Borderline Views: Why we need electoral reform

Israel should do justice to its open democratic system with real structural and constitutional reform.

Knesset building with State symbol 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset building with State symbol 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
If anyone needs to know why Israel needs electoral reform, it should be painfully clear by now.
We are almost a month after the elections and we don’t seem any nearer to having a new government in place than we were prior to the elections. The negotiations continue, the deals are made, and if, eventually, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does succeed in bringing together sufficient parties and seats into his government, the price that we will pay for our system of democracy will consist of a ministerial seat for every three members of the Knesset, involving a huge amount of wasted resources which could have been put to much better uses.
And the government agenda will, given the large number of parties in the coalition, be based on so many compromises that, as in the past, it will not have any clear direction to undertake during the ensuing four years.
The debate around electoral reform is almost as old as the state itself. It was Israel’s first, almost unchallenged, prime minister David Ben- Gurion who wanted to change the system so that it no longer reflected the way in which the pre-state Zionist movement did business, but this was one of the few areas where his party, even back in the 1950s, refused to go along with him.
The issue resurfaced every few years, especially when it became difficult to put a new government together, as is the present case, or where governments were brought down every two years or so at the whims of a small party withdrawing from the coalition government and having a no-confidence motion passed necessitating, yet again, early elections.
The issue climaxed about 20 years ago after the attempt by then-leader of the Labor Party, now President, Shimon Peres, to bring down the national coalition government between Labor and Likud (then headed by the late Yitzchak Shamir) and to establish a new government headed by Labor.
His wily machinations failed when the ultra-orthodox parties refused to go along with him and Peres ended up in opposition rather than as prime minister. It also resulted in him losing the internal party elections for leader to his rival Yitzchak Rabin, who then went on to become prime minister following the elections of 1992, and take forward the Oslo Peace process until his brutal assassination by a right wing opponent.
In the 1990s an attempt at changing the system was put into operation.
For three successive elections, the Israeli electorate voted separately for the prime minister and for the party of their choice. But rather than add stability to the system, Israelis opted to split the two votes in such a way that it made it even more difficult for a directly-elected prime minister, who should have had more powers, to put together a coalition of at least 61 Knesset members from as few parties as possible.
Eventually, the Knesset voted to return the system to the old one, albeit with a few minor changes which have added some stability to the system (such as the need to have at least 61 Knesset members to bring a government down in a noconfidence vote), but this is far from sufficient.
OVER THE years, every possible system has been suggested.
The introduction of constituencies to ensure regional representation, a mixed system based on constituencies and national party lists, the raising of the lower threshold to five and even 10 percent, as is common in many countries, direct elections of prime minister – these ideas have been researched and proposed ad nauseum, but have never been taken up seriously by the Knesset.
But each time the subject is debated in the Knesset sub-committees, numerous questions are raised in an attempt to show that the country does not require regional representation because it is so small that a split system will not bring about greater stability in governance, and so on.
At the end of the day, there are few Knesset members who, once having achieved a well-paid seat in the parliament, are willing to vote in favor of a system which may result in their replacement by other candidates.
For the Knesset to introduce such changes they would, in effect, be voting themselves out of power.
At each election, there are always some parties which include the need for electoral and constitutional reform as part of their political agenda.
In the recent elections, both Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Tnuah parties highlighted this topic, while some of the other parties also mentioned it in passing. But, as in all previous cases where this has been highlighted, it is unlikely that it will be introduced as part of the new coalition guidelines, if and when such a coalition is eventually put together.
Electoral reform is always one of the easiest issues to get pushed aside if it stands in the way of getting the necessary coalition majority together, and is opposed by other parties who form an integral part of the government.
Similarly, the demand for a streamlined, manageable, cabinet of no more than 18 members, as demanded by Yesh Atid, will not be implemented.
If anything, there will be even more ministers, many of them without any designated portfolios – but with an office, researchers, car and driver costing many millions to the taxpayer, which will be presented by Netanyahu as the “price which has to be paid” for having a vibrant and open democracy.
NO. IT is not an acceptable price, especially when there are real alternatives out there which will only make the democratic system even better.
It is unjustifiable that it takes weeks, sometimes months, to set up a government after the elections have been held.
It is equally unjustifiable that one in every three members of the Knesset (yes, one in three) has a ministerial portfolio to satisfy the avarice of the coalition partners. Not only does it suck out resources from the system (think of what an extra NIS 100 million could do for the welfare or education systems), but it leaves precious few members of the Knesset to actually carry out the parliamentary work and to be present at the sittings of the Chamber and the committees.
And it is unjustifiable that we continue to have a country in which the peripheral regions – the Negev and Galilee – remain constantly underdeveloped, because there is no real regional representation or lobby on their behalf.
Israel can indeed be proud of the fact that, despite the major issues facing it on the external front, it maintains a fairly open and democratic system of government and freedom of speech. But this democracy, which prides itself on being the “only” such democracy in a turbulent region, looks pretty stupid in the eyes of the world, when it is unable to put together a government, with a clear agenda, and the chances of remaining in power for at least three-to-four years at a minimum, are unattainable.
Instead of paying lip service to the needs for real structural electoral and constitutional reform, we should demand that this be implemented and agreed by all the parties joining the new government coalition.
We desire that our democratic form of government be respected, both internally by the citizens of Israel and externally by our supporters and friends throughout the world, rather than continue to be the laughing stock that it is at present.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.