Reform movement

Political parties agree it's time to overhaul the electoral system. So why is the process stuck?

family votes 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
family votes 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It seemed that for once, the cards were all in line. After decades of deliberation and proposals and days' worth of committee hearings and debate, it seemed that maybe - just maybe - election reform was on the horizon. Only last week, a bill carrying the signatures of three out of four of the Knesset's largest parties was placed on the Knesset table, and it seemed that in a matter of days, the voting on the merits of the planned changes would begin. The bill came at an unusual juncture in Israeli politics: all four of Israel's largest political parties agreed with each other that it was time for a change. And although election reform was once viewed as too esoteric to interest Israeli voters, or even most legislators, it proved to be one of the major underlying themes in this strange month, during which two contenders both argued that the government was theirs, and coalition agreements seemed to linger on the horizon while the country is led by a prime minister who resigned over six months ago. Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni listed electoral reform as one of the major planks in Kadima's negotiating platform during her failed talks with Likud chairman and Prime Minister designate Binyamin Netanyahu. Even after the talks broke down, Livni emphasized that electoral reform was one of the subjects on which the parties had managed to come to an agreement. Israel Beiteinu chairman and coalition kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman has long been an advocate of changing the electoral system - and even the basic structure of the government itself. In his concession speech shortly after his party's resounding defeat at the polls, Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak promised that "wherever we will be, we will act to change the elections system and the governmental system - it simply cannot continue this way. It is unacceptable that the ruling party has fewer than a quarter of the seats in the Knesset." Barak, too, discussed the topic with Netanyahu when the two tried to come to coalition understandings, and after negotiations with Labor and Kadima failed, would-be Netanyahu partner Lieberman was left this week trying to negotiate agreements - on electoral reform and civil marriage - with fellow would-be partners in the haredi parties. Even President Shimon Peres was not immune from jumping on the reformist bandwagon. Peres, who at one time was a vocal opponent of election reform, complained following the election that "the system in Israel hurts big parties and encourages small ones. Thus a state is created in which the number of parties causes horse-trading and bargaining which brings down the value of politics in the eyes of he public. I believe that the many shades of Israeli society can be represented under one overarching party, and I am thus in favor of changing the electoral system - the possibilities are varied. We could go from national to regional elections, and we can raise the minimum votes needed, which today stands at 2 percent." Focus on the subject reached such a fever pitch that cabinet secretary Ovad Yehezkel accused the parties - and commentators - of playing a game of "who can yell loudest for electoral reform." The question of electoral reform is not just a convenient talking point for political party leaders disillusioned and challenged by the inconclusive results of the latest elections. It is a hot topic on campuses, and has even made its way to that trendiest of rest stops on the information superhighway - Facebook. A quick perusal of the popular social networking site reveals two "groups" exclusively devoted to the topic, and another handful of groups - many of which supported specific youthful candidates in the recent elections - in which the topic was discussed. Group members are anything but the typical political hacks - they are overwhelmingly Israeli-born and in their twenties - hailing from across the country and representing a wide band of ethnic backgrounds. "It is unacceptable that the elected prime minister in a democratic country can't advance his diplomatic-political-economic mission because there are 10 to 15 parties in the Knesset - most of them small - whose entire principle is to advance the narrow interests of their voters," wrote the founders of one of the most popular pro-reform groups. These parties "more or less blackmail the prime minister with their votes - every few months they create a coalition crisis and threaten the dissolution of the government, and then new elections, to improve their percentages and political gains. This ultimately causes a reality in which the government is brought down about once every two years," they said. And Facebook is far from the only pop-political venue for young Israelis to vent their frustrations on the Internet. A perfunctory search leads those interested to political advocacy groups, university discussion boards and on-line petitions, in all of which the same argument is made: the system is limping along and needs an overhaul - quickly. SO IF the major parties support change, and there is growing public support as well, what is holding back the reform? Election reform is anything but a new subject in the halls of the Knesset. Within