Editor's Notes: Now it's up to us

MKs aren't likely to rush to change a system that got them elected, flawed as it may be.

By DAVID HOROVITZ
February 22, 2007 21:43
Editor's Notes: Now it's up to us

david horovitz 224.88. (photo credit: )

In the 2003 elections, the Likud won 48 seats. With such strong Knesset representation, it easily attracted the single coalition partner it needed, and governed without undue instability through to 2006. In those elections, last year, Kadima won a healthy 39 seats and, partnered by Labor (26 seats) in a robust two-party coalition, was able to concentrate on policy-making rather than factional bickering with an ease that recalled the two-party coalitions of the modern state's earliest years. This didn't happen, of course. The Likud won only 38 seats in 2003, and Kadima won just 29 last year, in both cases requiring the dominant party to enter complex negotiations for multi-party coalitions in which the often conflicting demands and priorities of the smaller partners spelled constant instability and sapped precious resources and time. No, it didn't happen. But it could have. And these are the kind of election results we could have in the future. Greater government stability, achieved in part through a bolstering of the major parties, the diminishing of the middle-sized factions, and the retention of Arab and Orthodox lists, lies at the heart of the recipe for electoral reform painstakingly cooked up over the past 17 months by a 70-strong commission, comprising academics, public figures, businesspeople and more, and chaired by mathematician Menachem Magidor, the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As things stand, the commission noted, the kind of instability that has seen 31 governments hold power in our mere 58 years of statehood - with revolving door ministries yielding no fewer than 11 ministers of infrastructure, for instance, in the past decade alone - "makes it impossible to devise a consistent policy and often causes governments to favor short-term political considerations over medium and long-term national priorities." Centrally, too, the extravagantly titled Commission for Examination of the Structure of Governance in Israel has sought to address the lack of direct representation in the Knesset - the absence of legislators elected on a constituency basis, answerable to a geographically defined group of voters, and consequently required to satisfy those voters rather than party bigwigs to maintain their seats. Rejecting the idea of a drastic switch to an American-style presidential system, the commission suggests that the current unworkable pure proportional representation be switched for one in which only half the Knesset is elected through national ballots. The other 60 MKs would be chosen within 17 constituencies nationwide, whose boundaries would be based on the districts and sub-districts already used by the Interior Ministry, with each constituency providing between two and five representatives, depending on its population. Voters would also be able to choose "favored" candidates within the national and regional lists in one of several complex refinements of the proposed system. Among other admirable common-sense reforms is the recommendation that no government number more than 18 ministers, each heading a ministry whose existence is anchored in legislation; that there be no more than five deputy ministers; that key ministerial appointments be vetted by a Knesset committee, with ministers required to report back on their activities every six months, and that ministers and deputy ministers resign from the Knesset to ensure that all 120 legislators can devote themselves full-time to Knesset work within a streamlined system of Knesset committees (the so-called Norwegian Law, whose costs would be offset by that mandated reduction in the number of ministerial positions). The panel also suggests changing the rules for bringing down a government, so that for a no-confidence motion to take effect it must yield the support of 61 MKs for an alternative government, with a named prime minister and at least seven senior ministers. And in a series of proposals plainly designed to bolster government efficiency and reduce corruption, the commission wants the national budget approved on a biennial basis; it wants ministers to submit detailed financial accounting to the relevant Knesset committee every year; it proposes greater oversight of the appointment of ministry directors-general, and it advocates the relocation of the Finance Ministry's Budget Division and the Government Companies Authority to the Prime Minister's Office. Prof. Magidor is an intense, likable man who speaks in rapid-fire bursts and works from a vast desk overflowing with papers, with a portrait of Albert Einstein keeping watch over his right shoulder. He disarmingly admits that when he agreed to head the panel he envisaged it would merely entail "chairing a few meetings." Pretty soon, he says, he realized how important and how complicated was the task. And how controversial: Nineteen of the commission's members could not bring themselves to sign off on the final report. Its work has also, indirectly, been undermined by the Katsav affair. The commission was initiated by the president, and it was expected that the president would champion its conclusions with all the prestige of his office. Now the report is somewhat orphaned, though Magidor, despite the pressures of his Hebrew University work, says he is doing his utmost to push it forward. Its recommendations are crucial, he says. "It must not disappear from the public debate." How central are the flaws in our electoral system to the problems of corruption? They are not the whole problem, but they are a significant part of the problem. If we can achieve a system with greater accountability… For which there is no Hebrew word... Well, there's "Ahrayutiyut," newly coined. Just as there's "Yoshrah," for integrity, also relatively new. If we can achieve a system with greater accountability, stability, direct representation - a formal address for the voter, a greater personal choice - this will reduce corruption because the voters will directly punish those Knesset members and would-be Knesset members seen as lacking. And that can have a wider positive impact. The fact that an elected representative today [mainly] has to satisfy his party's central committee or a similar small body encourages corruption. There are no mass demonstrations demanding change. And therefore one wonders whether your recommendations will come to pass. I don't know if it will be implemented. I think written documents have a certain weight, and if the impact is not immediate, it may come later. I never deluded myself that getting these proposals