The polls have now closed in the election for the 19th Knesset, and predictions of a low voter turnout have proved to be incorrect. Even though it was claimed that the election campaign failed to capture the imagination of the electorate, initial information is that this is the highest voter turnout since the 1999 election. When the votes have all been counted, it is expected that more than 70% of those entitled to vote will have cast a ballot. The positive trend even applies to the Arab Israeli sector, which traditionally has a much lower turnout than Jewish Israelis. Overall, this is good for Israel’s democracy, and shows that Israeli voters are less apathetic than was originally thought. It is entirely logical for Israel to have high voter turnout. Jews were forced to suffer many years of being denied the right to determine their own destiny. This should drive people to flood polling stations to vote in order to influence how Jewish life in Israel will be conducted over the next parliament. There remain decisions to be taken which are of substantial political significance to Israelis concerning the future of the country, and the how to achieve peace in the promised land. Some may say that these are life and death decisions, and seem important enough to convince most to exercise their democratic right.
Despite the obvious compelling issues that drive Israelis to the polls in significant numbers, there are those who do so somewhat reluctantly. This is mainly because of the general disillusionment with politicians and the political system. Gone are the days when people stood for the Knesset purely for the purpose of serving Israelis and improving Israeli society. The concept of selfless service of our society seems to be a historical dinosaur in Israel, and indeed elsewhere around the world. While I am not suggesting that people should agree to serve in the Knesset or in government for free or without adequate reward, it is a pity that the reward has become more of the issue than the service. This has led to increased corruption, and much less trust in politicians and the system that governs the country. The fact that financial rewards can be extracted has the effect of attracting a certain type of person to stand for the Knesset. In my view, the public is justified in feeling negative towards politicians, particularly when it is considered that these are the people who will be determining our destiny.
The second reason why people may be reluctant to vote, is the feeling that there will not be any change to the current status quo. If this is so, why bother turning up to vote? It has been predicted throughout the election campaign that Netanyahu will be returned as prime minister. The person who is elected to lead the government is the most important issue at stake in the election. The rest is in the details. The fact that Netanyahu has continued to hold a seemingly unassailable advantage gives the feeling that votes cannot, and will not influence anything of any significance.
The government-sponsored advertising to encourage people to turn up to vote has been quite creative and entertaining. This can claim a great deal of credit for the high voter turnout. Unfortunately, not the same can be said for the party election broadcasts, and the party election campaigns. They have been uninspiring, and have not provoked much interest at all. Better campaigns would, almost certainly, have inspired undecided voters to come out to exercise their votes.
Only a few years ago, Israel had a voter turnout rate of over 80%, and was in the top 25 countries of vote turnout at general elections. The last three elections before today have shown a dramatic reduction in the number of voters turning out, to below 65%. The challenges facing Israel, and the importance of the decisions, are no less than those that Israel was forced to confront at the time of independence in 1948. Israelis are all required to serve in the army in defense of the country, and this reality should surely encourage people to vote in their droves. Casting a vote for the right option could literally save people’s lives if a peace agreement can be reached with the Palestinians. For this reason, it is appropriate and pleasing that people have decided to exercise their vote today.
Initial exit polls show that the split between the left and the right-wing in the new Knesset will be very narrow. This reflects that huge dilemma facing Israelis with regard to the direction that should be taken in dealing with Palestinian issue. Can we trust that there is a way of agreeing a way to survive harmoniously side-by-side with a Palestinian state, or do we take statements at face value which threaten that the Palestinians will not rest until Israel is entirely destroyed? Most Israelis really wish to believe that there is a solution to give us the peace that we yearn for. Many believe that this is not achievable right now, due to the Palestinians taking each concession and using it as ammunition to destroy Israel further. Israelis are also split on the issue of how to deal with the social justice reforms that are being sought for the economy. How can we give the weaker members of our society the help that they need, without being irresponsible with the economy? These are extremely heavy and important issues, for which there are no easy answers. The country seems to be split almost down the middle on these matters.
Irrespective of who will ultimately occupy the prime minister’s office, and who will sit in the Knesset, this day has been a great victory for democracy in our country. Many countries that achieve voter turnout in excess of 70%, are those where it is a criminal offence not to vote in the election. In Israel, such a law is not required in order to convince people to come to the ballots. We are extremely fortunate to have a Jewish state of our own, and to have the opportunity to vote in elections to participate in the determination of the destiny of our country and our people. This was finally achieved after many years of being denied the right to vote, and being denied the right to determine our destiny. The turnout today is a vote of thanks to the many heroes who fought so hard to get us to this position, and a tribute to the memories of so many lives which were lost in the process.