Don't rush electoral reform

The proposal to switch over to a quasi-presidential system is unlikely to win a Knesset majority.

By
October 15, 2006 21:34
3 minute read.
Avigdor Lieberman Israel Beiteinu 298.88

Avigdor Lieberman 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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As things appear now, the proposal to switch over to a quasi-presidential system - whether or not the actual chief of the executive is called a president - is unlikely to win the prerequisite Knesset majority in a preliminary reading this week. Such failure to secure instant parliamentary approval might not be a bad thing for Israel's body politic, even if it throws a spanner in the coalition-expansion works. Israel Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman has made the overhaul of our system of government his precondition for entering Ehud Olmert's coalition. Olmert, eager to co-opt Lieberman's 11 Knesset votes, has thrown his full political weight behind plans that at best can only be regarded as half-baked, if not actually dangerous. Lieberman's prescription calls for doing away with our representative presidency and making the premier head of an American-style executive, who needs nobody to appoint him to form the government, whose accountability to the Knesset is negligibly enforceable and whom it's next to impossible to unseat. Moreover, the entry threshold to the Knesset would be raised to a whopping 10 percent, unheard of in most parliamentary democracies. In situations of aggravated disaffection - such as Israel is now experiencing in the wake of the unsatisfactory outcome of the summer's Lebanese campaign - schemes to install a strongman at the state's helm have an undeniable attractiveness. The powerful leader becomes the panacea for whom the populace yearns. Nevertheless the need to shore up a fraying coalition shouldn't constitute the rationale behind far-reaching changes whose implications and ramifications haven't been adequately considered and which are superciliously treated as almost inconsequential. Lackadaisical politics can wreak havoc. What should be undertaken with maximal care certainly mustn't become the object of dilettante experimentation or expedient horse-trading. Political structures, whether closer to perfection or farther removed from the optimum, are in the end houses of cards. It's easy to pull out cards and bring the lot crashing down, but it's very difficult to correct the damage. Our democracy had already paid dearly for the 1990s double-ballot experiment, calculated to convey Israel a step closer to America by giving us a directly-elected premier and a separately elected parliament that could not exert extortionist pressure on the prime minister. Reality belied theory. Rather than eliminating small factions, the double ballot fragmented the large parties because it freed voters from the fear of supporting marginal lists at the expense of their preferred bloc's leading party. And this was a reform that had been years in the making and had been thoroughly researched. (In fairness to its drafters, it should be noted that only a part of their proposed overhaul, which was also to have included the introduction of a constituency system, was ever implemented.) What's contemplated now is potentially far more destructive. It's akin to installing an American-style chief executive in a country lacking the crucial checks and balances of the American system, much less a constitution. In any case, not everything which evolved in the US because of that country's particular character, history and structure is suited for ours given our particular character, history and structure. Divesting the legislative branch of its remaining powers augurs nothing auspicious and will hardly bolster democracy. And would the potential elimination of representation for such populations as the Orthodox or the Arabs add to our national stability? It might achieve the reverse; it should certainly not be contemplated in haste. Some of what most ails our system, incidentally, stems not from its technical framework but from the content we, the voters, pour into it - following fads, being swayed by polls and paying too little attention to issues. Avoiding the difficult and unpleasant, while seeking magic solutions to deep-seated existential problems, will inevitably lead to bad government. There is nothing so wrong with our system that competent leaders and sound policy guidelines cannot ameliorate, if not cure. Superficial pseudo-reforms will not make up for lack of elementary capability. Tinkering with a hybrid parliamentary-presidential system, sans essential checks and balances, is guaranteed to make a bad situation incomparably worse.

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