Voter turnout suffers as many stay home for municipal elections amid Gaza war

49.5% of eligible voters cast ballots after months of delay despite rocket fire and scattered violence; Jerusalem mayor claims victory, Tel Aviv’s Huldai appears set to retain power

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Israelis cast their votes at a voting station on the morning of the Municipal Elections, in Jerusalem, on February 27, 2024.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis cast their votes at a voting station on the morning of the Municipal Elections, in Jerusalem, on February 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Voter turnout in Israel’s nationwide municipal elections remained low Tuesday, with only 49.5 percent of eligible voters having cast ballots when polls closed at 10 p.m., following months of delays caused by the ongoing war in Gaza.

In total, 3,511,758 out of 7,100,390 eligible voters cast ballots, down from from 56% during the previous municipal elections in 2018, according to data provided by the Interior Ministry.

After polls closed, ballots began to be counted and results from smaller communities were expected to be released in the coming hours, while larger towns and cities were expected to have clearer picture of the results in the early morning.

The final results many not be immediately clear, however, due to the high number of IDF soldiers and reservists voting at military polling stations around the country.

In the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, 66.2% of voters cast ballots, 45.6% in the coastal city of Ashdod, 40.5% in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 39.1% in Haifa and 31.4% in Jerusalem.

Exit polling conducted by Direct Polls and published by Channel 14 indicates that both Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai are likely to remain in office, beating out their respective challengers Yossi Havilio and Orna Barbivai by significant margins.

Lion gave a victory speech after midnight in which he spoke first about the imperative to bring Israel’s hostages back from Gaza, and sent a message of support for IDF soldiers fighting against Hamas.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem, during the municipal elections on February 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the poll, former Mayor Yona Yahav leads in Haifa with 33% of the vote, likely requiring a second round of voting. In Beit Shemesh, incumbent Aliza Bloch garnered 38% against challengers Moshe Abutbul and Shmuel Greenberg, who were respectively at 33% and 29%,meaning that the Jerusalem suburb also appears set for a run-off.

Inside the Israeli prison system, 48% of eligible voters were said to have cast their ballots, while as of Tuesday morning, some 30,000 active duty and reserve service members in the Gaza Strip and on military bases across Israel had voted, according to the IDF.

The polls opened a week early for military personnel serving in Gaza and the north and it was unclear if this total includes soldiers who voted in advance. In a statement, the military said it is currently operating 570 polling sites around Israel.

After casting his vote in Jerusalem in the morning, President Isaac Herzog declared that he and his wife Michal had “done our duty and voted in the municipal election for mayor and city council in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.”

“Local government impacts our lives in a very dramatic way. Every area of life for the citizens of Israel is cared for by local authorities. Therefore, if we really want to influence the direction of our lives, it is best to go out and vote in the local authority elections. This has been proven all the more so in the war. In a state of emergency we see the municipalities, the local authorities and councils handling and facing a host of challenges of the highest importance,” Herzog stated.

President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal vote in the Jerusalem municipal elections, February 27, 2024. (Maayan Toaf/GPO)

“I call on the citizens of Israel — go vote and make an impact.”

It was not clear how much Tuesday’s municipal vote would reflect voters’ attitudes to the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Successive opinion polls since Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel have shown Netanyahu and his hardline allies losing significant public support, and National Union party chief Benny Gantz well placed to form a new government were general elections to be held today. But unlike Netanyahu’s Likud, Gantz’s party does not have a powerful and experienced local election machine.

Furthermore, turnout in local polls is always lower than in national elections, and on Tuesday was proving even lower than usual, a factor seen likely to boost the showing of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies in many areas, including Jerusalem, since the ultra-Orthodox community reliably turns out in high numbers.

Many voters in evacuated areas near the Gaza and Lebanon borders might be expected to vote against Likud and its allies, but elections in those under-fire areas have been postponed until November.

Altogether, there are 24,910 candidates running for election on 4,500 party slates, including 801 candidates for mayor, of whom only 83 are women. Voters cast two ballots — for the head of the council, and for a council slate.

Approximately 50,000 officials are involved in staging the elections, which will cost the country some NIS 1 billion ($277 million).

Because of the current conflict, the number of so-called “double envelope” ballots, cast outside of voters’ municipal jurisdictions due to various limitations, will stand at some 400,000 — a huge increase over 95,000 such ballots cast in the last municipal elections in 2018.

During a briefing earlier this month, Interior Ministry Director-General Ronen Peretz warned that this could delay the announcement of official election results until several days after the election.

Despite the difficulties inherent in running an election during wartime, following the opening of the polls, Interior Minister Moshe Arbel told Army Radio that he believed that Tuesday’s vote proved that there was “no obstacle to holding national elections, but there must be a decision by the Knesset to do so.”

His statement was at odds with other members of Netanyahu’s government, who have spoken out against calls to hold national elections during wartime, arguing that they would have a negative effect on the country during a time of crisis.

