Essay: End the 'partyocracy'

By HILLEL HALKIN
October 19, 2006 11:18

A presidential regime is not the electoral reform Israel needs.




Essay: End the 'partyocracy'

hillel halkin 88. (photo credit: )

It's a pleasure to agree now and then with the editors of this newspaper, who are, after all, the people who pay for this column. I'm referring to the Post's editorial last week that called for electoral reform in the guise of regional Knesset elections rather than of the presidential regime now being touted by Ehud Olmert and Avigdor Lieberman. To judge by Lieberman and Olmert's pronouncements, what Israel needs is a strong elected executive who doesn't have to be inconvenienced by the political wheeling and dealing needed to hold coalitions together. Our supreme leader of the future, we are told, should be able to concentrate on the important things, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consultations with his lawyers, and shouldn't have to trifle with the tawdry world of parliamentary politics. Israel does need some kind of electoral reform. But the presidential regime that Olmert and Lieberman are trying to sell us is not it. In general, we've been fed a lot of hokum about the instability of Israeli governments and their dependence on small parties that extort an exorbitant price for supporting them. The many dozens of different governments that Israel has supposedly had in the course of its 58-year history are cited as the proof of this. But all these "different governments" boil down in the end to a total of 18 elections and new administrations - which is to say, an average of one new government every three-and-a-quarter years. All the rest has consisted of coalition and cabinet shake-ups within the same regime, which has gone on functioning as before. That isn't such a bad record. America has a new government every four years, and cabinet members come and go there too. Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with small parties, as long as there are also (as there have been for much of Israel's history) two big ones, one on the Center-Left and one on the Center-Right, to garner most of the votes. Israel is an extremely heterogeneous society with many different population groups having different values and interests, and it is perfectly reasonable that the largest of them - Orthodox Jews, haredim, Arabs - have some parliamentary representation of their own. This is not a country in which we can all be expected to be the equivalent of either Democrats or Republicans, and we would not be better off if broad sectors of opinion were to be totally shut out of our political system. Indeed the last thing we need in Israel is an independent president who can make major decisions on his own without the Knesset's approval. Our social fabric is too complex and delicate to risk damaging it by means of presidential fiats untempered by parliamentary checks-and-balances. So is our international situation. As it is, Ehud Olmert was able to go to war in Lebanon without consulting the Knesset. Do we really want him to be immune to Knesset criticism after such a war, too? THE PROBLEM with our political system isn't that the Knesset is too strong. On the contrary: It's too weak, too low in the level of its members, too lacking in meaningful legislative activity and supervision of executive power, too passive when it comes to anything but witless heckling of its own members when they step up to the speakers' podium. In our version of the three-way division of democracy into executive, judicial and legislative branches, the Knesset is the rotten branch. The main reason we've had a hyperactive Supreme Court in recent decades, one that has kept butting into areas the courts should best stay out of, is that we've had a hypoactive Knesset. And the main cause of all this is that the Knesset is totally removed from the public that votes for it. Indeed we do not really vote for Knesset members at all. We vote for party lists of them, with no ability to pick and choose among them. We cannot decide which of them we want to represent us; we cannot reward those of them whom we approve of or punish those of them whom we don't. And they in turn are as emasculated by the system as we are. Since their careers depend not on us, but on the party bosses who pick them for their jobs, they rarely show independence or take significant initiatives. They vote as they are told to, and this sheep-like behavior is called "party discipline" and praised for its democratic virtues. We live in a partyocracy. Some of our political parties have in recent years tried to rectify this by holding primaries whereby their Knesset lists, or part of them, are chosen by their memberships at large. But this has merely led to manipulation and corruption. In the absence of meaningful public regulation, party memberships have been artificially inflated, votes have been bought and sold, back-room deals have been brokered between candidates, cronyism and the spoils system have flourished. And the average Israeli, who takes no part in these intrigues, has grown increasingly cynical. This cynicism has become a matter of cold statistics. For many years, as befits a country whose government must often make life-and-death decisions for its population, Israel traditionally had one of the highest voter turnouts in the world. Recently this has been falling, and in last spring's elections it hit a new low in which almost two out of every five eligible voters stayed away from the polls in an unprecedented display of public apathy. Although the life-and-death decisions went on being made, most notably in the course of last summer's war, 40 percent of Israelis were no longer interested in choosing who made them. If we voters cease to think that we can be a force for the good in this country, we will cease to care about what is good for the country, and this is something we can afford less than any country on earth. We need electoral reform not to strengthen our leaders, but to strengthen ourselves, who elect them. The only way to do this is to create a direct relationship between ourselves and our Knesset members by means of regional elections in which we vote for and against specific candidates. Let every one of us have an MK who represents us, who is willing to fight for our interests and those of our region, to whom we can come with our complaints and aspirations. Let every Knesset member have a constituency to which he is personally accountable and which will re-elect him if he serves it well, thus making him independent of his party. This is the electoral reform that we need.


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