It’s the political parties, stupid

When parties are weak both democracy and governance suffer; Israel must reform its nationwide proportional representation system

Elections in Israel (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Elections in Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
THE PREMATURE collapse of the governing coalition and the decision to call early elections have led Israelis to again question the ef - ficacy of the country’s system of government.
Indeed, early elections are problematic for governance because they impair the capacity to implement and oversee long-term policy plans. But there is an upside. Unlike presidential regimes or the American model, our system has built-in solutions to political gridlock: establishing an alternative government or calling early elections. Imagine the harm that could be done if we were stuck with the current deadlocked government for another two years.
This highlights a very important distinction between the longevity of governments and governability, that is, a government’s ability to make and implement policy. This distinction is significant because some re - formers mistakenly think that once you ensure government survival you also ensure a capacity to govern. Yet look at the US, a paragon of stability – there is no way for the government to “fall” or be replaced during its term – and yet how often have there been American administrations that could not really govern because of divided execu - tive-legislature majorities? Is it possible to improve stability and gov - ernance simultaneously? Can we enhance our government system so coalitions will survive for longer periods and provide them with a capacity to govern at the same time? Looking at Israeli political history and that of other established democracies, the answer is affirmative.
It won’t be easy to change those elements in Israeli political culture that impair governance. We can, however, amend our political institutions so that they provide a more solid basis for governing. The following analysis and recommendations are based on the work of a 10-person Israel Democracy Institute research group that examined the various aspects of the Israeli government system and presented its findings to the Knesset in March 2011.
What should be fixed? The surprising answer is that when we focus on the gov - ernment itself, there is not much to fix: our parliamentary system provides the optimal combination of stability, democracy and governance. Within this framework, we have, over the years, strengthened the prime minister by granting him additional powers, like the right to fire ministers and the right to call early elections. We added further stability to the government by requiring no-confidence motions to be “constructive,” that is, a government can only be ousted by an absolute majority of 61 Knesset Members coalescing around an alternative candidate for prime minister.
What needs to be fixed are the basic working units of democracy, especially parliamentary democracies – the political parties.
In Israel these suffer from low public esteem, as well as from being held in contempt by politicians and the media. But we cannot do without them.
When they are weak, both democracy and governance suffer. While party decline is a universal phenomenon, the decline of the large major aggregative parties in Israel has been swift and dramatic when compared with other democracies. While political parties in other democracies have weakened, they have been able to adapt and find their feet in a changed environment in which they still play a key role.
In Israel, however, parties continue to decline, giving way to a personalization of politics, in which individual leaders play a prominent role, yet lack large and unified parties to back them.
The two main elements of weakness in Israeli parties have to do with size and party unity. When it comes to size, we no longer have parties large enough to serve as the center of government coalitions. Since the 2006 elections, none of our “large” parties has held even a quarter of the seats in the Knesset and thus, mathematically, could not command a majority in the government coalitions they formed.
When it comes to cohesion within parties, we seem to have either very cohesive dictatorial parties, in which leaders have the first and last say, or democratic parties which, rather than empowering their leaders through democratic legitimacy, put further pressure on them.
The way to solve the problem of size is through electoral reform. As a first step, the electoral threshold was recently raised to 3.25 percent. It ensures that we will not have very small party lists in the Knesset and will, to some extent, encourage the creation of larger political blocs. But if we really want to encourage the creation of large aggregative parties, we must reform our pure, nationwide proportional representation electoral system.
Instead, we could have proportionality within relatively large, multi-member districts. We could divide Israel into about 12 districts, for example Jerusalem, Negev, Galilee, and so on. Each district would be allotted a number of representatives in proportion to its voting population. This way, the electoral threshold would naturally increase.
For example, in a 10-member district the “natural” threshold would be about 10 percent. People and politicians would tend to focus on larger parties, yet large geographically concentrated social groups, such as the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, would still have their share of representation.
Another reform that may help to solve the problem of size would be adopting the rule that the party that polls the most votes automatically gets the first chance to form a government. We know that these days people are less loyal to parties, and many make their voting decisions at the last minute. Adding a seemingly small factor to their considerations, (that is, if I vote for a larger party on the right or the left as the case may be, I increase the chance of its leader becoming prime minister), might encourage people to vote for larger parties, and, in the longer run, incentivize politicians to join and build larger parties.
THE PROBLEM of party unity is as important for governance as size. After all, if a government is based on a large party with 40 to 50 seats, but the party is not cohesive and does not supply the core stability necessary for governance, it will not function any better than a government constructed from several disparate medium and small parties.
The solution, however, is not to give up on intraparty democracy and encourage autocratic parties in which a single non-se - lected leader decides everything, especially the composition of the list of Knesset candidates. What we need are balanced candidate selection methods that involve party members in leadership and candidate selection, yet leave party institutions and even the party leader a significant degree of influence.
This is done in many parties in the democratic world through involving various electoral bodies in a multi-stage selection process. In the UK, for example, candidates are screened by small committees and bodies of selected delegates, but the final decision is made by party members who select from among those who pass the initial screening.
In many cases, party leaders or small executive committees in democratic parties have a limited right to veto candidacies. This way, candidates are still selected by the widest array of party members and have an incentive to be responsive to the party membership; yet they also have to be team players so that the party leadership will allow them to compete next time around.
We end where we began, reminding ourselves that it could be worse, in terms of governability in particular and democracy in general. Not every cure fits the current ailment, some may make it worse and some may even kill the patient. We were saved once after adopting an ill-considered reform which had never been tried anywhere else – direct election of the prime minister, with a double ballot, one for premier and one for party, which led to a fragmentation of parties from which we have yet to recover.
We should not make the same mistake twice.
We should only adopt reforms that have been carefully examined and we should try, as much as possible, to learn from the experiences, good and bad, of other Western countries.
That was what my team at the Israel Democracy Institute set out to do, and the product was a thick book, “Reforming Israel’s Political System” (2013), that has already served as a guide for decision-makers, and which we hope will continue to guide them in healing, carefully, step-by-step, the remaining ills in our system of government.
Prof. Gideon Rahat is a Senior Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem