Time to elect constituency-based elections

Labor’s split underscores Israel’s need for constituency-based elections. Israel forces voters to elect parties rather than individuals, a move that damages the democratic process.

Labor 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Labor 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
“Shouldn’t the MKs who split from Labor last month resign and give their seats back to the party?” a high-school student asked me this weekend. “After all, people voted for Labor, not those particular MKs.”
Legally, the answer is no: The law explicitly allows one-third or more of a faction to break away. But the fact that it’s legal doesn’t make it good for Israeli democracy. In an electoral system where people vote for parties rather than individuals, factional splits can legitimately make voters feel their votes have been stolen, and such complaints are in fact widely heard after every such split.
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Granted, these complaints aren’t always wholly justified. The main substantive issue over which Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut faction split from Labor, for instance, was its view that Labor’s constant threats to quit the government if Israeli-Palestinian talks didn’t resume were counterproductive, merely encouraging the Palestinians to harden their positions. And since post-split polls show that despite Barak’s massive unpopularity, the new party would win enough votes to enter the next Knesset, some Labor voters evidently agree. The same was true of former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to quit Likud and form Kadima in 2005: Many Likud voters supported Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza, which was the main reason for the split.
Nevertheless, even splits like these can give voters just cause forgrievance. Barak, for instance, took a third of Labor’s MKs, but pollsindicate that he represents less than a third of Labor voters: Theyshow Aztmaut winning only about two seats in the next Knesset, comparedto 8-10 seats for Labor under most of its current leadershipcandidates. And some splits are out-and-out vote theft: No one couldhonestly argue that Yi’ud, for instance, was reflecting its voters’will when it split from the hard-right Tsomet party in 1995 to providethe final two votes needed to pass the Oslo-2 agreement.
Moreover, voters feeling as if their votes were stolen would because for concern even if it had no basis in reality, because thisfeeling does real damage to the democratic process. I’ve heard manypeople say in recent years that given the likelihood of their voteultimately being used to further policies they oppose, they see nopoint in voting. And voter turnout data shows this is not mere idletalk.
After hovering around 80% for the first five decades of Israel’s existence, turnout fell to 68% in 2003, 64 percent in 2006 and 65 percent in 2009. Compared to turnout rates in most other Western countries, that’s still high. But the trend is worrying, because democracy cannot survive if too many voters lose faith in their ability to influence their country’s future via the ballot box.
Yet at the same time, politicians must have the ability to promote policies different than those they campaigned on if they conclude that changing circumstances make this necessary. Otherwise, they would be betraying their obligation to serve their country’s interests to the best of their ability.
There is only one way to square this circle, and that is through accountability: requiring an MK who changes his policies while in office to face the same voters in the next election, thereby risking the loss of his job if they disapprove of his choice. Voters cannot feel disenfranchised if they have the power to punish politicians who betrayed them.
But Israel’s lack of district-based constituencies means that politicians who leave their parties don’t face the same voters. Regardless of whether they join another existing party or form a new one, if their policies have changed, they are probably competing for votes from among a completely different segment of the national electorate than the one that elected them last time, so their former voters have no way to punish their betrayal by throwing them out.
Only a constituency-based system can solve this problem. But that needn’t mean scrapping Israel’s proportional representation system for an American/British winner-takes-all version; most European countries use proportional representation while still letting people vote for individuals rather than parties.
In Germany, for instance, each voter cast two ballots: one for a party, and one for a specific member of parliament to represent his district. Seats in parliament are allocated by proportional representation, meaning that if a party receives 15 percent of the ballots nationwide, it will receive 15 percent of the seats in parliament. However, its seats will be filled by those party members who were directly elected by their districts. Only if a party wins fewer seats in the district elections than it is entitled to by the national vote can it fill the remaining seats from a list of candidates drawn up in advance.
Nor is this the only possible solution. Finland, for instance, uses a completely different system to achieve the same end: multi-candidate districts. Voters cast their ballot for a particular candidate, which also counts as a ballot for his party, and seats are allocated proportionally within each district. Thus if Party A’s candidates won 20 percent of the votes in a 10-candidate district, it would win 2 of the 10 seats, but the seats would go to the two Party A candidates who won the most votes in that district.
There are valid reasons for Israelis’ reluctance to give up proportional representation. But there are no valid reasons for Israel to be virtually the only Western democracy that still forces voters to elect parties rather than individuals.
This system doesn’t just contribute to voters’ feelings of disenfranchisement. It also promotes corruption, since voters have no way to oust a corrupt MK as long as his party keeps him on its slate, and hinders parliamentary supervision of the executive, since MKs have no independent power base: Their reelection prospects depend entirely on where the party places them on its next Knesset list. For all these reasons, it’s long past time to replace it.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.