Wild Card for Arab Parties: COVID's Effect on Election Day Turnout

Jack Khoury
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Campaign posters in the Bedouin town of Rahat, last week
Campaign posters in the Bedouin town of Rahat, last weekCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Jack Khoury

With five days to go until the election, pressure is mounting in the Arab parties due to uncertainty over how high voter turnout will be. Joint List and United Arab List activists are focusing their efforts on organizing for Election Day, given the coronavirus’ effect on voting procedures and because there is much more competition – not just between the two parties but with the Zionist parties too.

Data compiled by the parties indicates voter turnout is expected to be between 55-57 percent. This is an increase over what was expected before the Knesset disbanded and UAL split from the Joint List, when there was talk of a significant dip in turnout that wouldn’t cross the 50 percent threshold.

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Yousef Makladeh of Statnet, a research institute that surveys Arab society, says, “There is currently no model that can accurately predict voter turnout amidst the coronavirus.” He says that changing the location of polling places due to virus restrictions could cause voters not to show up, especially if they’re not hard-core supporters of any party. Also, anticipated crowding at polling places later in the day could discourage voters from standing in line, particularly in places with high infection rates.

At the same time, the latest polls also indicate growing Arab support for the Arab parties – both for the Joint List, an alliance of three factions, and for UAL, alongside a decline in support for the Zionist parties, including Likud, despite its aggressive campaign for Arab votes.

Campaign posters in Rahat, last weekCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Also, the Ma’an party’s decision to quit the race and endorse the Joint List could affect the picture. While it was just a small party, the Joint List, UAL and also Meretz were encouraged by Ma’an’s move, as it could prevent the loss of thousands of votes that could prove critical on Election Day.

Theoretically, the competition between the Joint List and UAL ought to boost turnout, says Professor Asad Ghanem of the University of Haifa political science department, but he adds that the mudslinging and negative campaigning could also turn off many voters, especially young ones. “It’s true there is competition and there is also debate about the approach of [UAL leader] Mansour Abbas, who is not ruling out joining Netanyahu under certain conditions, versus the Joint List that says no to Bibi,” Ghanem said.

A Joint List official maintains that the election campaign is not awash in hatred and slander: “It’s on the moderate side,” he says. “But the fear is that in the coming days, it will increase, mainly in terms of the ethnic-religious talk, and that will deter voters.”

A Joint List campaign event in Ramle Credit: Ilan Assayag

Former lawmaker and Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka says there has been very little in the way of a public information campaign in Arab communities about how to vote without threat of infection, and that this failing could serve the interests of Netanyahu and the right. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re supposed to do, including people who are infected or in quarantine, so it’s very important that the Central Elections Committee does outreach to the Arab public about this in the coming days,” he says.

Between now and Election Day on Tuesday, the Joint List will focus mainly on young people who say they’re not interested in voting or are disappointed by the splintering of the party. “You have to remember that we’re not talking about the people who always go vote, but about those whom it was hard to convince in the first place,” says a party official. “Now, after the breakup of the Joint List, and the coronavirus and the slap in the face from [Benny] Gantz [who in the past rejected the Joint List as a coalition partner], we need to work very hard to get these people to go to the polls.”

UAL is finding encouragement in the recent polls and working on an intensive operation to get voters to the polls. Activists in several villages say speakers in the mosques are now urging people to vote, and some are specifically urging them to support UAL, a religious Islamic party. For now, the party is refraining from making any major declarations beyond the messages it delivers at campaign events and parlor meetings, and is limiting interviews with the Israeli media. However, it thinks Netanyahu’s statements this week that he would not rely on UAL to build a coalition actually serve the party well, and raise its potential to tip the balance in the election – assuming it passes the electoral threshold.

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