Friday, June 13, 2008

Shunning politics

When politicians are unpopular that's their problem, but when polls show that the public is increasingly estranged from the political system itself, it's everyone's problem.

Think of "the system" as including all the variables associated with political life - institutions, players, even values. Yet no matter how serious the dissatisfaction, a political system's legitimacy is best judged by its ability to respond to citizen frustration. When too many people feel it doesn't deliver the goods and doesn't have the capacity to repair what's broken, legitimacy is at risk.

IT IS IN this context that we consider the 2008 Democracy Index-Guttman Center Survey conducted for the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), released earlier this week. The results reveal just how appalled Israelis are by the state of politics in this country.

Ninety percent feel the system is tainted with corruption - and the poll was conducted before the allegations involving Morris Talansky and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became known.
These findings bolster a 2006 Transparency International report on "corruption perceptions," which placed Israel below the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Mistrust in government institutions, the IDI survey found, continues to grow - hardly surprising when the prime minister is under multiple investigations. Nor is it astounding that only 29% of Israelis trust the Knesset (down from 33%) given that 15 MKs are either under investigation or have been indicted or convicted. A minuscule 15% of Israelis trust their political parties.

In the survey's pre-Talansky finding, only 17% told the IDI they trusted the prime minister. An Israel Radio poll on Thursday found that a solid majority of Israelis feel Ehud Olmert has a mandate to make neither war or peace.

Only 35% of citizens see the Supreme Court as the primary vehicle safeguarding Israeli democracy - understandable given the spectacle of a sitting court president engaged in a ruinous public row with the justice minister over judicial philosophy.

FEWER PEOPLE express interest in politics - 60%compared to 75% last year - a sure indicator of the alienation which corrodes legitimacy. That may explain why only 63% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2006.

Many feel that the government is abdicating its responsibility to non-profit and volunteer organizations. We've seen how the nation's universities, for example, have become ever more dependent on foreign donors, even though it is the state's responsibility to educate its citizens; how our overworked social workers can barely eke out a living, much less effectively advocate for their clients. And, as the state looks away, even soup kitchens are cutting back on staff and services because of the drop in the dollar's value.

The survey asked about trust in political institutions. It is unsurprising that only 36% put their faith in the attorney-general, given the widespread perception that he is better at initiating investigations than in resolving them - witness the festering Katsav Affair. Nor is it surprising that trust in the police is down to 33% (from 41%). Many perceive the police as quick to leak information about ongoing investigations, yet sluggish in responding to more mundane demands - for instance, from citizens who've found themselves victims of burglary.

Summing up the survey's findings, IDI president Arye Carmon said: "The rise of anti-political sentiment reaches the point of delegitimizing the political and decision-making processes... It is not only about this person or that - it is the entire system. The Israeli public is turning its back on politics."

THE NEWS isn't all gloomy: 71% trust the IDF (down three points), and the president is trusted by 47% - up from 22% with the arrival of Shimon Peres.

Strangely, 43% of respondents (compared to 34% in 2007) claim to be satisfied with how Israeli democracy functions. That's probably because they confuse "democracy" with the take-no-prisoners political culture prevalent in this country, epitomized by the high-decibel talk shows and shrill Knesset "debates" which only paper over the system's gaping deficiencies.

The good news is that it's not too late for the country's elites to turn things around. A whopping 80% of Israelis remain proud of their country and wouldn't want to live anywhere else. What a heartbreak it would be if this devotion was betrayed by ongoing irresponsible governance.

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