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Israel’s Strategic Elections

It can be hard for political junkies to live without polls until Election Day, but that’s exactly what Israel has had to put up with since Friday. The publishing of new election poll-results during the last days of the campaign is forbidden by law. Therefore the country is left in the dark until exit polls are published tomorrow evening: for now rumor and spin dominate public opinion.

Rumor: The race is tighter than ever, and Kadima might even pull out a very tight win. Even in this case there would be a long way to go before Tzipi Livni can form a coalition, but plausible scenarios can already be anticipated in the Israeli street.

Israel lacks polls as well as the clarigying advantages of a two-party system. At least four parties — Kadima, Likud, Labor, and Israel Beiteinu — might end up winning more or less 20 mandates (out of 120). Through the last days of the campaign, confusion reigns supreme and Israelis are desperately trying to outsmart the system. They are known to vote “strategically” – that is, to favor electoral influence over ideological affinity.

This explains Ehud Barak’s warning today that if Labor doesn’t get “close to 20 mandates” he might not be able to remain defense minister. He is after those strategists wanting him as DM. They might not like Labor, but will vote to help Barak retain his position.

Such strategic decisions can lead to bizarre outcomes. One strategic voter is Yuval Rabin, the son of the late Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was meeting Likud’s Netanyahu today — and on this occasion announced he will vote for Labor but urged both parties to form a unity government. Rabin, like many other voters, doesn’t see the election as zero-sum-game. In Israel’s parliamentary system, Election Day is the beginning of a process rather than the end of it. You can win the day and lose the election, or vice-versa. Thus — while they formally belong to opposite camps — Netanyahu and Barak (and, apparently, Rabin) have the same goal in mind: blocking Kadima’s victory. If this happens, they can join forces and live happily ever after – well, for a year or two.

The intricacies of “strategic voting” will lead Meretz voters, who aren’t fond of Livni, to vote for her anyway in order to block Netanyahu. This motivation will give people an excuse to vote for Likud — even if they like Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu better – suspecting that Lieberman might end up joining a Kadima coalition.

Strategic voting has it’s weaknesses. It makes people vote for someone they don’t agree with on policy issues — thus rendering politics in general “dirtier” and less ideological. No wonder Israelis are so quickly disillusioned with their politicians: First they vote for someone they don’t care for — then they feign disappointment.

Another important weakness of strategic voting is its tendency to simply not work: Imagine five million voters trying to outsmart one another by voting “strategically” and you’ll easily understand why. Of course, this approach to electoral decisions confuses pollsters, drives political consultants crazy, and debases any serious ideological debates along party lines. It makes Election Night more exciting and most unpredictable.

That’s tomorrow night. Stay tuned.