Polling stations across Israel closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday at the end of a day of nationwide local elections marked by a dismal turnout.
The elections for Israel’s mayors and municipal council members drew barely 42.6% of voters by 8:30 p.m. Turnout was especially low in Tel Aviv (22%) and Jerusalem (32%), though Jerusalem’s numbers are dragged down by the refusal of hundreds of thousands of Arab residents to vote in protest at Israel’s control of the city. The final Jerusalem turnout was 35.9% — well down from 43% in the 2008 municipal elections.
Only a few major cities showed a turnout as low as Jerusalem, with Holon, Bat Yam and Rishon Lezion’s turnout reaching just 19% by 7 p.m., Netanya and Tel Aviv showing 21%, and Beersheba, Ramat Gan and Rehovot reaching 23%.
Arab cities, on the other hand, saw a very high turnout, led by Kafr Kara with 94% by 7 p.m., Sakhnin with 78%, Hurfeish with 77%, and a number of cities in the mid-to-low 70% range.
Local governments are elected for five-year terms and have significant influence over major public services, including education, welfare and urban planning.
Final results were expected to be published early Wednesday, though reports late Tuesday already indicated incumbent Yona Yahav had reportedly won reelection in a city that saw, at last count, over 40 percent turnout.
Voter turnout for local elections is traditionally much lower than national polls, but there were a number of hotly contested races around the country, including in Jerusalem, where incumbent Nir Barkat hoped to retain his mayoral seat against newcomer Moshe Lion.
The Jerusalem contest was marked by bitter accusations and attempts to influence voters through mass SMS messages and phone calls.
One text sent around at 8:15 p.m. urged Jerusalemites to go out and vote because “the Haredim are voting en masse.” It warned that “this is the last chance to stop the kombina” — a reference to the Lion candidacy.
Less than an hour later, text messages received by thousands and bizarrely signed by “the Barak (sic) campaign” purported to reassure voters in Barkat’s name that “we have won the elections. We’ll meet for another five years of action and Jerusalem will succeed.” The senders of the messages appeared to be trying to convince Barkat voters who had not yet voted that there was little reason to go to the polls.
Ten minutes later, another text message, this time from the Barkat campaign, warned, “Don’t be fooled by the spin. The battle is very tight. Every vote counts. Run and vote for Barkat now, and save Jerusalem. The polls close at 10.”
Arab residents of Jerusalem largely continued the tradition of boycotting the city’s elections. In the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa, just one voter had cast a ballot by mid-afternoon.
MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), a former cabinet minister and mayor of Yavne, said in the Knesset today that low turnout numbers are caused by a widespread belief that local elections are unimportant, and suggested those who don’t vote should be fined.
“We need to fine citizens who don’t vote,” he said, adding that he had proposed a law instituting such a fine. “I suggested that whoever doesn’t vote won’t get a day off, but it seems that it’s… easier to fine citizens who don’t vote.”