implemented would be easy. After all, the present Knesset would have to legislate them, and it was elected under the current system, so why would its members want to change that unless there is sufficient public pressure? The Katsav case hasn't helped. Presidential prestige would certainly have advanced matters. I don't hear you shouting, "Folks, we're in crisis. Here's the solution! Ignore it at your peril!" Or maybe shouting isn't your style? Actually I do know how to shout, but perhaps not in the political arena. I am trying in every possible forum to, essentially, shout - to shout in my academic style! I don't know if there's a public movement that will push it. But with the opportunities I have, I am trying to push it. Because it may not be the only solution, but it would certainly improve the Israeli system. Did you carry out simulations of how the changes you're proposing would have affected recent elections? Yes, for 2003 and 2006. And the results [as cited at the top of this article] are that the big parties grow significantly bigger. Part of the idea, of course, is to encourage the growth of larger political blocs. Interestingly, though, the haredim and the Arab parties were almost unaffected. The combination of national and regional votes produces this outcome. It is the medium-sized parties that get hurt. One of the great problems with the current system is not that the number of parties has grown. It was the same in the early years of the state. But in those days two parties could make a coalition between them. Nowadays you need three or even four parties. And that makes a huge difference. [So our proposed system] gives preference to the big parties. It doesn't mean the absolute disappearance of parties with unique character, but it certainly does hurt the intermediate parties. Are we the only modern democracy with full proportional representation? No, Holland has it too, and it too has problems. And which systems did you base your program on? Elements from many states. The idea of choosing personal preferences within a list exists in Denmark and Belgium. The 50-50 proportion [we propose] between national lists and constituencies has no exact parallel elsewhere… One of the principal problems that we have here is the primaries system. Either you have primaries within a small body which causes problems, or open primaries which are costly and can involve "fictional" new party members [who are recruited to vote without a real commitment to the party]. One of our most important recommendations is that any internal electoral procedure in a party must include only dues-paying members who have been in the party for 18 months at least. I don't insist that everything has to be implemented precisely as we propose. But we did want to get into the details. For instance, it was important to propose the specifics of the regional divisions for the constituency system - to prevent gerrymandering. So we chose a system of regions that has a historical logic. We certainly did not want to "cook up" election results of one type or another. But we did the simulations to see that it wouldn't create grave problems. The public has to know that it is not being tricked. I should stress that one of the problems with our commission was that it numbered over 70 people, each with their own views. I didn't appoint it. I was asked to chair it. Reaching positions that most people agreed on was very difficult. Nineteen didn't sign off on the final report. We had to aim for consensus, where most people would say "that's not bad." What was the obstacle that prevented the 19 from signing? The idea of regional elections. It was a group led by [former Meretz MK] Naomi Chazan, whom I certainly admire and respect, that essentially wanted to preserve the current situation with certain changes. If the current situation was great that would have been okay. Another important element of our proposals is to institute hearings for incoming ministers, certain senior ministers, before the relevant Knesset committee. The committee would make a recommendation and the Knesset itself could accept or reject it. That's a pretty moderate proposal. But my hope is that if a potential minister is plainly unsuitable, the knowledge that he or she would have to face this hearing, in public view, might prompt the prime minister to refrain from proposing such a candidate. The Knesset committee would not have the power to block the appointment, but hopefully the hearing process would deter unsuitable appointments. How have current politicians responded to all this? Politicians have taken an interest in our work, but very few have gone deeply into it. Look, we want to improve the government's ability to govern effectively, and also to boost the power of the Knesset to keep tabs on the government. I know this will annoy a lot of people, but the fact is that the work done in the Knesset committees - and most MKs are very good - is, to my sorrow, not serious. MKs are members of too many committees. Perhaps as a result of our report, Gideon Sa'ar has now proposed that no MK sit on more than two committees - precisely as we propose. As things stand, committees meet simultaneously. MKs can't be in two places at once. Meetings are short. The work is not serious. Work in the US Congress and Senate is much more serious, as it is too in the British Parliament and the Bundestag. Discussion in the cabinet is said to be superficial too. I've not sat in on cabinet meetings. But I once asked a student to work out the average time spent on each government decision. The answer: 55 seconds. And what proportion of government decisions are actually implemented? Less than a third. What goes wrong en route? All kinds of things. Lack of the necessary preparation. Legal problems... We've also proposed that there be legislation preventing the government from going to war or carrying out a major military operation - there would need to be exceptions for immediate needs - without the National Security Council preparing a position paper on the implications of such an action. And the NSC would have to be fully independent of the IDF. I have the greatest respect for the IDF, and I think some of the criticisms it faces are exaggerated. But an independent body has to prepare a paper for the government to discuss. The government is sovereign. The government must decide. But it needs an independent input. This can be done very quickly. I think it is extremely important. David Ivri pushed this idea. So practically, now, what happens to all these ideas? If we can keep them on the public agenda, there's a chance that the politicians will feel the need to act. It's up to the public. I certainly hope it doesn't wind up gathering dust.


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