Borderline views: Now is the time for electoral reform

The elections were over three weeks ago but the new government doesn’t seem any nearer to being formed than it was the moment the results were announced.

April 6, 2015 21:30
Elections in Israel

Elections in Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)


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Now is the time for electoral reform The elections were over three weeks ago but the new government doesn’t seem any nearer to being formed than it was the moment the results were announced.

Given that it was a full three months prior to the elections that the Knesset dissolved itself, it means that it will be at least four, even more, before we have a new, functioning government. And if we compare that to previous elections, it is relatively short.

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Compare that to the forthcoming elections in the UK, a country with six times the electorate. The formal dissolution of Parliament was announced 10 days ago, the elections will be held precisely three weeks after the announcement and, more than likely, the British people will know by early the next morning exactly who will be forming the new government.

Even if, as some commentators are suggesting, a third party, such as the Liberal Democrats or even the right-wing UKIP party, holds the balance of power between the two major parties, the Conservatives led by Prime Minister David Cameron and the Labour Party led by the challenger for power Ed Milliband, a coalition deal will not take long to sort out, if such a deal is even necessary at all. At the most some cabinet posts around the table will have to be distributed to the junior partner, but unlike Israel there will be no haggling over the distribution of funds, the creation of new ministries and jobs for the boys, or all those other things which make politics and politicians appear so bad in the eyes of the general public.

There is a great deal to be said for the sort of two-party system enjoyed by both Britain and the USA, if only because it creates a form of stability which is almost unknown in Israeli political history. It has normally brought about a one-party rule, by the party winning the majority of the 650 Parliament seats. By default it will also create a formidable and strong opposition, in which portfolios are distributed with the same responsibilities that are held by the Cabinet ministers. The members of the Shadow Cabinet, as it is known, learn their respective brief as thoroughly as the ministers themselves.

Woe betide any Cabinet minister who appears unprepared in the House of Commons on the day that he has to answer questions – it is one thing to disagree with his or her policy, but it is quite another to be unprepared and to be ridiculed by the members of the opposition who come well armed with the relevant information, facts and figures.

Of course, not everything is perfect about the two-party system. For the sake of governmental stability, these countries sacrifice a great deal of proportionality and representation.

If in Israel we bemoaned the 180,000 votes for the Yahad Party of Eli Yishai which counted for nothing as his party did not pass the minimum 3.25 percent vote threshold, the number of votes lost under a two-party constituency system is far greater, and can run into the millions. The fact that only one representative can be elected from any one of the 650 constituencies means that all of the other votes in that same constituency, even if together they count for far more than 50% percent (assuming more than two candidates) of the regional vote, is a structural weakness of these systems which strikes at the very heart of proportional representation.

But when, just a few years ago, the British government put a referendum to the people in which it proposed changes to make the system more proportional, it was rejected by the majority. The British government did not go as far as suggesting adopting the Israeli system of proportional representation, but even the minimal changes which were suggested were not acceptable to the British public, who were fearful of the post-election coalition trading between political parties which might take place, a la Israel and some other European countries, as a result of such change.

Most countries have a variation on the constituency and the proportional systems.

Many have multi-member constituencies where more than one representative is elected from each electoral district, usually in proportion to the number of people residing in that area. This allows for parties who come second and even third in the region to send a representative to the national parliament, given the relatively large numbers of people who have voted for them, even if they did not win.

Increasingly, countries have adopted a mixed system in which some (perhaps a half to two-thirds) of the representatives are elected from constituencies while the remainder are elected from a national list.

This enables the smaller parties which did not win any constituency seat, but may have picked up anything between 10%-20% of the national vote on the nation-wide count, to be compensated with seats taken from the national list.

The mixed system has become the most common form of electoral system in the world, including much of Western Europe as well as many of the post-Soviet democracies.

They have found a happy albeit not perfect medium somewhere between the two extreme examples of Israel and the UK, each of which sacrifices one value – proportionality in the case of the UK or stability in the case of Israel – for the other.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when there was a move to promote substantial electoral reform in Israel, variations on the mixed party system were proposed. One variation suggested 80 constituency seats and 40 “topping up” seats from a national list (on the basis that constituency seats and local representation are of greater importance than are national party lists which are decided by the national leadership and party members). An alternative proposal went for a 60-60 parity between constituency and national representation.

A number of simulations were tested to divide the country up into manageable multi-member constituencies (absolutely no one suggested a single-member constituency system, which would leave significant religious or Arab minorities completely out of government except for in those few areas where they constituted an absolute majority). But even within the academic and parliamentary committees which discussed these proposals in great depth, there were also alternative voices which came out against the principal of local representation, on the basis that Israel is a small country where everybody knows everybody and that when a local mayor has a problem which has to be solved he/she immediately picks up the phone to the relevant minister, with whom he served in the army or studied in the yeshiva, and that this was a more effective way of getting the problem resolved.

Be as it may the proposals were never taken any further. For a limited period the country tested the dual ballot, in which the prime minister and the parties would be elected separately, enabling – at least in theory – greater power to the prime minister in putting his government together. But three attempts at the new system, during which time Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon were voted into power, produced exactly the opposite result. The Israeli voter split – rather than unified – his vote between separate parties, destroying what little power remained to the larger parties (such as the Likud and the Labor), reducing their size even further and making it even more difficult to put a stable government together.

So we licked our wounds and returned, albeit with some minor variations, to the old system – and we are left with that until today.

The bottom line is we still can’t put a government together after the elections without all the wheeling and deeling which comes from too many parties reflecting too many sectoral interests. Each time we raise the electoral threshold we move closer to a manageable system, but we haven’t got there yet. It is as much about political culture as it is about the technical details of the system and it is a lot easier to change the system than it is the culture.

The time to institute electoral reform is not six weeks before the next election, but two weeks after the last one, so that there is enough time to really think it all through again and enact the necessary laws well before the next election (or the one after that) is due.

Netanyahu is a strong prime minister. He has just been elected for a fourth time in his long political career. Even he knows that there is a limit to how long he can stay in power and that the time is approaching when even he will no longer occupy the exalted position. He has the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on the Israeli political system without having to worry any longer about his own political future.

He should learn from past tinkering with the system and move forward to enact some real electoral change, over and beyond the raising of the minimum threshold, enabling the country to maintain its vibrant democracy while giving the people the stable government – be it of the Right or the Left – it deserves.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.

The views expressed are his alone.

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