Israel’s national sport: elections

Having just survived the fourth general election in Israel in two years, the time has come to take another hard look at the electoral system.

A voter holding her child casts her ballot in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A voter holding her child casts her ballot in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Having just survived the fourth general election in Israel in two years, surely the time has come to take another hard look at an electoral system that seems designed to produce unworkable results. There can be no better proof that what we have here in Israel verges on the farcical, than the repeated pattern of going yet again to the polls, only to end up back where we started.
The system, which was inaugurated in 1949 with only minor amendments since, divides the total votes cast proportionally to any political party which has passed the 3.25% threshold. Thus, if a party has 20% of the vote, it will receive the same percentage of the 120 available seats in the Knesset. This sounds like a truly democratic system. The only problem is, it virtually guarantees that no one party can win an outright majority enabling it to form a government. Add to this the consequent necessity to put together a coalition from a large number of parties likely to have very little in common, a process which can take months, as one party leader after another attempts to head a government. If none of them succeeds, it will be back to the people for yet another election.
And the people may be sick and tired of the whole process, particularly when the system, as it stands, does not provide them with a member of Knesset who actually represents their area, and to whom they can go with their protest. Members of the Knesset are parliamentarians because they were high enough up on a party list to be voted in, not because they were chosen to represent a constituency or the inhabitants of a particular area of the country. This lack of a direct connection between an MK and the people, is likely to lead to electoral apathy and the decision not to participate in the democratic process by failing to vote.
The media does its best to counteract this tendency by making elections look exciting despite their regularity. In the weeks preceding each one, there are endless polls, heated television debates with correspondents leaping about between graphs and mock-up Knessets and emotive music to introduce the news. Elections fill hours of air space and acres of newsprint and probably provide the best opportunity for an examination of the issues which should occupy the minds of the voters as they head for the polling stations.
The democratic process is serious business. How it is maintained says a lot about the nature of the society in which it takes place. At its best it should provide stability and a form of government in which the people who put it there can trust. Four elections in two years can hardly have produced either of these things. Even a consideration of what those elections cost to arrange, [said to be NIS 500 million for the latest] and in lost economic output [NIS 1.7 billion] provides cause for concern. More serious is the absence of any recent effort to re-examine the existing system and to propose a change. The responsibility for it lies at the door of the Knesset which must provide a majority for any proposal of reform. And voting for it may put a number of MKs out of a job. One thing any electoral system does not do is guarantee a politician life-time employment. It seems inevitable that the Knesset will, at some time, have to bite this particular bullet and debate again whether pure proportional representation is the most effective electoral system for Israel and whether a mixed form of representation, with some MKs elected by constituencies and some from party lists, may resolve some of the existing problems.
Several efforts to promote these changes have been made in the past, starting with David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s, the Democratic Movement for Change in the 1970s and later by the Committee of Concerned Citizens, led by Chaim Herzog before he became president. Though lip service has been paid by various party leaders, no significant changes have ever been made to the system that was established at the beginning of the state. Maybe after four elections in two years with a fifth possibly pending, the time has finally arrived for a courageous leader to pick up the gauntlet.
The writer is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation.