Political Participation – The next phase of the social protest

By: Ariel Oseran, Mqg’s Blog

Two and half years have passed since the tents on Nordau and Rothschild were dismantled. It’s true that we’ve had two summers without any large-scale organized demonstration taking place in the city squares. It’s also clear that many have already lost interest and others have lost hope. However, I believe the protests of the summer of 2011 are not over. They were just the beginning.

In the article by Sami Peretz (TheMarker) on February 5th 2014, he argues that the social protests of 2011 were only “Phase 1” of the protest. You’re probably asking yourselves: “What was the result of this phase?” Well, the result was the change in perception. According to Perez, this change is embodied by the public voice which now resonates more powerfully. Actions such as opening the cellular market, passing the centralization bill and establishing a new political party that managed to secure 19 mandates (“Yesh Atid” – the second largest party in the Knesset), are all examples of the significant outcomes of the social protests, and serve as examples of campaigns which started from the bottom – from the public.

This is a shift in perception that promotes change, encourages critical thinking and results in the realization that not everything is Force Majeure. However, Peretz believes that these alone are not sufficient and will not bring about a change in its entirety. In other words, these are simply the results of “Phase I”.

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In his article, Peretz mainly speaks about “Phase I”. I would like to take the time to show what “Phase II” should look like in my opinion. The required next phase is to mobilize an entire population to urge the government to promote steps that have the public’s interest at heart. In other words, developing a culture of political participation.

Political participation relates to the many ways in which citizens can directly or indirectly affect the composition of the government and/or its policies. There are two types of political participation:

  1. Measures to influence the composition of the government (i.e. voting).
  2. Measures to influence the decisions and policies of the government (i.e. an active civil society, demonstrations, petitions, political consumerism, etc.).

Political scientists compare the political participation of citizens to the gladiator fights of the classical era, which the citizens of Rome would watch as a source of entertainment. They divide the population into a pyramid of three groups:

  1. At the top of the pyramid are the Gladiators – This is a very small group comprised of all those “warriors” in the political battlefield. Included in this group are politicians, party activists and workers/volunteers in NGOs and in various other organizations and associations. This group (about 5% of the public) is far from being a cross-section of the general society.
  2. In the middle are the Spectators – The audience that comes to the arena to watch the battles, but is not involved beyond that (i.e. voting in the general elections is usually their only activity). This is the largest section of the public (about 65% of the public).
  3. At the bottom of the pyramid are the Apathetic – Those who are “outside the arena”. These don’t participate, are uninvolved and uninterested in politics (about 30% of the public).

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These spectators and apathetic citizens suffer from what’s called: “The Free Rider Phenomenon”. This describes the collective activity of groups of people, where most of its members are dormant and permit others (gladiators) to act on their behalf and in their place. In other words, they say to themselves: “I don’t have any real way to make a difference, so there is no point at all in participating”.

Ways to influence the composition of the government

If we examine the impact the social protests had on voter turnout, we’ll notice that in the elections of 2009, voter turnout stood at approximately 65%. However, in the last elections (the only ones since the social protests) we witnessed a mere 1% increase, and the turnout stood at about 66% (a relatively low rate on a global scale, placing Israel 92nd in the world). It seems that the social protests had next to no effect on voter turnout.

Obviously there are plenty of “technical” ways to raise the voter turnout (i.e. electoral reform, establishing mobile polling stations, etc.), though I believe it is more important dealing with the fundamental problem that leads to the low turnout. Many citizens feel that “I have no one to vote for, so why bother?”. Why do they feel this way? In many cases they can’t find a party with a list or a Chairman that gives them the sense of adequate representation. This is primarily due to the fact that out of all the eligible voters in Israel, less than 2% are registered to any political party. Those 2% are the only ones granted with the authority to determine the composition of the party lists in the primaries! This outrageous situation means that the number of citizens which equals the population of Ramat Gan, are the only ones who determine which candidates we can vote for, in any party. No wonder 34% of the eligible voters don’t vote. I would have expected these numbers to be even higher! Suddenly the prospect of registering to a political party may not seem so unnecessary after all.

