Israel: Sharon elected on historically low turn-out

Monday’s (27 January) general elections in Israel saw Ariel Sharon’s Likud party double its vote to 37 seats. The Labour Party (which is the traditional party of the Israeli capitalists) plunged to an all time low of 19 seats. Turnout was 68.5%, the lowest for an election to the Knesset in Israeli history.

The elections were held against a backdrop of crisis in all aspects of Israeli society. The economy is in deep recession. GDP per head has dropped by 6%. Successive tightening of eligibility criteria has failed to prevent the rise in jobless. Mass redundancies have not only affected the old manufacturing industries, but also high tech and the banking sector.

Sharon’s iron fist policy of militarily crushing the Palestinians has devastated Palestinian cities, but has failed to stop the suicide bombings or provide security for ordinary Israelis, or any hope of peace in the future.

The Likud party is wracked by scandals. Mafia families have taken over Likud branches and had their representatives elected on the Likud slate. Vote buying in the Likud primaries was widespread, and Sharon and his sons are under police investigation for suspected bribe taking in connection with Sharon’s receipt of a loan from a South African millionaire, and his son getting a job with a massive salary from a Likud hack turned millionaire.

How did Sharon win?

Despite having failed in every single election promise, and being surrounded by disaster and corruption, Sharon is the first Israeli prime minister in over a decade to be re-elected. How did this happen?

Firstly, there was no credible opposition. Labour had been part of the outgoing National unity government and had provided no alternative to Sharon’s military and economic policy. Labour’s attempt to reinvent themselves around their new and relatively unknown leader Mitzna, did not erase their past in the eyes of Israeli workers.

Another party saw a collapse in support, the ‘dovish’ Meretz party, which slumped to six seats as their programme of negotiations is seen as having disastrously failed after the collapse of the Oslo agreement.

Secondly, many Israelis saw a vote for Sharon as an act of defiance against the suicide bombings and other attacks. While posing no strategy or hope, Likud promises to ‘hit back’.

Thirdly, Likud benefited from being seen as being opposed by the establishment. Likud is a right wing, populist party, and while is supported by a few maverick or more openly criminal capitalists, the capitalist class as a whole fear that the Likud’s ultra nationalist policies will destabilise the region and threaten their profits. They prefer Labour and in this election pulled out all the stops in their attempts to undermine Likud’s support. The front pages of the papers were full reports of Likud scandals, and leaked police investigations. This had a certain effect in the opinion polls, which at one point saw the Likud and Labour almost neck and neck. But the traditional Likud supporters, the more downtrodden and alienated sections of the working class, saw this as an establishment witch hunt against ‘their party’, and voted for Sharon on election day.

It would be a mistake to see the rise in the Likud vote as broad support for its policies. Its neo-liberal economic policy is hated. But as it is no different to any of the main parties in this respect, this was not an election issue. There was a marked lack of enthusiasm for the elections and any of the parties. Unusually for Israel, election campaign car stickers or balcony posters were very rare. The ruling class are very worried that the decline in voter turnout will undermine the legitimacy of capitalist democracy in the eyes of ordinary Israelis. The head of the election committee even went as far as to suggest that non-voters should be fined.

The Left

Histadruth leader Amir Peretz’s ‘One People’ party grew to four seats. Despite having done little since elected, the party was seen by many workers as a party that at least vocalises their grievances. Two new anti-capitalist parties failed to get any seats (and their voting figures are not yet available). The unemployed activist, Avi Ovadia, set one of them, Lahava, up. The other party Zaam (fury), was set up by community activists in a run down town in the south of the country. These parties show that even in the midst of war and terrorist attacks, activists are looking for a political voice. The communist-led Hadash list also rose to 4 seats.

What next?

Sharon’s victory will be a poisoned chalice for him. He has no answer to any of the aspects of the crisis afflicting Israeli society. The first act of his new government will be the need to cut spending by a further NIS 8bn to cover the growing budget deficit. In his victory speech, Sharon said he hoped his government would last the full four-year term. But this seems very unlikely. He has called for a new ‘national unity’ government. During this deep crisis on all fronts, capitalist democracy cannot afford the luxury of an opposition. The statements of the Labour leader that he would not enter it will complicate forming such a government. With or without a unity government, Sharon’s government will be one of war, crisis and increased instability.

During the election campaign, Maavak Sozialisti (CWI in Israel) members distributed leaflets in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. We explained that the elections would solve none of the problems of Israeli society, and called for the need for workers and young people to struggle after the elections against whatever government is formed in defence of their interests, and the need to establish a new workers’ party that alone would look after their interests and call for a socialist solution to the Palestinian question.

A more detailed CWI analysis on the Israeli election results will follow later this week.

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