A government that cannot govern

Israel’s is a proportional representation system gone mad. If we do not change it now, then when?

By
January 23, 2011 21:36
World WIZO public relations chair Brenda Katten.

58_Brend Katten. (photo credit: Courtesy)

As we look at the reports on the current situation in our hospitals – patients placed in the corridors, not enough beds in intensive care, too few doctors and nurses to meet the needs of the population – we have every reason to question the worsening health system in this country.

Health care, however, is not the only area that requires urgent attention. The virtual annual strike when the school year is about to begin is a symptom of the malaise in the education system. Overcrowded classes, inadequate teaching hours, poorly paid teachers all contribute to deterioration in the education of our children. It matters not who happens to be the education minister, the fact remains that with our electoral system, a minister does not have either the time or the opportunity to bring about meaningful change.

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He has not the time because the chances are the government in which he serves will not last the four-year period, leaving little opportunity to develop ideas before a new government is elected and a new minister appointed. It is not that the minister is devoid of ideas to improve our children’s education, it is simply that the government will fall before necessary change can materialize. This applies equally to all ministers (including those serving in the Health Ministry).

IF WE take this concept to the next stage, we see that at the root of the problem is the electoral system – a prime factor that makes it difficult for a government to govern. Surely a system that enables a small country to have 34 parties contesting the election is bizarre, to say the least. There can be no doubt that the 2 percent qualifying threshold makes the election result more favorable to the minor parties. The result is a coalition government where the party which receives fewer votes decides on the policy irrespective of what the party that receives the most votes believes the policy should be.

In other words the tail is wagging the dog. Time and again we see that the minority partner is calling the shots. Why is this? The answer is simple: The coalition’s existence is threatened should the junior partner threaten to leave if its views are not taken on board – a blackmail situation. We, the electorate, end up with a government unable to do what is best for the country but has to comply with the wishes of those whose views are in the minority.

On the question of peace negotiations, we constantly seem to be reacting to plans proposed by others rather than putting forward our own ideas. It would seem that this is impossible while we have a coalition comprising those with diametrically opposing views. Again rather than doing what is best for the country, the “need to please everyone coalition” results in creating a void for others to fill.

What of the population? Does it have a member of Knesset to whom it can turn if dissatisfied? The answer is no. We go to the polls with one option only and that is voting for a party list, not an individual. This results in MKs who feel absolutely no responsibility toward those who elect them. We are told this is a democratic system because ever sector of the population is represented. However this is not what actually happens.

Instead we view a Knesset that is frequently devoid of members, as it appears that many choose not to participate or vote even on important issues. This is a proportional representation system gone mad.

CONVERSELY THE “first past the post” system in the UK, where each MP is voted for individually – representing the constituency for which he stands –means that the MP is beholden to those who voted him into Parliament. Many hold weekly “surgeries,” where a constituent can come and meet his MP to discuss any issue that is of concern to him. The fact is that the MP is obliged to hear what his constituent is saying and – of greater importance – to endeavor to comply with his requests. He recognizes that the vote and support of his constituent is of the utmost importance.

How do female candidates fair in a national election? The answer is quite poorly because they are beholden to the leaders of the respective parties who decide where, on the party election list, they are placed. While personally being against the “positive discrimination” policies utilized by some countries (we women should be chosen because we are the best candidate and not for any other reason), there can be no doubt that women stand a better chance of election if voted for personally rather than being placed somewhere on the party list. Again the constituent method of election would be advantageous to women.


The most recent example of the need for drastic change in our electoral system is the ability for five Labor Party members (led by Ehud Barak) to leave the party under whose umbrella they were elected, and create a new party (Atzmaut) where they are rewarded with ministerial positions to ensure that they will remain in the coalition. For those who voted for the Labor list to find that five of its members (including the chairman) can transfer their political allegiance yet retain power, there must be a tremendous sense of frustration. Surely on leaving the party that gained them their seats, the only democratic procedure would be to replace them with Labor candidates next on the list.

While it might be too drastic to change the system completely, we could, however, have a combination of proportional representation (with a higher threshold) and a constituency system. What is quite clear is that if we wish to elect a government which can govern, the method of election must be changed and the sooner the better!

The writer is co-chairwoman of Europeans for Israel and chairwoman of the Public Relations Department of World WIZO.


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