Wednesday, March 29, 2006
An overview of the Israeli elections
Israelis were promised a big-bang in their political scene, what ensued was more akin to a medium to small sized bang. The formation of a new party that would garner the largest amounts of votes and break the stranglehold of the two ruling party system did materialize, but to a much lesser extent than its members would have hoped.
When Ariel Sharon first broke away from the ruling Likud party to set up Kadima, opinion polls predicted the new list would win 44-45 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. With Sharon incapacitated, Ehud Olmert took the reins of the party and the country. In the three months since Olmert took over the leadership of Kadima, the new party was hemorrhaging voters. Many voters were initially attracted to Kadima purely because they trusted Sharon at the helm and equated Sharon with Kadima and vice versa. Olmert has never held the same presence, authority and trust as the man now in a coma on the seventh floor of a hospital in Jerusalem.
In Tuesday's general election, the first piece of history was the voter turnout. Voter turnout in the elections for the 17th Knesset dropped to an estimated 63.2 percent, a decrease of 5.7 percentage points compared to the previous general election in 2003. The drop on Tuesday was a continuation of the downward trend that has marked participation in elections ever since the State of Israel was created.
"Not good," said Haifa University political scientist professor Asher Arian in response to the figures. "The percentage of voters went down in 2003 and now it has gone down even more." Arian added that the trend in Israel was similar to developments in the rest of the world and appeared to reflect disenchantment with the ability of the state to solve problems. "It is a general unease, not one that is directed at the democratic system per se."
The second piece of history in these elections was that neither Labor nor Likud were the party with the highest amount of votes. Kadima, the party headed by Olmert, took only 28 seats but were still declared the largest party and thus the winners of the elctions, albeit in a weaker than expected position.
Kadima's leader, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, declared victory early today and said he was confident that the party would be able to move forward with its plan to disengage Israel from more territory.
''For thousands of years we have carried the dream of Greater Israel in our hearts," said Olmert, wearing a yarmulke though he usually goes bareheaded, told cheering supporters at his election headquarters. ''But, because of our recognition of the realities of the situation . . . we are prepared to compromise."
The second place in the elections was taken by Amir Peretz's Labor party. The Labor party had attempted to re-establish itself as a social issues party and tended to focus on these issues rather than security in the lead up to the elction.
According to Ha'aretz commentator Yoel Marcus "While the Labor Party increased its share of the pie by just one seat, thanks to Amir Peretz, it is a new Labor - fresh, full of aspirations to succeed when it comes to both peace and social issues. Anyone who took note of Peretz's development during the election campaign can see him not only as a partner for Olmert, but also as the individual who can restore Labor to its former glory in the future."
For many, the true revolution was not in Labor's success among the voters, but in where those voters came from. "We have seen a drastic shift in the map of constituencies in Israel," said MK Shalom Simhon. "Areas that have never voted Labor are voting nearly unanimously for Peretz, according to some early results."
Simhon, who represents the moshavim on the Labor list, said that many development towns in the South which have historically voted Likud were coming out in droves to support Peretz.
According to the results after 99.5% of the voting counted, Likud has sunk to fifth largest party with a paltry 11 seats in the Knesset. The once mighty Likud Party, the dominant force in Israeli politics for almost 30 years, had fallen to its knees.
"We have no doubt the Likud has suffered a tough blow," Mr Netanyahu told a crowd of supporters shortly after exit polls had shown the fate of the Likud. Netanyahu, however, remained defiant and declared that he will remain as party chairman and declared he will make Likud relevant again. "I intend to continue along the path we have only just begun in order to ensure this movement is rehabilitated and takes its rightful place in the nation's leadership," Netanyahu declred.
Many attributed Likud's fall from grace to Netanyahu's stint as Finace Minister. The 56-year-old pushed through swingeing benefit cuts that hurt Israel's poor working class, many of whom are natural Likud supporters. "We didn't pay enough attention to the people," admitted Reuven Rivlin, a Likud parliamentarian.
The most likely to have gained from Likud's fall were the great surprise of these elctions, Avigdor Lieberman's "Yisrael Beiteinu. Amassing up to 14 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu has replaced the Likud as the standard bearer of the right-wing.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us. This is just the beginning of our fight for Israel's future," said the 47-year-old Lieberman, as he stood with his family in a reception room of a Jerusalem hotel an hour after the exit polls. Lieberman was not resting on his laurels and pledged to supporters that this was just the beginning for his party.
"After the next election, we will be the ruling party," pledges the former Russian hard-liner.
The other great winner in the election was also the biggest shock. With nearly all votes counted on Wednesday morning, the Pensioners' Party appears to have secured seven seats in the next Knesset. The Pensioners' Party has never had one seat in the Knesset before and many had forecasted the same fate in these elections.
The Pensioners' Party platform deals entirely with advancing the rights of the elderly, including ensuring pensions for all citizens and placing medications for the elderly in the health basket of medications and medical treatments subsidized by the state. Party chairman Rafi Eitan, a former senior official in the Shin Bet security service and Mossad espionage agency, has a brief political history dating back to when he helped Ariel Sharon establish the Shlomzion party in the 1970s.
The Pensioner's Party relied heavily on young disillusioned voters who weren't intending to vote. According to author Linda Grant, who recently wrote a best-selling book about Israeli society, these voters turned to their elder family members as a means of political protest.
"Two days ago, word started to spread that something really odd was happening in Tel Aviv: the urban young, committed not to voting at all, convinced that all politicians were corrupt and that they should grit their teeth, do their army service, chill out at the beach on weekend leave and then head straight off to Thailand or Goa when they were demobbed, had started to campaign on behalf of their grandparents."
Many see the Pensioners Party as possible king-makers in the future coalition building process. As a party with a heavily weighted single issue, the party is seen as a good coalition partner to carry out security related policies at the cost of paying the pensioner's their desired issues.
Other results saw Shas retain pretty much the same Knesset representation, but the amalgamation of two right-wing parties, National-Religious and National Union, did not bear fruit. After months of anticipation over the merger of the two, the National Union and National Religious Party were stunned Tuesday night by exit polls that showed them losing from their strength in the last Knesset, and the unequivocal failure of the Right to attain enough votes to block an Olmert-led government.
The remaining parties, Meretz, United Torah Judaism and the Arab lists were expected to remain at similar strength to their representation in the last Knesset.
Shunui, the secular party, which took the political map by storm in the last elections were not expected to have enough votes for a single Knesset seats, perhaps an ominous warning that the new centrist Kadima party should not think that it is now invincible for future elctions.
However, Olmert as the leader of the party with the most votes will be invited in the coming days by President Moshe Katsav to form a coalition for a government. The coming weeks will see political horse-trading between a large number of the parties as each one will tell Olmert what it desires to become part of his government. This period is sometimes just as interesting as the period up to the elctions. The people of Israel have had their say, now the politicians get to work to present a sound government to represent Israel for the next four years.
The results after 99% of the voting can be viewed here.