mass on February in violation of coronavirus restrictions.Credit: Emil Salman

Hermann, however, doesn’t think anti-Haredi resentment will bring voters out at the moment of truth. “There was a point a month and a half or two months ago when I would have said [the resentment] is very strong,” she says. “But we haven't seen any more photos of violations at weddings and funerals. The fact is that the coronavirus is calming down.”

Another unusual phenomenon in this campaign is the effort by Religious Zionism, led by Bezalel Smotrich and including the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction, to attract Haredi voters. “Smotrich is stealing votes from the Haredim, though we don’t know exactly how many,” says Hermann. “It’s almost certain he’ll cross the electoral threshold. He’s getting support from young men from Haredi or Haredi Zionist backgrounds.”

The reason, she says, can be found in the handling of the pandemic. “The leadership of United Torah Judaism didn’t mount a good response,” she argues. “We see a big drop in the status of Haredi politicians.” If seats move from UTJ to Religious Zionism, it won’t threaten Netanyahu’s chances of forming a coalition, but it will cost him, Hermann says. “He will have to pay a high price for things he previously got for cheap.”

Hermann notes that for this election, there's a wide range of choices for the right-wing voter, from the liberal Sa’ar to extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir. “Likud is bleeding seats now in a few directions,” she says.

As a result, Likud is firing in all directions. The party believes it came close to maxing out its potential support in the last election when it garnered more than 1.3 million votes, an achievement that must be preserved. The party is afraid that a loss of seats will reduce its power when negotiating with potential coalition partners, and is making a concerted effort to raise voter turnout in cities identified with Likud, like Be’er Sheva, Netanya, Hadera, Dimona and Bat Yam. In all of those cities, Likud won a significant percentage of the vote last year, even though overall voter turnout was low.