In his article, Peretz argues that the effect the social protests had on the 2013 general elections was expressed in the establishment of the “Yesh Atid” party, which brought upon a drastic change in the political map. In contrast, I argue that the social protests had an even greater significant impact on the 2013 elections. The entry of two of the organizers of the social protests, MK Stav Shafir and MK Itzik Smuly (both from “Ha’avoda”), is an example of two young people who decided to take responsibility, lead a social campaign and enter the Knesset in order to continue their struggle for changing the system from within.

Ways to influence the decisions and policies of the government

Everyone needs to do some soul searching and ask themselves: “Am I doing anything to improve the situation?”

Lior Schlein, the host of the weekly satirical program “Gav Ha’uma”, urges us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask how you can get back at your country”. Schlein is clearly cynically altering the famous quote by the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. With all due respect to Schlein, I personally prefer the original and “naive” quote by JFK, which actually happens to hold the solution.

Thus, the main way I see to change the situation is to simply take responsibility – to be involved and active. Not being a “free rider”. As previously mentioned, MKs Shafir and Shmuly did exactly that. However, I’m claiming that there isn’t necessarily a need to organize demonstrations attracting tens of thousands in order to be able to influence government policy and to participate in politics. One way of influencing is through volunteering or interning in social NGOs and associations. Just a few hours a week (3-4 hours is enough, no need to go overboard) will not only reduce the personal sense of “there’s nothing that can be done”, but will also strengthen the activity of the NGO and will help promote it. There are quite a few Israeli NGOs operating in a variety of fields, and together are able to act as a balancing factor to the power of government. One must simply choose the organization that best represents the cause one wishes to support.

As said before, another way is to go out and vote when needed and possibly even to register to a party. It is not only our democratic right, but it’s our democratic duty to vote. Many citizens living in democracies see the realization of democracy in voting once every four years (varies according to the country). Meaning, democracy comes to life once every few years, while the rest of the time the citizens are subjected to the will of the politicians and hope things will be ok. Well, they aren’t.

Another way to influence the decisions and policies of government is to sign petitions and to attend and/or organize demonstrations on issues that truly speak to you. Take for example a campaign I came across recently: A group of seven Jerusalemites (in the past and present) are currently involved in a class action lawsuit against the Jerusalem Central Bus Station and against Egged, regarding the pollution in the station. A little background: tests performed in the station have showed high levels of pollution, exceeding permitted standards. This constitutes a major health hazard to the tens of thousands exposed to it daily. The group started a webpage on “Mimoona” (an Israeli “Crowdfunding” website which helps entrepreneurs in promoting projects, and in this case – a public campaign), where they raise funds targeted to finance legal costs and the continuation of the lawsuit. So far, among the achievements of the lawsuit are the issuing of warnings and signs to the public to not wait idly on the platforms, obtaining a temporary order from the court requiring the station to assign inspectors and policemen assuring that people don’t wait idly on the platforms, and more. This campaign is an example of a group of people who saw something that bothered them, recruited a group of supporters through the social networks and fought for their principles.

It’s not sufficient when politicians are “merely” honest or when the market is properly regulated to achieve proper governance. Proper governance requires a political culture in which citizens are active and critical of the government. A strong and developed civil society creates a balance and an answer to the power of government. This is a critical and important force in building a strong and meaningful society. Such a society is created though a snowball effect; where the more one sees successful action in civil society, the more one is encouraged to take part in future civic activities.

In the words of Karl Marx: reality shapes our consciousness. Just as our parents taught us that if we don’t take responsibility for ourselves, no one else will. Such is the case of political participation. History teaches that heightened civic activity positively influences the function of government. Our duty as citizens is not only to choose who will represent us in parliament, but more importantly to make sure our elected officials understand and implement the will of the people.

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