Israelis head to polls, highest turnout in 20 years may prove decisive

The politicians voted early. It appears the people have come out to vote too as 56.3% of Israelis voted by 6:00 p.m., the highest turnout since 1999.

By David Isaac, World Israel News 

After a hard-fought, three-month campaign, the politicians streamed to the polls early as they opened at 7:00 a.m. on Monday in Israel.

Yemina party chairman Ayelet Shaked showed up with her kids at a polling station in Tel Aviv. Senior Blue and White member Moshe Ya’alon voted at Kibbutz Grofit near Eilat and Avigdor Liberman was seen casting his ballot at his hometown of Nokdim in Judea.

A total of 10,651 ballot stations opened in the country and 6,453,255 citizens are eligible to vote.

The question is: Will a public weary of elections take advantage of their voting privileges?

It appears the answer is yes – as 56.3% of eligible Israeli voters cast their ballot by 6:00 pm, the highest voter turnout since 1999.

This is Israel’s third election in less than a year and the country remains in a political deadlock with surveys showing a dead heat, meaning voters can expect the situation to continue even after these elections – not exactly a strong motivator to head to the polls.

Much discussed in the last few days has been the coronavirus effect: Will fears of the disease keep people from the ballot box?

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The major parties – Likud and Blue and White – have accused each other of potentially manipulating those fears to keep voters from showing up by spreading rumors.

The investigative branch of the police have even set up a special center to field calls and deal with false rumors that may spread.

A precedent has already been set regarding the potential fallout from such rumors. Israel’s TPS newswire reported that on Sunday morning, reports emerged that a man had visited a clinic inside a shopping complex near Tel Aviv, complaining of ill health.

With the news spreading that the man had come to Israel from the U.S. via corona-stricken Italy, panic ensued with two levels of the mall being evacuated. Business at the mall resumed as normal shortly after.

Israel has set up some 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis who have been ordered to remain in home-quarantine after possible exposure to the virus. The Health Ministry issued instructions that they are to head straight to the polls and not stop along the way.

The Health Ministry will man the booths as no election day volunteers could be found willing to do so.

Little fanfare

Sensing voter exhaustion, there was little fanfare in the days leading up to the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters on the streets and public rallies that typically characterize the run-up to elections.

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At voting stations there are normally numerous party booths with volunteers passing hand-outs in a last-minute attempt to influence undecided voters. Today, they were virtually absent. At one station in Ramat Gan, only the Labour-Gesher-Meretz alignment featured a booth manned by an unusually shy volunteer who didn’t approach voters.

Election day is a national holiday in Israel, and the country usually boasts one of the highest voter turnouts among Western democracies.

After the election, the real jockeying gets underway, with attention shifting to President Reuven Rivlin, who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister. He is supposed to select the leader who he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition.

The honor usually goes to the head of the largest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of lawmakers outside his own party who recommend him to the president.

Rivlin’s selection will then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If that party fails, another candidate then has 28 days to form an alternative coalition. If that effort fails, new elections would be forced.

It’s a procedural process that remained hypothetical for Israel’s first 70 years of existence until it played out after the last election in September. Should results match current opinion polls, and all the major players stick to the campaign promises, it may well repeat itself.

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In that case, Israel is looking at an astonishing fourth election.

AP contributed to this report.