Elections, Israeli Style

They're colorful. They're intense. They're like a carnival. They're democratic.

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It's Friday afternoon, and Tel Aviv's Arlozoroff and Namir intersection is decked out in a rainbow of banners. As dozens of cars surge through the gateway to Israel's metropolis, animated political activists dance their way through the traffic, shoving bumper stickers in the faces of curious weekend motorists. 

It Must Be Election Time

It must be election time again in Israel. Welcome to the war of the road junctions, where squatters from political parties of all shapes and sizes appraise every corner as potential real estate for their political grandstand. This is the homegrown brand of drive-through grass-roots campaigning, a microcosm of the carnival atmosphere that is Israeli elections.

A month prior to Election Day, Israeli election campaigns ramp up their campaigns. Under Israeli law, elections must occur at least once every four years in the fall. But since the country's parliamentary system allows both the prime minister and the legislature to call for early elections, politicians rarely wait that long. There is no set electioneering season.

israeli style electionsThe campaigns are brief compared to the year-long run up to presidential balloting in the United States. Six months is considered an eternity. More often, campaigns are held within three to four months. The tight schedule makes the spectacle all the more intense.

At stake is control of the Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament. On Election Day, every voter casts one ballot, selecting among about two dozen parties. A party's Knesset size is based on a percentage of votes. The leader of the party that gets the most votes forms the government and becomes prime minister.

Often it's the smaller parties that are the kingmakers in Israeli politics, holding the swing votes that can make or break competing alliances in the Knesset. It takes only 2 percent of the total vote, to get into parliament. The low election threshold ensures that voters get a smorgasbord of parties specialized to almost every constituency.

Democracy in Action

Forget about war and peace. For the religious voter, there's Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Ultra-orthodox, and Sephardic (Mediterranean) Ultra-Orthodox options. Secular Jews choose among parties of socialist bleeding heart doves or laissez-faire capitalists. There are four parties that target the county's 20 percent Arab minority. The Green Leaf party promises marijuana legalization. The same for gambling with the Casino party.

Before going to the voters, parties put their own house in order. For the junkie, it's the height of political inside baseball. Like-minded parties flirt with merging their candidates into one list. Political rebels threaten jumping ship and forming new parties.

For example, just prior to the elections to the 16th Knesset in January 2003, Eliva Avigdor of the taxi drivers' party entered into an alliance with a party called "Men's Rights in the Family." That obscure movement of Israeli men has never won a seat in Knesset, but Avigdor, who promised to drum up support among fellow drivers in return for the second spot on the party list, was confident his politicking would finally win his party a coveted Knesset seat.

Internal elections are held among party faithful to rank the candidates who will appear on the election slate and sometimes determine who will stand as the candidate for prime minister. For a brief moment, the elections detour into a cacophony of infighting. Party chieftains with naked ambition vie for control by making loyalty pacts with grass roots activists and distributing "hit lists,'' marking enemies that are to be boycotted.

But then it's off to the races. Weekly polls in newspapers try to foresee the makeup up of the parliament. Giant highway billboards become filled with pictures of party leaders smiling down at commuters. Down by the roadside, where it's free to hang a banner on a tree or a guard railing, the prime spots are as hotly contested as the election, so much so that political parties not only deploy activists to dump campaign literature on passersby, they also deploy activists to "stand guard" next to the party's campaign posters. Their job is to watch and maybe even intimidate to ensure the stream of campaign posters doesn't get ripped down. In the aftermath of the vote, highways will be littered with discarded banners.          

On the Airwaves

Three weeks prior to Election Day, the campaigns take to the airwaves. Each party is allotted blocs of radio and television time to broadcast political commercials, which are elaborate productions that become prime time entertainment. By the end of the campaign, party jingles will be embedded into the collective subconscious of the country.

Of course there are more creative ways to garner votes. Religious parties enlist spiritual leaders to make up blessings for followers who come to the polling stations on Election Day.

But ultimately, the driving force behind the spectacle of the Israeli elections is the ever-present feeling the fate of the country is hanging on every vote.

"If you believe in the state of Israel as a Jewish state you have to be out here,'' said Ralph Konenthal, 40, who during the campaign for the 16th Knesset walked amid the Tel Aviv traffic with an Israeli flag in one hand and shouted "Vote Lamed!''

The Hebrew letter lamed is critical for Kronenthal's National Union party because when the voters disappear into the voting booth, they will be faced with an array of Hebrew letters. Spread out on the table will be an array of white slips with up to three letters, each one associated with a specific party. Voters place the slip in an envelope in the booth, and then emerge to stick the envelope in a ballot box covered in sky-blue paper with a menorah, the insignia of the State of Israel.

Election Day in Israel is a public holiday, ensuring voter turnout of about 80 percent. After voting, there's not much to do except to go home and wait for the exit polls. Unless it's a close race, winners can look forward to celebration in the street under a shower of leftover ballot slips.

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.