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March 16, 2015 10:16 am

Why Our Votes Matter

avatar by Ruthie Blum

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A ballot box in Israel. Polls open on Tuesday morning.

Though Israeli voter turnout is among the highest in the Western world — trailing behind only those countries in which voting is compulsory — it has nevertheless been on a steady decline since the establishment of the state, with slight ups and downs each election cycle. The most major drop occurred between the 1999 and 2001 elections, when the turnout fell from 78.73 percent to 62.29 percent.

To get an idea of the current situation, in the 2013 elections, 67.77 percent of Israelis actually turned up at the polling stations.

Many factors contribute to declining voting patterns. One explanation given for the huge decrease in 2001 was the fact that many Israeli Arabs boycotted the ballot box, in solidarity with the Palestinians, who were at the height of the Oslo War (more commonly called the Second Intifada) against Israel. Another was the resignation of Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the sense that Likud’s Ariel Sharon was a sure-fire winner.

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Indeed, when people feel that their vote will make no difference, they have a tendency to become lazy. In such cases, taking the day off to go to the beach with the kids, whose schools are appropriated for the process, seems like a more attractive option than queuing up to stuff a piece of paper into an envelope.

Another reason for voter apathy is the sense that it doesn’t matter which party wins the election, because once it’s over, the coalition-building involved in forming the government does not take constituents into account. At that point, it becomes more like a bazaar made up of politicians buying and selling ministries, without regard to the will of the public.

A third cause is a lack of trust in the system in general and politicians in particular. Ask any Israeli, and he will tell you that “they’re all liars anyway.” So their promises are never kept, at best, and their ideologies are utterly malleable, at worst.

A related view is that the Left and Right in Israel may verbally espouse different positions on security and the economy, but when it comes down to enacting policies, they are indistinguishable from one another. This isn’t entirely true, of course, but the fact that it is a common perception is both telling and understandable. After all, more wars in Israel have been fought with the Left at the helm; and more territorial withdrawals have been carried out by the Right. Other examples abound, which is why pollsters and politicians alike believe that this indicates “a move to the center,” and why ideologues on both sides of the spectrum rule out voting for one of the big parties.

Where the current campaign is concerned, things are even more complicated. Polls show that much of the public, dissatisfied with its lot, wants to oust the ruling party, Likud. At the same time, however, a minority deems the heads of the other parties as being anywhere in the league of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In other words, Netanyahu is unpopular on the one hand, and respected as “statesmanlike” on the other.

Where Iran is concerned, it appears that Americans have a lot more faith in Netanyahu’s ability to contain the nuclear threat than Israelis, who say that the prime minister knows how to give a good speech in English, but his leadership “in Hebrew” leaves a lot to be desired.

All of the confusion and inherent contradictions are causing something akin to mass defeatism. Or so it appears, based not only on pollster data, but on anecdotal evidence that I have gathered from private conversations and a good deal of eavesdropping at the supermarket and on buses.

Thus, Tuesday’s turnout threatens to be even lower than that of the last election two years ago. This concern is clearly behind President Reuven Rivlin’s concerted effort to persuade citizens to vote.

It is also the impetus for the public-service announcements, aired around the same time every evening as the party-propaganda commercials, warning that anyone who stays home on election day will have his bitching-and-moaning rights revoked. Funny.

Refraining from participating in a free and democratic election is no laughing matter, however. Squandering such a privilege, when oppressed people the world over would and do die to possess it, is not only foolish; it is immoral. It is like turning one’s nose up at a hearty meal on the grounds that it is not sufficiently gourmet, under the justifiably envious eye of someone who is starving.

That politicians, parties and the platforms they promote are flawed is a given. But having a stake — and an individual say — in who they are and how they conduct themselves is a gift that should never be taken for granted.

Before the polls open on Tuesday morning, let us first count our blessings, and then go out and vote.

Ruthie Blum is the editor of Voice of Israel talk radio (voiceofisrael.com). This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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