Reality check: No system of government is perfect

In every election, millions of votes go to waste as Labor voters in staunch Conservative areas, or vice versa, futilely cast their ballot with no ability to influence the final outcome.

May 10, 2015 21:59
British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing St.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street in London. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A sweating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with a shaky coalition of only 61 Knesset members to unveil this week, no doubt cast an envious glance over the weekend at the success of his UK Conservative counterpart, David Cameron, who pulled off what Cameron himself described as the “sweetest victory” as the Conservatives returned to power with an increased share of both the vote and seats in parliament.

Of course the two – votes and seats – do not necessarily go hand-in-hand in Britain. Its first-past-the-post constituency system is notoriously unfair and undemocratic.

In every election, millions of votes go to waste as Labor voters in staunch Conservative areas, or vice versa, futilely cast their ballot with no ability to influence the final outcome.

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This creates anomalies such as the right-wing UKIP party winning almost 3.9 million votes nationally, but only succeeding in returning one member of parliament to the House of Commons. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, with only 1.5 million votes.

How democratic is that? Were Britain to adopt a system of proportional representation, UKIP’s 12.8% of the vote would have resulted in 83 seats, and the SNP’s 4.8% of the vote in 31 seats.

But the flipside of this winnertake- all constituency system is that encourages, for the most part, very stable government. Unlike his previous government, which was a rarity in British political history, a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron this time around has no need to form a coalition as he commands an overall majority in the House of Commons.

And the other advantage of this system is that every British voter, regardless of political affiliation, has a representative in parliament – their MP – to directly represent them. No matter which grand offices of state a British politician might hold, from prime minister downwards, they also have a constituency to nurture and keep them grounded. Constituents with a problem expect their MP to be available and willing to try and find a solution to their particular issue.

Here in Israel, despite every voter directly influencing the outcome of the election – who can forget Netanyahu’s racist hysteria over the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens had the temerity to flock to the polling stations in March – once a vote has been cast, there is almost a total disconnect between the electorate and the elected.

Unless you are connected to the system in some way, normally through money or heightened political activism, it’s very hard to get any Knesset member interested in your particular issue or fight your corner.

A case in point is one of the few times I ever used my position as editor-in-chief of this newspaper to help an acquaintance with a personal problem they were encountering. This person, whom I did not know directly, was the grandchild of a Righteous Gentile and had come to live in Israel in large part due to their family history.

A paramedical professional, this person needed a visa from the Interior Ministry to live and work in the country, a visa which was regularly renewed until the Shas officials then running the ministry decided to make it much harder for non-Jews living in this country.

Regardless of the fact that this person was doing a job which few Israelis at the time were capable of performing, or the fact that this person’s family had actively saved Jews during the Holocaust, the Interior Ministry was determined not to renew their visa in order to force them to leave the country.

Asked to help, I realized this person’s only chance of staying in the country relied on finding a Knesset member willing to take up their case. But without a constituency system, how does a person approach a Knesset member or even know which MK to turn to? My small contribution to the successful conclusion of this story was relatively straightforward. At that time, the ruling Likud Party still contained a number of MKs who, although fully committed to settling the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were also committed to the ideal of Israel as a non-xenophobic, liberal democratic country.

One such MK was Michael Kleiner, who had a long-standing interest in promoting the well-being of Holocaust survivors and ensuring the lesson of the Shoah would never be forgotten. Due to this background, I assumed, rightly as it turned out, that Kleiner would be willing to take up my acquaintance’s case because of the Righteous Gentile grandfather in the background.

Now Kleiner didn’t know me, but no politician turns down a phone call from a national newspaper editor, and once he heard the story, he asked my acquaintance call his office to set up a meeting. With all the paperwork in hand, Kleiner did the rest – not to seek publicity but because he believed it was the right thing to do.

A constituency-based electoral system in Israel would have saved my acquaintance from this roundabout way of solving their problem – which would be good thing – but then, on the other hand, do we want a system such as Britain’s which effectively disenfranchises large numbers of voters, regardless of the stability it brings? Unfortunately, this is very much an academic question, as Netanyahu’s new government will be far too busy battling for survival on a day-to-day basis to even begin considering any aspects of electoral reform.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post

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