Is electoral reform finally in the offing?

With the largest party controlling less than 1/4 of the Knesset, many believe MKs might effect a change.

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
February 15, 2009 23:51
4 minute read.
Is electoral reform finally in the offing?

Knesset 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The old adage "hot dogs may be tasty but you don't want to watch them being made" is often invoked during the coalition negotiations that follow Israeli elections. As coalitions are formed, parties are forced to jettison large sections of their platforms and ideology to achieve a governing majority. Usually, however, that governing majority has found itself pulled in too many directions by a handful of small coalition partners, all of which are necessary to maintain the coalition. Even a minor disagreement can topple the government and send the country to elections. Thus it is that Israelis will soon see the swearing-in of their 32nd government in just 60 years of statehood. No Knesset since 1988 has served out its full term before a coalition crisis instigated early elections. Tuesday's elections have produced the most fractured Knesset yet, with the smallest largest party in Israel's history - Kadima at just 22% of parliament. With any luck, say many political observers, the situation has become so dire that the legislature will act to seriously reform the country's electoral and political systems. Within hours of the announcement of the election results on Tuesday, commentators began to examine the possibility that a national unity government of Kadima and Likud could pass the reforms both parties promised during the election campaign. One of the most difficult changes the 18th Knesset will examine will be the long-standing recommendation of expert committees to directly elect a significant portion of the Knesset - as much as half - in regional votes. Under the current system, Knesset candidates are chosen by the party rank and file or by party central committees. Voters are only asked to choose from among lists of names they did not select on a personal basis. Thus while parties can rise or fall based on their performance, individual MKs are not responsible to voters. "There's no question that we need some form of regional elections," according to Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson, the Jewish history scholar and former Hebrew University president who tried unsuccessfully to fashion a new electoral system as a Kadima MK in the 17th Knesset. But many smaller parties object to the idea of regional representation - it was Shas who torpedoed Ben-Sasson's efforts in the outgoing Knesset. According Israel Beitenu MK David Rotem, regional elections are "a mistake for Israel." "With regional representation, Knesset debates will become self-interested. Every MK will just be taking care of his own region. I want a parliament that takes care of the whole country," said Rotem. Besides, he adds, unlike the United States "Israel is too small. How do you divide the country into 60 regions?" Yet, according to Prof. Menachem Magidor, "Today MKs don't represent narrow interests? MKs see themselves responsible only to haredim or Mizrahi Jews or Israel Aircraft Industries workers. At least with regional representation, their constituency would be, say, Jerusalem." Magidor, current president of Hebrew University, was chairman of the President's Commission for Examining the Structure of Governance appointed by former president Moshe Katsav. One of that commission's chief recommendations was electing half of the Knesset through regional votes according to the 17 districts defined by the Interior Ministry for administrative purposes. The main advantage of regional elections, he explains, is that "it pushes large parties to a more centrist position, because fringe opinions have a tougher time getting elected locally that in a national poll." Most of the world's democracies understand the wisdom of regional elections, says Magidor. "We have to look to the rest of the world for examples. No democratic state other than Holland doesn't include a strong element of regional elections in order to ensure accountability," he said, adding that "Holland has similar political problems to ours." This idea is said to have resonance in both Kadima and Likud. Sources close to Livni have said she would largely accept Ben-Sasson's recommendations in presenting Kadima's electoral reform plan in the coming Knesset. The idea has support in the Likud as well, but that support is not universal. Many Likud MKs are said to oppose the idea, and it is an open question whether they will vote to institute a regional system if it comes up in the coming Knesset, according to sources close to the party. While regional elections may be hard to pass, there is widespread agreement throughout the potential centrist coalition - including Kadima, Likud and Israel Beitenu - for a stronger executive branch and greater separation between the government and the Knesset. Thus, with broad support in the largest parties, the 18th Knesset is likely to pass a law increasing the number of MKs needed to topple the government from 61 to 70 or even 80. This Knesset is also likely to favorably consider the so-called "Norwegian Law," under which MKs who take cabinet positions must resign their Knesset seats. But there is less agreement over the exact means for strengthening the sitting prime minister. Israel Beitenu has openly advocated an outright presidential system with a very strong executive branch, while the other parties want to strengthen the prime minister but are wary of a full-blown presidential system. The presidential idea is "dangerous," according to Ben-Sasson, "because we have not yet installed a constitution that limits the powers of the system. We don't yet have a bill of rights." According to Magidor, "a presidential system exists in a very small number of true democracies, with the notable exception of the United States. To implement it, you need a balance against the power of the government." Achieving that balance would necessitate deep reforms that give the Knesset the capability to restrain governmental power without toppling the government altogether, something that does not exist in Israel's current political system, explains Magidor.

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