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Municipal meltdown

Low voter turnout in local elections is largely due to a lack of political accountability and the system badly needs changing

Local politics in Israel, even on the eve of elections, rarely arouse public interest. On Tuesday the polls will open in 191 local authorities; almost 700 mayoral candidates will vie for the right to stand at the head of municipal councils which are being contested by some 1,500 lists. It will be a miracle if 50 percent of eligible voters actually exercise their civic duty at the ballot box. And, once again, as people stay away, too many questionable pretenders will be ensconced in office for the next five years. For an increasing number of Israelis—already jaded by several instances of hope turned into disappointment—local elections all too often symbolize the underside of Israeli politics and not, as they would have liked to believe, their redemption.

This sorry state of affairs reflects the growing bankruptcy of the local political domain: an outcome of decades of inefficiency, marginalization and rising citizen alienation. Yet what happens at the local level cannot easily be disentangled from national politics: the two are inextricably intertwined. Failure to act promptly now to thoroughly review, revise and revive municipal arrangements will have a direct bearing on the governability of Israel’s system in its entirety.

There is no better measure of attitudes towards local politics than voter turnout. In the last two sets of municipal elections, average participation rates throughout the country barely scraped 50 percent (49.3% in 2003; 51.85% in 2009), while the turnout in national elections, also on the decline, settled at about 65 percent. The situation in Israel’s major cities is even worse: in the last local elections in 2008, the participation rate in Jerusalem was 43.25%, in Haifa 38.54%, in Ramat Gan 38.18%, and in Tel-Aviv and Beer Sheva a meager 35.51% and 32% respectively. The highest participation rates were recorded in small towns (Savion, 61.58%; Beit Shemesh, 67.22; Omer, 68.73% and Sderot, 70.12%) and in predominantly Arab municipalities: Shfar’am, 83.94%; Abu Ghosh, 90.31% and Kfar Kassem, 94.59 percent.

Reluctance to assert the most basic of democratic rights at the local level is somewhat puzzling. On the surface, local politics affect the quality of life of residents more directly and continuously than national politics. Because of their limited size, it would be logical to assume that diverse voters would feel that their capacity to affect decisions in these intimate surroundings was greater than on the national scene. And, given the overall spike in interest in the public arena since the social justice protests two years ago, it would appear that mobilization locally should have grown in recent years. Despite constant reminders to go out and vote, on Tuesday turnout rates, even if they improve somewhat (since participation levels tend to follow national trends), will probably continue to be way below what is considered acceptable in an engaged society.

Disinterest in—if not downright disgust with—local politics is the sum total of a long list of factors, foremost of which is the unique structure of local government in Israel. On the one hand, mayors, elected on a separate ballot for a period of five years, enjoy a tremendous amount of autonomy from their councils and are not beholden to their members, most of who serve on a voluntary basis. On the other hand, the highly centralized nature of government in the country effectively limits the range of powers of local authorities and those who stand at their helm. The result of this structural anomaly is that local officials spend more time lobbying government ministries or placating local entrepreneurs than serving their constituents. The absence of accountability which permeates the Israeli political system is especially salient at the local level.

The ramifications of this lack of minimal citizen oversight are legion: many localities suffer from persistent mismanagement, skewed priorities and unbridgeable deficits. Cronyism is rampant. The number of mayors, deputy mayors and councilors charged with conflict of interest, misuse of public funds and outright corruption borders on the outrageous (several incumbents seeking reelection this week are in the midst of trials on charges of embezzlement, fraud and abuse of office). In many of Israel’s cities, municipal services—especially in the poorer neighborhoods—leave much to be desired. The bureaucratic penchant which permeates the country is particularly pronounced at the local level, where getting a fallen tree removed or a street light fixed can become a major operation.

Confidence in most local authorities today is consequently at its nadir. Many urban residents have been schooled to lower their expectations, aware of the fact that many of their needs are supplied by national agencies and those that are not (such as education and sanitation) are barely met. With very few exceptions—mostly in markedly well-heeled communities—their trust in their local representatives has ebbed.

So, too, by and large, has their sense of efficacy. Voters avoid the polling stations when they lose the belief in their capacity to make a difference. This is exactly what has happened in Israel in recent decades. Political parties, while continuing to dabble in local politics in order to strengthen their geographic base, reward activists, pad their coffers and use local successes as a springboard to greater power at the national level, rarely present their own lists in municipal elections. Too many (admittedly mostly well-intentioned) local lists have sprouted up—either as more palatable offshoots of national parties or as homegrown substitutes for their inadequacies. Very few differ in their platforms or in the vision they present to their electorates.

In these circumstances, either because there is truly very little to choose from or because whatever they choose won’t change much, many voters (armed with the handy excuse that, since local elections are a workday, they are otherwise occupied) simply don’t bother. Those that do fulfill their civic duty usually do so for sectarian reasons (voting as a bloc to boost their particular community) or out of utilitarian concerns (to promote narrow interests). The number of those who actually vote to improve their environment has consequently dwindled to a trickle.

There is nothing new about the political maladies of local politics. What is mystifying is the unwillingness to alter a situation whose ill-effects have penetrated all aspects of Israeli politics from the bottom up. Before the lack of checks and balances at the local level is duplicated in the national sphere—the gist of the heralded governmental reforms currently before the Knesset—there may yet be time to reverse priorities and to begin to shake up the system from the ground floor.

Four concrete steps can start altering the current trajectory. First, since local government cannot remain a hobby, to ensure accountability and increase effectiveness all elected representatives on municipal councils should be remunerated. Second, in order to prevent abuses and to assure rotation, the terms of office of mayors must be limited to two (ten years). Third, the central government should consider devolving authority as well supplying adequate resources to those responsible for governance at the local level. And, finally, the re-politicization of local affairs after so many years of their over-personalization can go a long way towards rebuilding confidence in local government.

The institution of these—and accompanying measures—can help to reverse the main sources of the disaffection that marks attitudes towards the municipal world; it can also serve as a call for constructive and meaningful citizen involvement close to home. In the meantime, anybody who either disagrees with this analysis or accepts it and would have it otherwise still has a chance to be heard. Go out and vote tomorrow.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.