In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, actor Bill Murray plays Phil, a TV weatherman covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He becomes trapped in a time loop forcing him to relive February 2 repeatedly. Again and again, Phil wakes up in the morning – and it is, once more, February 2.
We Israelis too, like Phil, seem trapped in an endless loop of national elections: Four since April 9, 2019. Four national elections in 714 days – or one election every 178.5 days. No other country, not even Italy, comes close. Again and again, we go to the polls. And basically, we get the same result.
And, no joking, pundits are already talking about a fifth election. Because, again, polls show right-wing and left-wing parties are almost evenly split.
Elections are meant to choose a competent functioning government. In Israel, we voted four times – and got a string of dysfunctional ones. The worst was the last. And it came at the worst possible time, during a global pandemic.
If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, if we are mired in democratic dystopia, a state of prolonged chaos and human suffering, then we must be a bit loony.
What in the world has happened to Israeli democracy? Let’s take a closer look at this strange phenomenon, as we head to the polls once again.
Where does Israel stand, out of 167 nations, in the Global Democracy Index? According to The Economist, Israel ranked 27th in 2020. (In case you’re curious, Norway is #1).
Why so low a rank? Perhaps because we have a prime minister who has ruled since March 31, 2009, during the 18th through 24th Knessets, Israel’s longest-serving premier. A law setting a two-term limit would be desirable; long-entrenched power invariably becomes arrogant and often, corrupt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial resumes in earnest in early April, just a few days after the March 23 election. Can he avoid obsessing about how to use politics not to heal and build back better, but to help him escape the jaws of the law?
When we Israelis entered the voting booths on March 23, facing us were 39 different ballots – white slips, each with a Hebrew letter or set of letters, each slip belonging to a different political party. Perhaps 10 of them will get at least 3.25% of the total votes, the minimum required for Knesset representation. Perhaps five parties too many. And the other 29?
In the March 2, 2020, national election, 21 parties failed to meet the 3.25% threshold; 36,821 votes were cast for this group, out of 4.6 million valid ballots, and more than half of those ballots went to the far Right Otzma Yehudit Party (led by Itamar Ben-Gvir).
Launching a political party eligible for the national election is incredibly cheap and simple. You need 100 notarized signatures, up to 91 days before the election. Each signature must be verified; the cost for verifying is NIS 160 for each, or NIS 16,000 in total. The submission form costs NIS 1,700.
Why did 39 parties register for the March 23 election, though at least 29 have zero chance of entering the Knesset? For those 29, it is almost costless and you get some free TV time and public attention.
Is it not time to end this ridiculous blizzard of irrelevant parties? Are the Pirate Party, the Me and You Party, the Hope for Change Party, the Bible Bloc, and maybe 25 others, really part of our democracy? Or are they sad symbols of a hopelessly fragmented, broken system?
Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman called attention to “democratic deadlock” in 2019, well before Israel’s spate of four elections.
“Welcome to the age of democratic deadlock,” he observed. “Countries call an election, only to find that it settles nothing. So they try again, but get the same inconclusive result.”
There is evidence that Israelis have lost interest in this irrelevant election. Last August polls gave Likud, the ruling party, about 30 Knesset seats. That has barely changed in eight months. The leading opposition party, Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, has consistently scored about 18 Knesset seats in the polls. The two leading parties thus account in the polls for 40% of the total 120 Knesset seats.
A scrambled omelet of other parties, some brand new, tangle over the remaining scraps, and rise and fall in the polls. And worst of all, there seemed to be almost no discussion of key policy issues. Party platforms? Few parties even bothered.
In the March 2020 election, 71% of Israeli voters went to the polls. And 25,000 submitted blank ballots or invalid ones. In the latest election, the percentage of citizens who vote may be considerably less.
It is abundantly clear now that Israel’s political system is badly broken. There are many ideas for fixing it. See, for example, Reforming Israel’s Political System, written by Prof. Gideon Rahat, Prof. Ofer Kenig, and Dr. Chen Friedberg and published by the Israel Democracy Institute more than eight years ago, with 729 pages of ideas for incremental reforms.
But paradoxically, a broken democracy that is hopelessly deadlocked internally cannot agree on the time of day, let alone implement a major overhaul of the system. The small fringe parties that comprise the core of the problem will never agree to legislate themselves out of existence, and without their agreement, there can be no true reform.
In Groundhog Day, Phil awakens one morning, finds the love of his life Rita (Andie MacDowell) next to him – and realizes, from the radio, that it is February 3. Love and compassion have broken the loop! Time moves on; a happy Hollywood ending.
So, if unlike Phil the weatherman, we are doomed to live forever in this endless loop of political deadlock, and if our broken dystopian democracy cannot be repaired, can we at least repair our society?
I wonder – if we Israelis tried to respect one another, speak a little more civilly to one another, and engage in real civil discourse, could we too break the endless loop?
It worked for Phil.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com