Who'll Give Me Two Bottles of Beer for My Vote in Israel?

Akin Ajayi
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Akin Ajayi

How much is one’s vote worth? Hypothetically, of course. It’s unlikely that someone will wander over and offer a pot of gold in return for complaisance at the ballot box. Still, it’s a question I’ve been forced to ponder quite seriously recently, in the lead-up to my first Israeli national election.

The right to vote should never be taken lightly. One hardly need be reminded of the sacrifices that people have made - that people continue to make - in order to make their voices heard. From the Suffrage movement to the Arab Spring, the right to vote without precondition has been the cornerstone of popular revolt in the modern age. So I must own up to feeling more than a little embarrassed by my cavalier attitude to voting in the past, how I trampled over the sacrifices made by others because I did not care to set fair value to this right.

The first time was Nigeria, 1993. As part of a generation denied the right to vote by a decade of military dictatorship, one might reasonably presume some enthusiasm on my part. But I was a callow-minded undergraduate with other things on my mind: when offered the equivalent to the price of two bottles of beer in return for my vote, my first thought was to wonder whether I could hold out for a bit more. On the positive side, it was a sellers’ market - all sides were vacuuming up “undecided” voters enthusiastically. On the negative side...well, you know, democracy and stuff. Bad me.

I did try to link abstention with necessity next time, though. The United Kingdom, 1997, and a useless graduate degree had left me in troubling financial circumstances. Election time rolled along: you know “no taxation without representation”? Well, the powers that be had determined that representation - through voting - was contingent upon taxation - the payment of municipal rates. It wasn’t a difficult call to make, I admit: £700 was a lot of money at the time. I certainly wasn’t alone in this, even though the number of evaders had dropped precipitately from the early 1990s, when introduction of the charge had sparked violent protests in the UK. In the context, you could think of my tax evasion as principled political protest. Just a few years late.

And now I am here, an Israeli citizen on the cusp of my first national elections. I have moved far away from the irresponsibility of my youth; I treat the obligation to vote as seriously as the next person. You could say that I value my vote, and the right to vote, very highly indeed.

And that’s precisely the problem.

Usually, elections are won and lost on the track record of the participating political parties. It’s not terribly complicated: the incumbent campaigns on the back of all the good things they have done, the opposition on the promise of the good things they intend to do. One listens to all sides, and decides how best to expend one’s electoral capital.

The trouble is that things work differently in these parts. Using any objective yardstick, the governing coalition has resolutely failed to improve the lot of the average Israeli. The increases in taxation, the fall in the standards of living, the marginalization of the middle classes in the face of rapacious capitalism: all add up to the alienation of the electoral class. Even security, that tried and tested fall-back position, cannot reassure; betwixt the Iranian threat and the ticking time bomb of the unresolved Palestinian question, it would be hard to state with any conviction that the citizens of Israeli are any safer today than they were four years ago.

But the opposition dithers. In place of concrete proposals for the future, the electoral campaign is dominated by the crude sloganeering of Left and Right. Israeli politicians have long been accustomed to campaigning on security issues - y’know, we’ll keep you safe, destroy Amalek and all his descendants, etc. It seems that introducing the classic political distinctions between social welfare and the free market into the arena this time has only served to confuse the political class. The electorate demands substance, in order to determine how to cast one’s vote. But rather, we are served facile platitudes seasoned with the politics of fear.

Part of the problem, of course, comes from the complexities of coalition governments. There is no chance that any single party will secure enough seats to form the next government. Thus, the incentive to campaign on a distinct platform - no matter its political orientation - is small, given the inevitable horse-trading that will precede the formation of a new government. Politics is the art of compromise, true; but at some point, compromise becomes capitulation. Being in government for the sake of being in government will inevitably supersede the desire to be in government for the benefit of the people.

Ah, the people. That’s another thing. In both Nigeria and the United Kingdom, there is the consolation of knowing that one votes not just for a platform, but also for a person. Constituency-based politics demand accountability: the electorate wield real power over their representatives. In Israel, we are instead presented with a party list. Prospective parliamentarians are not accountable to the electorate at large, but rather to the party machine. Real power is vested in the hands of relatively few people; they are the ones whose votes have real value. For everyone else, our votes - like for the Vice-Presidency of the United States, but that’s a story for another time - are worth perhaps a little bit more than a bucket of warm spit.

Funny, isn’t it? I’ve finally reached the point where I value the worth of my vote. But for all the difference it will make in the long run, I might as well try and trade it for a couple of bottles of beer. I’m not at all sure that its worth will increase in the next couple of months, the way things are going. 

Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from the United Kingdom in 2007.

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