Save Israel - Give us direct elections

Under the current electoral system, voters have no power to throw the bums out.

By
February 21, 2007 21:32
4 minute read.

It is becoming fashionable among politicians to blame the public for governmental corruption. Former Shinui Party chairman Yosef Lapid was one of the pioneers, writing in these pages in 2005: "It is not just the politicians who are responsible; even more at fault are the voters who send signals to the politicians that the corruption is okay… Labor and Likud voters… don't give a damn about the integrity of their elected officials." Former Meretz chairman Yossi Sarid recently made similar comments in Haaretz. And other politicians are jumping on the bandwagon. Clearly, blaming the public is convenient: It exempts politicians of any responsibility for trying to improve the situation. But is it accurate? According to January's Peace Index poll, the public is hardly indifferent to corruption: When asked how a list of issues should rank on the public agenda, a clear plurality put fighting corruption on top. This issue received a weighted grade of 31.5 out of 100, compared to 22.1 for the second-place issue (rehabilitating the IDF and Israel's deterrent capability), 20.1 for closing economic gaps, 15.4 for fighting crime and violence and 10.8 for making peace with the Palestinians. But if Israelis are so worried about this issue, why are they not marching in the streets, making themselves heard at the ballot box and otherwise trying to throw the bums out? The answer might lie in another poll published earlier this month. That poll, conducted by a public committee studying proposals for governmental reform, found that 78 percent of the public is unhappy with the country's leadership, with a significant plurality citing corruption as the main reason. But the poll also found something else: Fully 61% of respondents wanted the electoral system changed so that voters could directly elect their Knesset representatives. In other words, a majority of the public appears to have grasped what the "blame the public" movement conveniently ignores: Under the current electoral system, voters have no power to throw the bums out - because ballots are cast for parties rather than individuals, and voters have no say over the composition of party slates. THIS SYSTEM makes it doubly impossible to oust corrupt politicians. First, parties are rarely black and white; most include corrupt politicians alongside others who are honest and hard-working. Thus withholding your vote from any given party is as likely to punish the innocent as the guilty: The party will indeed lose seats, but the individual politicians who lose their jobs will not necessarily be the corrupt ones; they will merely be those at the bottom of the party's slate. In fact, because the public has no say in determining this slate, cutting from the bottom often disproportionately harms younger, cleaner politicians: It is precisely the most corrupt who usually specialize in gaining control over party institutions, which in turn guarantees them safe spots at the top of the slate. The second problem is that in a country like Israel, which still faces existential threats, it is simply unrealistic to expect people to vote for parties whose diplomatic/security platforms they view as dangerous. Meretz politicians, for instance, are generally perceived as clean, but most Israelis consider the party's platform on the Palestinian issue suicidal. And even to punish corruption, Israelis will not - and should not - vote for a party whose policies they fear will jeopardize the country's survival. THE OBVIOUS solution to both problems is to introduce direct, personal elections for MKs. That would allow voters to specifically target corrupt politicians while reelecting those who are honest, instead of firing broadside at an entire party, which is as likely to hit the good as the bad. Moreover, it would enable them to do so without sacrificing their preferred party platform, though the method would vary according to the electoral system ultimately chosen. In the Anglo-American "first past the post" system, each party runs only one candidate per district; thus in general elections, voters who want that party's platform must choose that candidate, even if he is corrupt. Therefore, primaries are vital in this system: These enable party members in each district to decide who their party's candidate should be, giving them an opportunity to oust corrupt incumbents in favor of cleaner newcomers. In the more likely event that Israel retains the proportional representation system, primaries are less important. With proportional representation, voter choice is generally achieved by creating multi-candidate districts in which each party's total number of seats is determined by its overall proportion of the vote, but the particular candidates who fill those seats are determined by the voters: For instance, voters might be asked to rank their chosen party's candidates in that district, or they might be required to vote for a single candidate, with the candidates who get the most votes getting the party's seats. Paradoxically, however, the very fact that Israelis are starting to grasp that fighting corruption requires changing the electoral system may be partly responsible for the public paralysis. Ousting a particular corrupt politician through the ballot box would be comparatively easy. But how do you persuade the Knesset to change the entire electoral system, when many of its members have a vested interest in the current system for fear that direct elections would cost them their jobs? Moreover, electoral reform can all too easily be done badly, as our brief experiment with directly electing the prime minister demonstrated, and if done wrong, it could make things worse rather than better. That is a frightening prospect, and one that understandably generates hesitation. Therefore, it is precisely those politicians (and former politicians) who claim to care about corruption who must take the lead on this issue: Instead of facilely blaming the public or voicing futile disgust, they must spearhead efforts to change the electoral system. Israel is virtually the only Western democracy that still denies its voters the right to directly elect their representatives, and it is long past time for that to change. And any politician who fails to push such change is clearly crying crocodile tears when he bemoans corruption.


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