Civil Fights: Hail, Romania

Traian Basescu has led the way. Will Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu now follow?

September 19, 2007 21:27
4 minute read.
Civil Fights: Hail, Romania

romanian pres 88. (photo credit: AP)


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Romania is not normally a country I would choose as a model for emulation. But I could not help being envious when I read the following Reuters report three weeks ago: Romania's main political parties have agreed to change the country's electoral system prior to a November election, in order to make politicians more accountable to the voters. And President Traian Basescu has threatened to call a national referendum on reform should the politicians fail to make good on this promise. Romania, like Israel, is one of the last places in the democratic world where voters still cast ballots for party slates rather than for individual candidates. But according to opinion polls, some 80 percent of Romanians are fed up with this system, which gives them little say over who ends up in parliament. Romanian politicians have therefore decided to bow to the popular will and switch to a German-style system in which half the candidates would be elected directly, by regional constituencies, while the other half would still be elected by party slate. Israel has not yet reached Romania's level of consensus. Yet here, too, a solid majority would like to elect its representatives directly. According to one poll commissioned by a public committee on government reform, published in February, 61 percent of Israelis want to elect their Knesset members directly; a subsequent poll commissioned by the grassroots Citizens Empowerment Public Action Campaign put the figure at 64 percent. UNLIKE IN Romania, however, our political parties appear to have no intention of bowing to the popular will. As Knesset Constitution Committee Chairman Menachem Ben-Sasson, who personally favors direct elections, bluntly told the Post earlier this month: "After talking to almost all 120 MKs, I think it is safe to say it has no chance of passing." Ben-Sasson is consequently seeking to enact a much more modest reform package: raising the electoral threshold from 2 to 2.5 percent; passing the so-called Norwegian Law, which requires ministers to resign from the Knesset and be replaced by the next person on their party's list; and giving the head of the largest party the first shot at forming a government (currently, the president consults all parties and gives the nod to whichever party leader is favored by more MKs overall). All of these are good ideas in themselves. The Norwegian Law, for instance, would improve the Knesset's work by ensuring that there are always 120 active MKs; currently, as many as one-third of all MKs serve as ministers and deputy ministers, forcing the remainder to juggle an impossible four or five committee seats apiece. Giving the head of the largest party the first shot at forming a government would encourage people to vote for big parties rather than small ones, which would reduce the big parties' dependence on a myriad small coalition partners. And while the proposed rise in the electoral threshold is too small to make much difference, it at least preserves the momentum created by several similarly modest increases in recent years, which, if continued, would eventually eliminate three- to five-person factions. YET THIS package fails to address the root of the problem, which is that the current electoral system leaves MKs completely unaccountable to the public. A directly-elected MK must face the voters periodically and will not be reelected unless they are satisfied with his performance. But the party slate system means that an MK's chances of reelection depend not on pleasing the public, but on pleasing the party bosses: It is they who will determine whether an MK is placed high on the party's next Knesset slate, thereby guaranteeing him a seat, or far down the list, thereby ensuring that he will not get in. This lack of accountability is responsible for multiple ills. It is, for instance, a major factor in the poor quality of our MKs. Whereas a directly-elected MK has to do a good job in order to convince voters to reelect him, an MK whose reelection depends on the party bosses is naturally more focused on their welfare than on the public's. It is also a factor in the Knesset's lame supervision of the executive: It is hard to effectively supervise cabinet members when they control your political future. In contrast, directly-elected MKs have power bases independent of the party bosses, and could therefore afford to challenge the executive. Finally, it is why Ehud Olmert heads the most stable government in recent memory despite the lowest approval ratings in Israeli history: MKs who had to answer to the voters would not dare risk their wrath by leaving him in office, but MKs who answer to party bosses dare not unseat him as long as those bosses, in all five coalition parties, favor keeping him in power. ONE CAN understand why small parties nevertheless favor the current system: Direct regional elections would almost certainly reduce their representation in the Knesset. The three large parties, however, would benefit from direct elections, which would presumably increase their Knesset representation. And together, they have enough Knesset seats to pass this reform even over the smaller parties' objections. Yet even in those three parties, only a handful of MKs actively support changing the system - people such as Ben-Sasson (Kadima), Gideon Sa'ar and Michael Eitan (Likud) and Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor). And while none of them are back-benchers, neither are any in the top ranks of their party's leadership. The leaders of all three parties have either remained shamefully silent or openly opposed a switch to direct elections. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is a time to repent the old year's errors and vow to do better henceforth. Yet as anyone who has ever made a New Year's resolution knows, setting overly ambitious goals is a recipe for failure. So I would not dream of expecting our politicians to match the culture of personal accountability that characterizes, say, Britain or Japan. But is it really too much to ask that they show as much respect for the popular will as their counterparts in a fledgling democracy like Romania?

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