The municipal elections, originally scheduled for October 31, were initially postponed to January 30 in light of the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, which erupted on October 7 when some 3,000 Hamas terrorists burst through the border, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping over 250, mostly civilians.

They were subsequently pushed off until February 27, delaying Israelis’ the opportunity to cast votes for municipal and regional representatives.

Throughout election day, relatives of the 134 hostages stood at polling places around the country, holding their photos as reminders that they are prevented from their democratic right to choose and vote.

Families of hostages set up booths next to polling stations during local elections on February 27, 2024, reminding voters to ‘Choose the hostages.’ (Courtesy: Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Briefing the cabinet prior to the second postponement in December, the IDF reported that 688 reservists standing for election would “most likely” not be able to be released from duty to conduct their campaign. The reservists whose roles in the army were deemed crucial represented 144 municipalities, the army noted.

Not included in the voting are 11 municipalities and regional councils along the northern border and adjacent to Gaza, from where some 180,000 residents have been evacuated due to ongoing fighting with the Hezbollah and Hamas terror groups, respectively. Elections in those areas will be held nine months from now, on November 19.

Punctuating the wartime atmosphere, sirens sounded in several evacuated villages in northern Israel shortly after polls opened at 7 a.m., as Hezbollah fired a barrage of dozens of missiles, apparently aiming for a sensitive military site on Mount Meron.

The interior ministry has said that should Hamas or Hezbollah attacks complicate voting, the ministry will issue instructions to citizens as to how they can vote, and could even call a halt to voting and postpone it to a later date if necessary.

Rocket attacks continued throughout the day, with incoming rocket sirens sounding in numerous towns in the Western Galilee. Footage showed rockets impacting close to motorists on a highway in northern Israel following a barrage launched from Lebanon by Hezbollah.

The clip showed a group of people driving on the Route 89 highway in the Western Galilee, as rockets slammed into the road, just a few dozen meters in front of them.

The elections were also disrupted by several cases of violence and alleged voter fraud, with police responding to multiple incidents throughout the day.

Police said they were forced to use riot dispersal methods in the southern town of Arara to break up a violent confrontation between two factions in a family outside of a polling station.

At the same time, officers responded to gunshots being fired in the area, and after a short chase, they found a car that contained magazines full of ammunition, which they confiscated. The suspects escaped the scene.

Meanwhile, police also detained three people who got into a fight outside a polling station in Zrahia.

In both locations, the elections continued as usual after the disturbances.

Footage from Bat Galim showed campaigners for one of the city’s candidates being attacked over an argument about hanging signs.

According to Hebrew daily Maariv, a man in Tuba-Zangariyye was moderately injured in a fight at a polling ballot, and Magen David Adom rushed him to the hospital with penetrating wounds.

Campaign volunteers sit next to a giant pile of prayer shawls at the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel party’s municipal campaign headquarters in Beit Shemesh, February 27, 2024. (Sam Sokol)

In Beit Shemesh, members of rival Hasidic groups backing opposing candidates were reported to have clashed over the election, with activists flooding Degel HaTorah candidate Shmuel Greenberg’s campaign headquarters with calls to tie up phone lines, local outlet Beit Shemesh News reported.

In addition, ultra-Orthodox journalist Yossi Shtark tweeted footage that appeared to show activists trespassing in a building belonging to the Belz Hasidic movement and puncturing the tires of a city councilman.

Police also arrested two Beit Shemesh men on suspicion of voter fraud for allegedly offering money to residents to vote for a specific candidate.

A number of other suspects were also detained “and the extent of their involvement” is currently being probed by law enforcement, the police stated.

Apparently in response to initial reports of election fraud attempts, volunteers at the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael party’s local campaign headquarters received instructions to report suspicious activity to police while canvassing at polling stations.

Agudat Yisrael has come out in support of former mayor Moshe Abutbul, the Shas candidate.

In a statement, the Abutbul campaign stated that it had “nothing to do” with the alleged fraud, ultra-Orthodox news site JDN reported.

A woman casts her vote at a polling station on the morning of the municipal elections, in Jerusalem, on February 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the 2013 election, local police discovered hundreds of identity cards in an apartment and car believed to belong to supporters of Abutbul — raising suspicion that they had planned to identify nonvoters and pay them for their identity cards so that Abutbul supporters could use them to cast fraudulent ballots.

The Jerusalem District Court subsequently ordered new elections, which Abutbul won with 51 percent of the vote.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, who is backing Abutbul, stated that he hopes that the ultra-Orthodox can regain control of the city half a decade after the Shas politician — whose term in office coincided with a series of violent attacks by extremists — was narrowly defeated by current Mayor Aliza Bloch.

Voter turnout will likely be a key factor in the elections in Jerusalem and other mixed cities, and the Haredi community has traditionally very high rates of voter participation, largely due to rabbinic orders to vote as a matter of religious obligation.

Times of Israel staff, Emanuel Fabian, Tal Schneider and Ariella Oldfield contributed to this report.

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