David Newman 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This month’s referendum in the UK delivered a clear result.
people voted, by a margin of 2 to 1, not to change the electoral system of
“first past the post,” in which MPs are elected in 650 single-member
constituencies throughout the country.
It was only the second referendum
ever in the UK, the first resulting in the decision to retain membership in the
European Community back in 1975. It was a strange referendum because the
protagonists – for and against the change – were both from the coalition
government. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron strongly
opposed the proposed changes, while the Liberal Party of Deputy Prime Minister
Nick Clegg strongly promoted the move toward greater proportionality and
When this coalition government was formed a year ago, the
Liberal Party – which has always campaigned for changes in the electoral system
– conditioned its agreement to join on this referendum being held.
compromises still had to be made. Instead of a referendum aimed at introducing a
truly proportional system of government, the Liberal party had to make do with a
watered-down version, proposing instead the Alternative Vote (AV) system, which,
while far more proportional than the existing system, would still have left a
lot to be desired. But even this proved too difficult a hurdle to
The referendum defeat was not helped by the fact that the
opposition Labour Party was divided over the issue, with some of its leaders
campaigning for the change, others against it. This is ironic, given their
public support for electoral change over the past decade. But the existing
system offers the best chance for the Labour Party to return to power at some
point, as opposed to a more proportional system which would necessitate a
coalition government of two and perhaps even three parties. Thus the Labour
Party may utter the slogan of “greater power to the people,” but in reality its
leaders are aware that a change of this nature would negatively affect their
chances in future elections.
THIS IS exactly the opposite of the
situation in Israel, where cries for political reform and a change in the
electoral system are as old as the state itself. The proportional system used
here offers far greater representation than does the British system. In this
sense, Israel can be proud of the fact that few countries display such a high
level of proportionality and that, compared to almost any other country, hardly
any votes are lost here; the vote of each individual really does count. However,
this system also enables a multitude of small parties to gain seats, while no
single party – or even two parties, as in the UK today – can create a stable
Too much coalition wheeling and dealing, and the often
extortionate use of power by the smallest parties, has been characteristic of
the Israeli system so far.
Past attempts to change the system in Israel
have never succeeded.
The only real attempt – the direct election of the
prime minister during the 1990s – led to an even greater
This experiment was eventually abandoned, with a return to
the previous electoral system, in which we simply vote for a single national
list of whichever party we choose and the seats are distributed in direct
proportion to the number of votes gained by each party (excepting those that
fall below the minimum threshold).
There was an opportunity, back in the
1990s, for the two major parties of the time – Likud and Labor – to change the
system in such a way that greater stability and fewer parties would become the
order of the day. But a proposal by former minister Meir Sheetrit, on the eve of
the elections, was rejected by the Labor MKs, even though there was a clear
majority for the two major parties. Such is the level of mistrust between Labor
and Likud that they could not even agree to bring in a system that would have
benefitted the larger parties. Such a proposal could not even be considered
today, because there is no longer a majority of seats in the Knesset held by
two, or even three, parties.
In today’s Knesset, where no party has more
than 20 seats, there are only medium-sized parties.
is, however, relatively stable compared to previous governments, even if it does
rely on a multitude of parties for its 61-seat majority. A few changes have been
introduced, the most important of which is the requirement of 61 MKs to bring
the government down. Previously, a simple majority of members present would have
been sufficient. The 61 requirement has made it almost impossible for
governments to be brought down every year or two, as had been the
Another, relatively simple measure that needs to be introduced is
the raising of the threshold for parties to gain entry to the Knesset. In recent
years, the figure has risen from 1 percent to 2%, but this is still
insufficient. A minimum threshold of 5% – which, compared to many other
democracies, is still low – would ensure fewer, larger or medium-sized parties,
and would remove the many small ones, which have no more than four seats each.
Special-sector interests, such as religious or Arab parties, would not
disappear, but would be forced to amalgamate over those issues that unite them
rather than fragment over those issues that divide them. And the small splinter
parties, which rise and fall on the whims of individuals and personalities and
which can hold disproportionate power if they are responsible for the 60th and
61st seats required by a coalition government, would no longer be able to
manipulate the system.
The British and Israeli electoral systems
represent two ends of a continuum. One sacrifices stability for representation
(Israel), while the other sacrifices representation for stability (Britain).
Each has its obvious faults, which can be rectified by relatively minor changes,
without the need for wholesale reform.The writer is professor of
Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.