The Other Election

Anticipation around the upcoming election is intensifying. The intersections are crowded with banners and with teenage volunteers distributing pamphlets; signs are displayed in the windows of people’s homes and are also hanging from their balconies; people are discussing our future.

I am not writing about the U.S. presidential elections. I cast my absentee ballot for that race in mid-October. I am writing of the upcoming Jerusalem mayoral elections which will take place on November 11. Many people see this election as a decisive indicator of Jerusalem’s future.

None of Israel’s major parties have candidates running for mayor in the local election, including for the first time since Israel’s independence, the Labor Party, under whose reign the city was run for decades by Teddy Kollek. Labor is not even running for seats on the city council in the current election. Many have criticized the major parties for what is viewed as their abandonment of Jerusalem with what the Israeli newspaper HaAretz recently called, an “increasingly decrepit condition, rising emigration, and economic, social and artistic neglect.”

However, there are four candidates seeking Jerusalem’s top office: entrepreneur-businessman and current city councilman Nir Barkat, MK and ultra-Orthodox politician Meir Porush, Russian-Israeli billionaire businessman Arcadi Gaydamak, and the late addition of Dan Biron of the Green Leaf party.

The current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, won the 2003 municipal election under the United Torah Judaism list – a combination of ultra-Orthodox parties. His candidacy was part of a rotation deal under which Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox member of Knesset since 1996, is now running typical of the political deal-making which benefits the politicians but not those whom they are supposed to serve.

The city’s decline and neglect has continued under Lupolianski with numerous blunders some of which remain from Olmert’s legacy to Jerusalem. While comprising of a minority of about 30% of the Jewish population in the Holy City, the ultra-Orthodox are well-organized and obedient when their leadership instructs to them vote. This brought Lupolianski into office last term and may pave the way for Porush to continue Jerusalem’s neglect. However, Nir Barkat’s campaign has put out a very organized effort to bring out the voters who allowed victory to slip away from him last time by not showing up. In the last municipal election 180,000 Jerusalemites voted; 300,000 did not. Barkat, Jerusalem’s only hope for normalcy and rejuvenation, lost by only 15,000 votes.

The race is on between Nir Barkat and Meir Porush.

While the Green Leaf Party seems very appealing on most issues, their reputation, spearheaded by their name, as a party whose aim is to legalize marijuana gives them little chance of winning the mayoral race. Unfortunately, I fear their most significant contribution will be to split up the non-ultra-Orthodox vote.

While Arcadi Gaydamak is a self-made man like Barkat, Gaydamak’s questionable past in arms smuggling and numerous citizenships distances himself from the Jerusalem electorate. Barkat, on the other hand, is a Jerusalem native who was born, educated and employed in Israel’s capital city. He is an example of Israeli entrepreneurship and high-tech innovation having started a company with two other partners which developed one of the first computer antivirus programs. After his business success, Barkat started a non-profit organization to develop Hebrew educational software and a venture capital network to invest in social initiatives. At the age of 44, Barkat retired from business and ran for Mayor of Jerusalem starting a new party challenging the establishment and winning an unprecedented 43% of the vote. As the opposition leader, he has started several initiatives to promote business start-ups in Jerusalem, to focus on employment and affordable housing for the city’s young adult population, and to promote environmental education.

Holding intimate parlor meetings and larger town meetings throughout the city, Barkat addresses Jerusalemite’s concerns, from major issues such as employment, education and housing to issues of the city’s cleanliness, uneven sidewalks and transportation. He has learned his subjects well having spent the last five years in the opposition assuring his constituents that “the situation is much worse than you think,” citing for example that the city’s transportation committee has not met once in five years under the current administration with all plans and decisions being made behind closed doors.

Barkat, who has a vision of turning Jerusalem into a metropolis connecting its neighboring communities, laying the infrastructure to support a tremendous increase in Jerusalem’s tourism and culture worthy of it’s significance, promises transparency as he works with city residents through their neighborhood associations to address local issues. He is a man with a vision, spelling out the methods by which he will achieve his goals marked by his ability for learning issues in-depth and for long-term planning and implementation.

I suppose in the democratic process we have no one to blame but ourselves for those elected to lead us. The important thing is to vote in whatever elections for which you are eligible and to effect change in the direction you think best.

While at the conclusion of the Passover seder each year in the Diaspora, you say “Next year in Jerusalem,” we, in Jerusalem say “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.” In a few days we’ll know if we will get our wish.

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