ANALYSIS: Voter Turnout - How Low Can It Go?

When individualism rules, so many try to shirk reserve duty and no one looks down on emigrant yordim, how will voter participation remain high?

At 63 percent, the final voter turnout was not quite as bad as some analysts were predicting during the day on Tuesday. As luck would have it, the pollsters announced that the pensioners' party had crossed the minimum vote threshold, providing a new port in which many undecided, "floating" voters could anchor.

In truth, the writing was on the polling station wall as early as the 2001 election for the prime minister, when only 62 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. And in the regular Knesset elections in 2003, only 69 percent voted. The political establishment treated these figures as if they were accidents, failing to realize that one of the main features of Israeli democracy - voter turnout of about 80 percent - had been lost, probably forever.

Eighty percent includes nearly everyone who can make it to a polling station, after Israelis living abroad and people who are too sick are discounted. For the first 50 years of Israel's existence, voting was nearly sacred. Everyone voted. The taboo against nonparticipation has been broken. Many explanations were proffered for Tuesday's poor showing, from a sense of hopelessness and indifference to government corruption and the lack of suitable candidates.

Prof. Ephraim Yaar, a co-director of the Peace Index, believes that one of the major reasons is that the difference between the left and right in Israel has disappeared, in favor of the sense that any government will have to carry out the same policy.

But it appears that for some of the election abstainers, these explanations are merely a cover for the fact that they simply do not care. Maybe in the future they will not even bother to apologize.

The truth is that it is only logical. In a country where individualism rules, where so many people try to get out of doing army reserve duty and where no one looks down on emigrant yordim, how can you expect voter participation - an expression of social responsibility - to remain high? It is safe to assume that the political establishment will start asking just how low it can go. The level of voter turnout might become as much of a national issue as the level of Lake Kinneret.

It is not as if there was no election fever Tuesday. There was, but it took place in the country's shopping malls. Like Memorial Day in the United States, Election Day in Israel has become a shopping holiday. Maybe for the next election the ballot boxes should be moved from the schools to the espresso bars. If the voter will not come to the polling station, then the polling station will come to the voter.

It is not as if the elections were uninteresting. There was the Big Bang, followed by the prime minister's coma.

There was the turnaround in the Labor Party, and the operation in Jericho. And despite it all, the campaign never got off the ground. Perhaps "A Star Is Born," the Israeli "American Idol," is much more interesting; perhaps some voters do not understand why they cannot vote for the Knesset by SMS, too.