the first decade of Israel's independence, David Ben-Gurion advocated a switch from the current system to a district-constituency-based system more reminiscent of the one in the United Kingdom. Throughout the years, politicians have followed in the footsteps of the founding father and tried to initiate various reforms. Most infamous perhaps was the reform adopted in 1996, through which voters submitted two ballots in parliamentary elections - one for prime minister and one for parliamentary faction. After three rounds of elections using the new method, the reform was overturned in 2001 and the former system restored. Although that attempt failed, the reform question remained in the air, and in 2005, then-president Moshe Katsav appointed then-president of the Hebrew University Menahem Magidor to head the Commission for the Examination of the Structure of Governance in Israel, charged with the mandate of reviewing Israel's electoral system. Magidor's commission included approximately 70 members, including representatives of the political parties. One of those to testify before the commission was then-private citizen Ehud Barak, who spoke enthusiastically in favor of changing the system, and in support of a presidential system - a plan since seen to be the exclusive province of Avigdor Lieberman. In February 2006, the Magidor commission presented a survey carried out by the Citizens' Empowerment Commission indicating that approximately half of Israeli residents supported a change in the electoral system - and half of those supported the 60-60 compromise through which half of the members of Knesset would be chosen in district-based elections and half would be chosen from national party lists. At the time, 55 percent of residents were discontented with their political leadership and only 17% were satisfied with it. Fifty-three percent said they thought Israel needed to change its electoral system. Magidor returned to Katsav with recommendations that continue to form the framework of many mainstream plans for reform today. The commission recommended that 60 MKs be elected from within 17 constituencies based on the Interior Ministry's districts and subdistricts. In each constituency, the number of representatives would change according to population, with two to five representatives each. Magidor said he knew his recommendations would meet with heavy opposition in the Knesset, but argued that the switch to regional elections would ultimately push large parties to a more centrist perspective, and said that he hoped public support for the change would push a reluctant Knesset toward action. For two years, MKs occasionally discussed the issue, and the most vocal proponent of change was Lieberman, who advocated an even more radical about-face, to a presidential system similar to that of the United States. According to his "maximization" plan, the party that gained the most votes in a given region would take all the votes from that region, and the losing parties would not get any mandates. In October 2006, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation even voted to support Lieberman's proposal in advance of the Israel Beiteinu strongman joining the coalition. But that bill too got caught in process, and was met with stiff opposition by Labor MKs, who didn't want to see Lieberman sitting together with them in the coalition, and by Shas MKs, who have been consistently alarmed by any attempt to change the electoral system. Labor MK Eitan Cabel described the proposed move to a presidential system as a "dangerous bluff," but emphasized that the election law should be somehow improved and amended. The same month that the ministerial committee voted in favor of Lieberman's plan, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened the Knesset's winter session with a speech that, among other subjects, called for broadening the coalition by adding Israel Beiteinu and changing the electoral system. In response, then-opposition chairman Netanyahu blasted Olmert's call for change, saying, "electoral systems aren't something that you switch like socks." BUT IT was the latest bill, written by former chairman of the Knesset Law Committee Dr. Menahem Ben-Sasson, that seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel that began somewhere in the 1950s. First presented in early 2008, the bill - cosponsored by then-Likud faction chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar and Labor MKs Ophir Paz-Pines and Eitan Cabel - called for a series of changes that the sponsors hoped would make elections more democratic, and the government more stable. Although it was written over a year before the recent elections, the bill presciently called for making the leader of the party that garnered the most votes prime minister, rather than allowing the president to decide who should form the government on the basis of who seemed most likely to win out in coalition negotiations. That change seeks to reduce the "blackmail" - smaller parties engaging in promise peddling in exchange for supporting a particular prime ministerial contender. The bill also called for the current 61-vote threshold for no-confidence votes to topple the prime minister to be replaced with a "constructive no-confidence vote" requiring the support of 70 MKs who all support the same replacement candidate, as well as the adoption of the so-called Norwegian Law, by which ministers quit the Knesset but return to the parliament if they quit the cabinet, while