'Closed lists' in Israeli party politics stifle progress

Israel has been infected by the increasing worldwide incidence of corruption.

While the urgent need for electoral reform is now widely accepted, it would be constructive to give some thought to the problems which need fixing before we start figuring out solutions.
  • Closed Lists - Interviewed on English Radio on December 4, Colette Avital spoke of a "hit list" being prepared by her party bosses which would deny her an equal chance of being selected by voters, thus highlighting the fundamental problem of closed lists. They deprive the ordinary voter of an opportunity to influence which individuals will represent their chosen party in the Knesset. In the closed-lists system, the party decides not only on the candidates, but also on their relative positions, so that those positioned higher stand a better chance of obtaining a Knesset seat. The number of seats allocated to each party is proportional to the number of votes attained, so if for example a party gains 20 seats, the first 20 candidates on that party's list will become MKs. Worse than closed lists in which all party members may vote (as in the Labor Party) are lists prepared by a small Central Committee, as in the Likud. Last comes the Kadima Party, in which the list is prepared by one man. Most seriously, because of the voters' inability to express disapproval of persons who may be associated with corruption or scandal, closed lists may permit criminal elements to seep into government. This is not a theoretical consideration. During the last election campaign there were widespread allegations of attempts to bribe politicians, of corruption and vote selling. Losing candidates complained that a party's Central Committee members had offered batches of votes for a price. There were reports that known criminals had been active in membership drives and in elections to the Central Committee. Elsewhere, there were allegations were made of union funds being used, and of falsified signatures of new party members. The reality cannot be avoided: Israel has been infected by the world's increasing corruption, be it in the UN, the EU, or the French, Italian and German governments. In fact, recent polls show that a majority of Israelis think corruption is even more dangerous than terrorism, and it is encouraging to know that our new comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, is giving this issue priority. He told a recent press conference: "Corruption within government must be wiped out." Electoral reform is essential if this is to be achieved.
  • Open Lists - While proportional representation is the choice of most European countries, many also give their voters a say in the choice of candidates by using "open lists." In addition to voting for a party, voters choose among candidates proposed by the party. This not only gives the voters some influence over the candidates and the order in which they are to be elected, it gives the candidates a serious interest in winning the support of ordinary voters - an interest sadly lacking in the closed-lists system. While the number of seats assigned to each party are still a reflection of popular support, the order of priority of the candidates is decided in some systems by the voters, in others by a combination of the voters and the party. In Finland, voters are presented with random lists of candidates chosen by the parties, and instead of voting directly for a party they vote for an individual, this vote being attributed to the candidate's party as well as to the candidate.
  • Why not constituencies? - The call for electoral reform is not new. An important lesson should be learned from the half-baked introduction of direct elections for prime minister (repealed in 2001). Since the 1950s, various proposals have been made, including suggestions that Israel be divided into constituencies, in each of which several Knesset Members will be elected, with the remaining members elected according to the existing system. Every voter would vote for a candidate and a list. The call for such geographical constituencies is frequently made by olim from Britain and the US, where elected candidates take a particular interest in their constituencies. While much can be said in favor of this system, it has many drawbacks, and it is important to realize that movements exist in both the US and Britain which are advocating a change to PR. Due to the manner in which voting districts are created, this system, also known as "Winner Takes All" or "First Past the Post," frequently produces undemocratic results. For example, in the last general election in Britain, the Labor Party was returned with a majority of 66 members, even though it received only 35.2% of the vote. Similarly, in the 1978 and 1981 elections in New Zealand, the Labor opposition actually secured more votes than National, but the latter won more seats. In 1993, faced with problems similar to ours regarding the breakdown of public trust, New Zealanders voted to change their system from "First Past The Post" to the German-style Mixed Member Proportional representation, in which each voter has two votes, one for an MP and one for a party. The good news is that President Moshe Katsav has appointed a national commission to recommend changes in the structure of government and elections in Israel. Let us hope this body presents preliminary findings without delay, so we can question candidates before the coming election to determine who among them will support the commission's recommendations if and when they are elected. The writer is an industrial engineer and business consultant.