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Israel votes

With election turnout lowest since 2009, parties break out panic campaigns

As of 8 p.m., 60.9% have cast their ballot, a 4.7% decline compared to last round; turnout down in Arab communities; stations for COVID patients, people in quarantine said empty

A voter arrives to cast her ballot at a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2021, in the fourth national election in two years (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
A voter arrives to cast her ballot at a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2021, in the fourth national election in two years (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Turnout in Israel’s fourth national election in two years slumped on Tuesday afternoon, recording the lowest rates since 2009 as of 8 p.m. at 60.9 percent — a drop of 4.7% from the same time on election day a year ago, the Central Elections Committee said.

In response, and with only a few hours before the polls were set to close, politicians made last-ditch attempts to galvanize their supporters to go out and vote, in what has come to be known in Israel as “gevalt” tactics (a Yiddish term for doomsaying).

Turnout was said to be particularly low in Arab communities, with the predominantly Arab Joint List party estimating a final turnout of some 55% by the end of the day. It stood at around 23% by 2 p.m., the Joint List said. Final Arab turnout in the March 2020 election stood at some 65%, a two-decade high.

Special polling stations for those in quarantine and those carrying the coronavirus also saw few show up to cast their ballots. As of the afternoon, only some 1,200 of 6,700 carrying the virus had voted.

Israeli electoral workers at a polling station for people positive for Covid-19, in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 23, 2021 (Shir Torem/Flash90)

In the previous three elections since April 2019, turnout had actually been steadily rising. The April 2019 election saw a turnout of 68.41%. In September 2019 it rose to 69.8%, and in March 2020 to 71.5%. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic limiting overseas travel, more Israelis are at home on election day. Last year some 100,000 Israelis, mostly young, were abroad when the vote was held.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid and his wife Lihi cast their ballots at a voting station in Tel Aviv, in the Knesset elections on March 23, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to southern towns and cities, usually Likud strongholds, where he claimed turnout was worryingly low.

Likud tweeted out a message claiming that Tel Aviv and its suburbs were seeing high turnout.

“And what’s happening in  Likud strongholds? Ashkelon, Beersheba, Ashdod, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Kiryat Shmona — why is turnout low? Go vote [Likud] now or you’ll get [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid, a rotation and another election. Two more seats for [Likud] and we win,” the party said.

Stumping for votes, Lapid and Labor leader Merav Michaeli separately claimed that smaller center-left parties were no longer under threat of slipping under the electoral threshold, even as the left-wing Meretz and centrist Blue and White pleaded for votes and warned they could fail to make it into the Knesset.

Head of the Labour party Merav Michaeli tours haTikva market in South Tel Aviv, a few days prior to the Israeli general elections, on March 21, 2021. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90 *** Local Caption *** שוק התקווה
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“Friends, this is no joke,” lamented Michaeli. “Turnout numbers are low. We won’t be able to effect change this way. It’s in out hands. Go vote.”

“Netanyahu is trying to erase Yamina, don’t let it happen,” Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett tweeted.

Religious Zionism Party head Bezalel Smotrich sent out a message blaming over-eager Passover cleaners for the poor turnout. “We’re seeing low turnout in our areas, apparently because of Passover cleaning. Cleaning is important, but go vote,” he chided.

New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, formerly of Likud, urged supporters of Netanyahu’s party who were on the fence to back his right-wing list, rather than the Netanyahu-allied, far-right Religious Zionism.

And Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman urged secular Israelis to head to the polls to weaken the ultra-Orthodox parties, as the Haredi parties issued an urgent call to their followers to vote, citing Liberman’s secularist policies.

The latest election, like the previous three, revolves around Netanyahu. The ground has shifted since the last vote — with right-wing rivals defying him for the first time, and the centrist challenge mounted by Blue and White’s Benny Gantz having faded — but Netanyahu has so far managed to keep his footing, with polls showing him gaining ground at the expense of his rivals in recent weeks.

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote, together with his wife Sara Netanyahu at a voting station in Jerusalem, during elections for the Knesset, on March 23, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

Turnout is expected to be a key factor in the final results.

The voting rate in particular sectors will likely be crucial. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies tend to see a very high rate of turnout, while Arab voters are expected to be less inclined to vote after the partial breakup of the Arab-majority Joint List alliance, which achieved its best-ever showing last year.

A number of small parties have polled dangerously close to the electoral threshold and may not win Knesset representation, which could swing the race in either direction.

An Arab Israeli woman votes in the Knesset election at a polling station in Maghar, March 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The anti-Netanyahu parties Blue and White and Meretz are particularly close to the 3.25% cutoff, which bodes well for the premier. The right-wing Religious Zionism party appears to be in slightly safer territory after climbing in polls in recent weeks. The Islamist Ra’am faction, which has not committed to either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs, has also been hovering near the threshold.

Tuesday’s vote is the second to take place under the shadow of the pandemic. The previous one, in March 2020, played out with the coronavirus storm only just beginning, and relatively few cases reported in Israel.

Since then, the virus has swamped the country, killing over 6,000 people and crashing the economy.

But the outbreak in Israel is now receding amid a world-leading vaccination campaign spearheaded by Netanyahu, who has been in office for 12 years. The historic normalization agreements he reached with Arab states since the last election will also likely play in his favor.

His ongoing corruption trial and splintered government will not, however, as he contends with challengers on both his right and left flanks. Following the last election, his unity government with Blue and White chief Gantz began crumbling almost immediately, and elections were triggered over a budget impasse many blamed on the premier.

Israeli voters, wearing protective masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, wait in line to cast their ballots in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2021 on the fourth national election in two years. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Netanyahu’s Likud is widely expected to be the largest party in the Knesset after Israelis cast their votes at some 15,000 polling stations around the country. Many polls predict ongoing political deadlock; a few in the final days of the campaign have forecast a potential slim pro-Netanyahu coalition after the vote.

The country has taken precautions to accommodate its 6,578,084 eligible voters during the pandemic, with logistics turning the election into the most expensive in Israel’s history. A maximum of only 650 voters are allowed at each polling station, and special measures have been taken to allow COVID-19 patients to vote.

For quarantined virus carriers, special shuttles have been arranged to take them to designated polling stations. The patients can only vote in those stations, which are designed to prevent infections, and they can only arrive using the state-run shuttles. Hospitalized patients can vote at the hospitals.

Those in quarantine who have not been diagnosed with the virus can also vote only at special sites.

An Israeli Bedouin casts his ballot on March 23, 2021 in the Bedouin town of Rahat on the fourth national election in two years. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

A polling station has also been put in place for Israelis flying into Ben Gurion Airport Tuesday, since they must head to quarantine after arrival.

The election comes amid tensions over the voting process and accusations of incitement from Netanyahu’s opponents.

The head of the Elections Committee, Orly Adas, said Monday that vote counting will likely take several days — longer than usual — due to coronavirus precautions and the upcoming Passover holiday. She warned that the delay could be “fertile ground” for growing efforts to delegitimize the results.

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