Elections, ostensibly one of the most democratic of events, frequently intensify non-democratic currents and sanction anti-democratic actions. As in the past, so too today, in the name of democracy competitive elections may actually undermine democratic principles and weaken democratic norms. Historical and contemporary examples abound—from Europe in the interwar period to a series of recent plebiscites in Eastern Europe and the Arab world. In Israel, the current electoral season contains numerous democratic warning signals under the guise of a celebration of open electoral contestation. From this perspective, the March 17 ballot is shaping up into a referendum on the future of democracy in Israel.

For the past decade and more, Israel has been experiencing a significant democratic recession. The political ascendancy of the right in the country—and with it the entrenchment of a formal, majoritarian, definition of democracy—has been accompanied by the gradual whittling away of the commitment to fundamental elements of liberal democracy. The principle of equality has been directly assailed through its uneven application to various sectors of society. Basic civil rights have been made contingent on loyalty to the state and to the policy of its current leaders. Minorities—both Arab and Jewish—have lost state protection when they have deviated from reigning worldviews. And democracy itself as the preferred form of government has been questioned by those who insist that national concerns preempt all other considerations. Democracy, one of the bedrocks of modern Israel, is fast becoming a partisan issue.

Two major alliances, representing, respectively, the formal and the substantive approaches to democratic government, are now vying with each other for the support of the 25% of the population who constitute what is an incoherent and undecided center. The politically dominant nationalist strain (led by Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beyteinu party) has shed most of the accoutrements of deep democracy in favor of a Jewish-based nationalistic banner which—in the first instance—seeks to apply ethnic tests to membership in the political community. In contrast, parties on the center-left, (beginning with the Herzog/Livni Zionist Union and continuing more deeply into Meretz and the Joint Arab List) still view Israel’s open democracy as one of the country’s defining characteristics and as the binding normative standard-bearer for all its citizens.

The tug-of-war between the hegemonic nationalists and the deep democrats has been played out in the public arena for some years, with a series of legislative initiatives that significantly chipped away at the democratic foundations of the country and gave legitimacy to efforts to subjugate them to their (still inconclusively defined) Jewish roots. These differences culminated in a series of proposed bills on “Israel: The Nation-State of the Jewish People”, directly paving the way to the announcement of early elections.

Free and fair competitive elections are the hallmark of formal democracy, which assures that varying opinions, groups and interests have a fair chance to woo the voter. The outcome of elections allows for the determination of a new government which enjoys the support of the majority of the electorate. The possibility of rotation through the ballot enables political change while safeguarding regime stability.

But even this barest of definitions of democracy can only be played out if all elements of the population are granted an equal opportunity to compete and succeed in the electoral ritual. This elementary right has not been scrupulously safeguarded in this round. A year ago the Likud-led coalition spearheaded a change in the electoral law, raising the threshold for entry into the Knesset to 3.25 percent. Widely perceived (and therefore unsuccessfully opposed) as a means of diminishing the representation of Israel’s diverse Arab community, this move may have backfired: the recently established joint Arab list is well on the way to becoming the third largest party in the country.

This may explain why so much effort is currently being put into disqualifying the candidacy of Hanin Zoabi on the grounds of disloyalty (and much less is being invested in a similar challenge to Baruch Marzel—the bearer of the racist mantle of the late Meir Cahane). Although the High Court of Justice will probably overturn the vote of the party representatives in the Electoral Commission, the most basic of democratic rights—the right to vote and to be elected—is subject once again to partisan manipulations.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the much more subtle set of civic and minority rights are being trampled with abandon. Both the Likud and the Zionist Union, albeit in quite different ways, have attacked freedom of expression: the former by viciously assaulting the veteran Yedi’ot Aharonot, and the latter by trying to muzzle the freely distributed pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom. With the independence of the press at its lowest level in years, the boundary between freedom of speech and incitement is being crossed several times daily.

The language of the campaign, in all its non-substantive glory, resembles a pitched battle between purportedly rival positions carried out on the emotional backs of the electorate, often at the cost of further destabilizing the country’s democratic order. Indeed, not only is the framing of this year’s politics exceptionally sectarian and divisive, the nationalists have shamelessly employed the power apparatus to discredit liberals in order to fortify their own camp (the Prime Minister’s tampering with the composition of the juries convened to decide on the winners of the prestigious Israel prize is a case in point).

This pattern extends to other civil liberties as well. The right of association is stringently protected when at issue are the activities of foreign-funded right-wing non-profits (most notably Elad in Jerusalem and the Judea and Samaria Council). In stark contrast, activist groups who have bandied together to encourage a change in government (the V-15 initiative, for one) are being relentlessly hounded and their financial backers at home and abroad are denounced by government officials as scheming meddlers.

The aggressive aura of the campaign is especially evident when it comes to the question of minority rights. What would not have been countenanced twenty years ago is now becoming commonplace: Arabs—cast as an indistinguishable and by nature suspect group—are subject to daily disparagement. The fact that senior government ministers had the audacity to intimate that car thieves and Arabs are synonymous or to call for the boycott of Arab businesses is but the tip of the iceberg of what has become a set of unbridled harangues against any group that dares to suggest that citizenship—regardless of nationality, religion, or gender—carries certain inalienable rights guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

This attitude has been reinforced materially, with stepped-up allocations to potentially supportive sectors during the election season, at the expense of the weak and the disadvantaged. The persistence of such unabashed favoritism not only flaunts commonly accepted rules of the game, it also defies notions of equal treatment so vital to democratic robustness.

During the countdown to Election Day, the dangers of sacrificing democratic principles on the altar of a seemingly democratic contest increase. Just as the Prime Minister’s insistence on speaking in Congress two weeks before the elections has already introduced destructive partisan strains into the heretofore bi-partisan support for Israel in the United States, so his fear-propelled de-legitimation of liberalism risks making Israel’s democracy a victim of a partisan campaign at the ballot box (the withdrawal of all right-wing parties from the Ha’aretz conference on democracy this week is illustrative).

These elections are broadening social divisions, undercutting civil liberties, enhancing inter-group enmity and contaminating public discourse. Above all, they are cynically abusing the fundamentals of democracy (already strained to the limits after years of occupation over another people against their will) in order to win votes. One can only hope against hope that Israel’s democracy survives its seemingly “democratic” elections and that the country can begin a process of veritable democratic rehabilitation.