March 23, 2006
Israeli Candidates Battle Voter Apathy
Shimon Peres joins a young couple having lunch at a seaside restaurant and asks them who they are voting for in Israel's upcoming election. They smile nervously, glance up at the swarm of photographers and TV cameras that surround the former prime minister and admit the truth: They don't know.
"No one has convinced us what the right path is, and we ourselves don't even know, making it harder," says Nurit Novak, 26, as Peres, clad in a leather bomber jacket and campaigning for the Kadima Party, moves on to the next table. There are many voters left to woo.
Yarin Yeger, a 20-year-old soldier strolling along a nearby boardwalk, says she, too, feels adrift politically.
"I don't see any of the candidates as potentially good prime ministers," she says.
Campaigners in the March 28 election are battling voter apathy and indecision, concepts once alien to this country that for decades had voter turnout of about 80 percent and in which most people had a political camp to which they were committed.
Polls describe about 20 percent of the population as "floating voters" -- still undecided this close to the election date.
Many voters feel that none of the candidates have the stature or pull of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since a Jan. 4 stroke.
"There is great confusion because Sharon is no longer at the helm, and people have lost their balance," said Nitza Hameiri, 56, a real estate appraiser.
There is little sense of election excitement despite dramatic changes -- a prime minister who lies comatose, leaving behind his new party; a Sephardi Jew leading the Labor Party for the first time, and Hamas' recent victory in Palestinian elections.
Voter turnout is expected to be lower than in past elections. In 2003, it was already low, with slightly less than 69 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
The assumption that Kadima will trounce its rivals contributes to a sense of ennui, observers say. In the most recent polls, Kadima is predicted to win between 37 and 39 seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset. Those seeking change are finding it in Kadima, breaking down the Israeli electorate from its former pattern of left vs. right.
Beyond this is apathy borne from a rising mistrust of the government to effect change, disgust with recent revelations of corruption and an increasingly individualistic society that feels less of a need to be involved civically.
Voter apathy is even more apparent in Israel's younger generation. A poll by One Voice, a grass-roots movement that encourages dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, found that 27 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 32 are interested in the upcoming elections and that 44 percent plan to vote.
Analyst Yossi Klein Halevi welcomes the establishment of Kadima, he said, and the low-key, yet "historic" election he said it seems to have prompted.
"People who complain that this is a boring election are frustrated leftists and rightists. This is our first election in which the center is not only a vague longing on the part of many Israelis but an actual option," said Halevi, a senior fellow at Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem.
"This election has changed the political map for the first time in decades. We are no longer a society defined by a right and left schism but a political system with a strong center," he said.
Halevi sees the changes in Israeli politics as a sign of political maturation.
"One reason we have so many political parties is that we have still been in the mentality of the Jewish exile, in which you needed to find the party that represented your highest ideals precisely," he said.
"We are seeing parties as frameworks for resolving issues through compromise," Halevi said. "This is a realization of normal politics."
Candidates and campaigners, however, continue to employ the language of left and right. Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud has taken to calling Olmert, "Smolmert," a pun on the Hebrew word for left. In one of the Likud's ad campaigns, which have been seen as the most negative among the parties, an announcer's voice intones, "Olmert and the left will bring Hamas closer."
Ad campaigns are used by parties of all sizes: Every night, campaign ads are broadcast for at least an hour on three national television networks.
Some of the smaller groups broadcasting include a party against high banking fees, a party representing Holocaust survivors and their children and the Green Leaf Party, which promotes legalizing marijuana and gay marriage.
In one Labor ad, party leader Amir Peretz, who is battling an image as an anti-intellectual demagogue, is seen in a mock prime ministerial office signing papers on a large desk, Israeli flags standing behind him.
Meanwhile, at the port of Tel Aviv, Yitzhak Schwartzblat watches Peres kiss a baby. This is not the first time Schwartzblat, 71, has seen Peres on the campaign trail. He remembers hearing him speak during 1955 elections at a movie hall in Jaffa.
In those days, campaigning was very different, he says.
"People then knew exactly what the message of each party was. Today it does not matter -- look at Peres," he says, referring to his switch from Labor to Kadima. "Yesterday he was in one party, today another."
Schwartzblat would not reveal who he was voting for.
"I don't have a lot of secrets," he says, "but this one secret I keep."