Here And There: Whither democracy?

It is difficult not to question the democracy of a state that gives its voters the right to make a decision and then allows the Parliament to attempt to overturn that decision.

‘ISRAEL’S ELECTORAL system results in a situation whereby the “tail wags the dog.”’ (photo credit: TNS)
‘ISRAEL’S ELECTORAL system results in a situation whereby the “tail wags the dog.”’
(photo credit: TNS)
The definition of the word “democracy,” according to the Oxford dictionary, is “A political system that allows citizens to participate in political decision-making, or to elect representation to government bodies.”
Taking a look at recent political manifestations both in the United Kingdom (a country where I have spent most of my life) and here in Israel – my chosen home for these past 21 years – I question whether the Oxford dictionary interpretation can, today, be applied to either nation.
The UK’s Parliament has been debating Brexit since its population voted, on June 23, 2016, to exit Europe. The referendum resulted in the exit of prime minister David Cameron who, hitherto, had taken the view, as he said in his Bloomberg speech in 2013, that consent in Britain for the EU was ‘wafer-thin’, and that unless membership was given legitimacy in a referendum, the issue would fester and Britain would eventually leave anyway. He was also under pressure from his back-benchers and from the newly formed UK Independence Party, which was to come first in the European Parliament elections in 2014 and to win 1/8th of the vote in the 2015 general election – which proved to be by far the largest vote ever won by a minor party in Britain.
According to Vernon Bogdanor, Prof. of Government at King’s College, London, and author of Beyond Brexit, “Britain has always had difficulties with the idea of European integration since her constitutional, political and economic arrangements are so different from those of the Continent. Moreover, spared the experience of fascism, Nazism or enemy occupation, she saw no reason to overcome her past, as did the countries of the Continent. While a German or Austrian might have good reason to feel shame at what her grandparents had done, the British could feel pride in their role in liberating Europe. They had no reason to overcome their history, which was a source of pride.”
Bogdanor continues, “Britain’s profound differences from the Continent and her long evolutionary history are reflected in the concept of the sovereignty of Parliament, a concept alien to the Continent, and to be distinguished from the concept of national sovereignty with which it is often confused. It is the notion of parliamentary sovereignty that makes is so difficult for Britain to subordinate herself to a superior legal order such as that of the EU.”
The past three years of parliamentary debate was an attempt to appease both the “Brexiteers” and the “Remainers.” The people had spoken through a democratic vote which Parliament then attempted, at best, to modify or, at worst, to ignore. Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt at compromise failed. Why? Because the Members of Parliament were split three ways: those who wanted a clear exit; those who wished to remain; and those who wanted the “best” of both worlds, namely to exit yet to benefit from the advantages of belonging that brings with it subsequent conditions – an anomaly to the Brexiteers.
It is difficult not to question the democracy of a state that gives its voters the right to make a decision and then allows the Parliament to attempt to overturn that decision; these past three years have resulted in a no-win situation for Brexiteers and Remainers.
The inevitable departure of Prime Minister Theresa May, who unsuccessfully endeavored to please all, is a sad day for the Jewish community, whom she supported in numerous directions but especially in the area of communal security. As contenders come forward to replace May, what is evolving is that the divisions will not disappear overnight. Britain is facing a challenge to its democratic being.
ISRAEL’S ELECTORAL system results in a situation whereby the “tail wags the dog.” A comparative low threshold of 3.25% of the national vote enables a party to enter the Knesset. However, this also resulted in no fewer than 43 parties vying for Knesset seats in the April election. While the president invites the head of the party with the largest number of elected MKs to form a coalition it is the smaller factions that have to be “persuaded” to join by being offered various carrots in the form of ministries, financial support for their specific programs plus other inducements of which we may never hear.
Our government is subjected to the views of its minority members. How else can we explain the power of the Chief Rabbinate (supported by the ultra-Orthodox block), which continues to discourage (rather than encourage) the conversion of some half a million of Israeli citizens originating from the Former Soviet Union? How else can we explain the funding of education systems,belonging to the haredim that result in an education devoid of secular subjects – ensuring that their graduates will end up being a drain on the country unqualified to earn a living, but “qualified” to avoid serving their country either through the IDF or civilian national service?
During these past years we have witnessed how the minority members of the government have succeeded in preventing a prayer space, at the Western Wall, for Jews who belong to the Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism;  this has alienated not only Jews in Israel but also the majority of American Jewry, a fact that should be of grave concern to any Israeli government.
The bottom line: Should we not be questioning the democracy of an electoral system that results in the minority ruling the majority?
May 29 was the date our Knesset voted to hold new elections on September 17 – the second within five months. Avigdor Liberman has been “blamed” for this reality. While no advocate for Lieberman, he is to be admired for standing up for what he and many of us believe to be right for this country – namely to support what is known as Liberman’s bill, shaped by security officials, initially setting a target of drafting 3,348 ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF and 648 into civilian national service.
ONE POSITIVE outcome of the forthcoming election is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not have time, prior to his criminal hearing at the beginning of October, to pass planned legislation of both the “immunity” law to protect him from prosecution and legislation to cancel the Supreme Court’s authority to overturn such a law. Last month, as Netanyahu attempted to form a coalition government, it appeared that a condition for entry was to endorse these proposed laws. On that note, on May 24 The Israel Democracy Institute placed a full-page ad in The Jerusalem Post stating “Do not allow the rule of law to be destroyed just so that politicians can escape justice”
Voting for a party rather than an individual eliminates the necessity for parties to concern themselves with what is of significance to the electorate; improving the education and health systems; ensuring that Holocaust survivors can live out their remaining years in dignity; endeavoring to reduce the cost of housing; the elimination of VAT on food prices as well as the elimination of the cartel controlling our overpriced food, to mention a few issues that trouble the electorate.
As we approach a second election within a year, it would be democratically refreshing to hear what each party represents rather than the consistent mudslinging and the accusation of being categorized as a “rightist” or a “leftist.” Why is it bad to be a leftist and good to be a rightist? Why is security seen as belonging only to the Right? Security is desired by all but is not only about the defense of this country against its enemies; it is also about the individual’s security.
Unfortunately, our current “democratic” system has eliminated the need for our party leaders to concern themselves with things that concern us.
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.