limiting the number of ministerial seats a prime minister can create. As far as elections are concerned, Ben-Sasson's bill would raise the minimum voter threshold from 2% to 5%, a move that would serve a similar purpose to Lieberman's maximization exercise, and adopted the Magidor Commission's recommendation to elect half the Knesset in direct, regional elections and half via the current system. That bill was filed, and then progress on it ground to a halt. In the last government - and most likely at least de-facto in the new one - parties in the coalition were given veto power over changes in the Basic Law, and Shas was willing to fight tooth and nail to keep the bill from seeing the light of day. Then came the elections. Ben-Sasson, although he decided not to return to the legislature, said he and Tzipi Livni had planned early on to make electoral reform the main issue of the campaign - before security took over as the recurring theme of the elections season. But with Operation Cast Lead over and after Israelis woke up the day after elections with a political map no clearer than that of the night before, the time once again seemed right to broach the subject. It seemed, in fact, that in the aftermath, something like a broad consensus appeared supporting reform. The total number of Knesset votes for the four major parties that supported a reform surpassed two-thirds of the Knesset, a majority far greater than that of any likely coalition. It was time to test the waters. Last week, likely opposition chairman MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) reactivated Ben-Sasson's bill by placing it among the 170 bills filed during the first day of Knesset activity. Skeptics claimed that the purpose of the bill was not to engender reform, but merely to put pro-reform Israel Beiteinu at odds with its potential allies in Netanyahu's coalition by forcing it to vote against their would-be partners' will. But once again, coalition politics won out. During a Monday meeting between Likud and the Knesset factions most likely to be Likud's partners in a narrow coalition, the party whose leader had supported Ben-Sasson's bill, and whose second-ranking member, Sa'ar, was a cosponsor of the bill, decided to scrap the plan in favor of reaching coalition unity. Instead, the factions agreed to amend the Basic Law so that a private budgetary bill would require at least 55 votes in order to pass, and to change constructive no-confidence votes so that the government would continue to serve in the event the alternative contender selected by MKs to form a new government failed to do so. Once again, argued Likud negotiating team head Sa'ar, Shas - and this time Israel Beiteinu as well - had managed to stall reforms advocating regional elections. Sa'ar argued that achieving the understandings that they had was a step in the right direction - toward increasing governmental stability - and expressed his optimism that the coalition partners could also be led to support adopting the clause of Ben-Sasson's law that would require a super-majority of 70 MKs to dissolve the Knesset. Regarding electoral reform, the parties agreed - in the words of an official Likud missive - to establish a committee "to continue examining additional changes in the governmental system, with an emphasis on changes that will add to strengthening stability". But the bill's chief sponsor - Ben-Sasson - is anything but optimistic that the committee will lead to the drafting of comprehensive reform plans. If the major parties really viewed electoral reform as the central issue, he said, they would create a brief super-coalition with Kadima, Labor and Likud to pass the reforms and then dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections under the new system within two years. "I fear that as soon as a coalition is formed, these feelings that parties are advocating will be forgotten," he said. He noted that since his departure from the Knesset and return to academia, he had noticed there was still a lively and impassioned debate on campuses surrounding the issue. He added that the reform he proposed - even if it were passed - was only a way-station on the road to what he viewed as the ideal situation. "I would like to see all 120 MKs elected through district-constituency-based elections, but due to the lack of party discipline in the current Knesset, many fear that such a system would create a state of chaos. I think that we should start with 40 MKs directly elected and see what happens, whether it causes the parties to further break apart or whether people maintain party affiliations," he said. Ben-Sasson argued that party affiliations would be maintained, even in a district-based system. Beyond funding technicalities, "the incentive to stay in parties will be that you have a certain ideology. What I see as important is that the parties will manage to define the main goals of individuals. For instance, residents of Galilee may have specific urgent needs, but they also have other needs and opinion that are on a national level." The 60-60 solution, he said, would help the country transition to a system in which there were fewer parties. On one hand, it would allow smaller groups to keep their voice in the Knesset, while on the other it would increase the chances for larger parties to become more and more dominant. "In the coming 20 years, I would be happy to see five parties - maybe when things are calmer we could get to two or three parties," he said.