Checks and balances

Jean-Jaques Rousseau said about democracy, “So perfect a form of government is not for man.” But it is still the best we have, and it is up to all of us to ensure its survival.

September 12, 2019 10:04
3 minute read.
Checks and balances

Jean-Jaques Rousseau by the French portraitist Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

In the run-up to the September 17 election, there has been endless and certainly relevant debate about the importance of Israel as a democracy and the perceived threats to it.

In the light of what is happening to democracies in other parts of the world, including Israel’s near neighbor, Turkey – where strenuous efforts are made to stifle opposition, and dissident voices find themselves in prison – concerns at home cannot be dismissed. The issue brings into focus the importance of the so-called checks and balances. What are they exactly, and what happens if they are not there?

In a democratic country, the constitution imposes limits on the powers of the government in order to prevent abuse of those powers. But not all democratic states have a written constitution, and Israel is one of them.

The US, for instance, has an enshrined separation of powers among the executive branch – the administration or government – the legislative branch, and the judicial branch, each independent but with the power to amend or even veto proposals made by the other two, so that no branch can become too powerful. This is essentially what is meant by checks and balances.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution but relies on historically amassed precedents, a strong opposition, and an independent judiciary to prevent its government from overstepping its authority. Israel was meant to have a written constitution by October 1, 1948, and a Constituent Assembly was set up on the establishment of the State to draft it.

But it never happened due primarily to unresolved clashes between secular and religious laws. So Israel’s “constitution” is based on the Basic Laws, many of whose principles are included in the Declaration of Independence. These Basic Laws can only be changed by an overwhelming majority in the Knesset, with varying requirements for different Basic Laws and sections.

Israel’s Basic Laws define the government as the executive branch, legislative branch and an independent judiciary guaranteed by law, thus providing the generally recognized checks and balances. In fact, the Basic Laws go well beyond this to embrace the setting of moral standards of liberty, equality, non-discrimination and much more, and this is where a support system for checks and balances comes in.

These gatekeepers or watchdogs have been established to ensure that all branches of authority over ordinary citizens are operating within the law, are free from corruption, and are doing the job for which they are there. Gatekeepers represent the interests of those who place their trust in the people in power, and they are accessible to every citizen of the state.

The State Comptroller oversees the activities of all branches of government, and submits an annual report that essentially estimates their efficiency, indicating areas where improvement is required. The various branches of the civil service provide further checks on the power of the ministries they serve. (The satirical British television series “Yes, Minister” implied that it is actually the civil servants who run the country.)

The media are one of the most important gatekeepers, as by and large, journalists are closer to the views and grievances of the public than most politicians. The Ombudsmen scheme offers further access for complaints against many state institutions: health, education, housing, transportation, and so on. Then there are the various think tanks, non-governmental bodies (NGOs) and protest movements, all of them there to guard against corruption, extremism, authoritarianism and abuse of power.

When all the checks and balances are in place and all the gatekeepers are free to do their jobs, democracy is in good health. It begins to be in danger when one part of the tripartite of checks and balances tries to control and manipulate the other two. If, for instance, the executive branch – the government – were to put pressure on the Knesset to introduce or amend laws to suit its political purpose, or even the personal interest of one of its members, it would be time to be on guard. Further warning signs would be attempts to control the media, or to impose restrictions on the courts, on human rights or cultural freedoms, or if the ruling party were to begin filling public positions only with those with whom it is affiliated.

Jean-Jaques Rousseau said about democracy, “So perfect a form of government is not for man.” But it is still the best we have, and it is up to all of us to ensure its survival.

Jane Biran is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation

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