Swapping tents for representation

At the core of our inadequate system is an electoral process which invariably produces distant and unstable government.

August 15, 2011 22:06
4 minute read.
Knesset vote [file]

Knesset vote 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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Although the "summer of discontent" has forced the government to begrudgingly acknowledge the depth of public dissatisfaction with Israel’s social reality, the challenge for the protestors must now be to turn momentum into concrete results. The government’s establishment of a panel to conduct a dialogue with the protest leaders is the beginning of negotiations. As the end game moves closer, the protestors’ all-encompassing demands must be refined into practical measures to realize their vision of social justice. There can be few changes more crucial than electoral reform, which would make our representatives truly accountable to the people.

The fact that only unprecedented mass protest has stirred the government’s interest toward satisfying mainstream public opinion is an indictment of a creaking political system. Of course, there is no perfect parliamentary democracy, or else it would be universally adopted. However, at the foundation of any democracy lies the principle that elected representatives must indeed represent the people. That only a handful, if any, of our parliamentarians predicted this summer’s unrest is evidence that they are woefully out of touch with those they purport to represent. Even now, opposition leaders – especially those from Kadima – are treating the protests as a political tool, using every opportunity to vilify the government while offering no solutions. In the face of such a widespread consensual movement for change, their self-serving actions appear very much at odds with the will of the people.

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At the core of our inadequate system is an electoral process which invariably produces distant and unstable government. Central to the problem are the bodies which stand between the people and their representatives.

MKs do not directly owe their positions to the citizens, who choose between parties, not individuals at the ballot box.

Rather, they are indebted to the party functionaries and committees that place them on a list of candidates. Our parliamentarians must curry favor with party technocrats in order to secure their political future. As a result, their responsibility toward the electorate is purely theoretical, and although some appreciate the weighty duties of public service, others regard listening to popular grievances as an inconvenience.

THE STATUS QUO, by which the entire country is one electoral district, means that all and yet none of the 120 MKs represent the people. Neither the individual Israeli nor the local community has an address to turn to when the government infringes their rights or livelihood. This sense of abandonment, which has left the majority without a figure of authority to trumpet their cause, has helped drive the masses to the streets. While Shas and other ethnically or religiously based political parties are an exception to the rule, acting as representatives of their communities, their prominence has left the political process characterized by narrow sectoral interests, further disenfranchising the general public.

Conventional wisdom assumes that this summer’s movement for social justice is the kind of opportunity that presents itself once in a generation. A leading academic recently warned “This is an opportunity and if it is missed, we will fall into the abyss.” Yet dialogue between the citizenry and the body politic must be a permanent, ongoing process, not a one-time token gesture to democracy. By demanding direct representation through multiple electoral districts, the protest leaders can shift the dynamics of government, ensuring that healthy public discourse is at the heart of the country’s future.

We need only glance toward our fellow western democracies for inspiration. In the UK, members of parliament regularly host ‘surgeries’ – an opportunity for constituents to raise all manner of issues in a personal meeting. It is commonplace for an MP in Westminster to pose a parliamentary question or approach government ministers on behalf of an individual constituent. Meanwhile, in the US, congressmen and women hold similar "open house" events for local residents. In both countries, representatives recognize that their jobs depend on the consent of their constituents, so popular local grievances are only foolishly ignored.

Israel’s social justice movement is struggling to find a realistic agenda. Its calls to overhaul the economic system will likely lead to accusations of a "socialist coup," while others understand that the blanket call for free education and childcare is manifestly unaffordable. The reform of our electoral system, on the other hand, based on direct representation, is a nonpartisan measure. It would be anything but an expensive ‘quick-fix’ solution, providing meaningful and lasting change at minimal cost. Most importantly, it would fundamentally improve the way our country is governed, alleviating the sense of public powerlessness expressed on our streets.

The writer is a communications professional based in Tel Aviv.

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