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Mock elections mirror real thing

Politicians and journalists flock to study the results of a school's poll battle. Sue Surkes reports.

The proverbial Martian could be forgiven for thinking that mock elections at the Blich High School were the real thing. Cabinet ministers, and politicians from Right and Left took turns to convey their visions. An ethics committee ensured that behaviour conformed with electoral rules. Flags, posters and T-shirts shrieked out competing messages. Breaktimes jangled to the sound of jingles.

And then, after three weeks of hard campaigning, came the moment of truth, and politicians, journalists and commentators held their breath.

Shimon Peres, Israel's Labour prime minister, romped home with 61 per cent of the votes cast by some 760 junior and senior sixth- formers, Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-of-centre opposition Likud, came in with only 39 per cent. On the Left, the ruling Labour party scooped 46 per cent; its current coalition partner, the left-wing Meretz, taking 10 per cent. On the Right, Likud and its partner Tsomet took 36 per cent, and the extreme right-wing Moledet party won 2 per cent. The Third Way, a new party focusing on the strategic importance to Israel of the Golan Heights, scored 6 per cent.

The Blich High, in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, has been running mock elections every two years since 1968. In 1977, students successfully predicted victory for the Right in the general elections of that year; in 1992, their votes heralded the return of the Left. A year ago, a public opinion poll on returning the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria, mirrored the results of a poll which had been carried out at the school the week before.

This uncanny ability to predict took on additional significance this month, as Israelis waited for an announcement that general elections would be brought forward to May.

The proximity of these elections, which will be fought on sensitive and divisive issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, apparently explains why Blich's mock elections turned into what one teacher reportedly called a "political circus". More members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) turned up than in previous years, accompanied by bevies of journalists and party aides. For Blich's principal, Israel Singer, however, the educational benefits of the school elections far outweighed the poll result.

Following discussions in class about the workings of the Israeli political system, the school's student council calls on pupils to declare which parties they wish to represent. Pupils set the election rules, form themselves into political groups, and invite members of the Knesset to lecture. (No representatives means no invitations, hence the absence of ultra-religious, Arab, and other smaller parties). On the final day of campaigning, open house is declared in the school yard, and pupil "politicians" canvass, as the real ones mill around.

The educational benefits do not stop in civics lessons. When pupils came up with the idea of casting votes by computer the system that was subsequently professionally designed could one day form the basis for computerised balloting nationwide.

Furthermore, the Infonet (a version of the Internet) was harnessed via a large screen for daily debates between pupils and members of the public.

"Blich strives for excellence in all fields, not only the academic," Mr Singer said, adding that past pupils were represented in many areas - but not yet in the Knesset.

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