Civil Fights: Why voting is going out of fashion

As more and more MKs switch parties for personal gain, voter turnout rates have taken a steep decline.

Arkadi Gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
Arkadi Gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
The Gil Pensioners Party's sordid split, finally concluded this week, has already been sidelined in the public consciousness by Ehud Olmert's cash-stuffed envelopes. But such forgetfulness is a mistake - because this incident provided compelling evidence, if more were needed, of why Israel's electoral system needs revamping. A brief recap: Three of Gil's seven MKs sought to split off and form an independent faction - which by law, one-third or more of a faction may do, provided the Knesset House Committee approves. However, the breakaway MKs then signed a deal with businessman Arkadi Gaydamak under which he promised to match their government funding (thereby doubling their budget), pay salaries to 22 party employees, and give all three MKs safe slots on the list he plans to field next election. Most of the Knesset opposed this deal, saying it amounted to letting a wealthy businessman openly buy three MKs. The breakaways therefore removed the contract's financial clauses and insisted that no oral promises had replaced them. But a majority of the House Committee disbelieved them, and consequently vetoed the split until the deal with Gaydamak was scrapped entirely. Seemingly, the Knesset's self-policing mechanism had worked. IN REALITY, however, the breakaways' initial bid failed only because it was a bit too blatant. Had they concluded a quiet handshake deal with Gaydamak rather than a written contract, they would probably have encountered scant opposition. After all, they would hardly have been the first MKs to cross party lines for personal gain, either political or financial. In 1995, for instance, Gonen Segev and Alex Goldfarb, who won election on the far-right Tsomet list, broke away and provided the last two votes needed to pass the Oslo-2 Accord. In exchange for betraying their voters, they received a ministry and deputy ministry, respectively, thereby gaining both politically and financially: Higher salaries and pensions, plus perks such as free mail and telephone for the rest of their lives, add up to benefits worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of shekels over a normal lifetime. Yet the Knesset not only approved this deal; it retroactively amended a law banning such quid pro quos in order to do so. The Knesset also approved Likud's split over the disengagement, even though the breakaways were defying a clear mandate from Likud members (disengagement lost an internal Likud referendum by a 60-40 margin) and gaining political benefits thereby: Since then premier Ariel Sharon led the new Kadima faction, the breakaways would receive all the plum governmental jobs. Clearly, MKs neither can nor should be barred from changing their minds. A good MK owes his voters his best judgment, and sometimes, that does mean changing his views, whether due to changed circumstances or a changed understanding of existing circumstances. Yet neither is an MK an autonomous agent: As an elected representative, he is supposed to represent his voters. MOST DEMOCRACIES resolve this contradiction by requiring every parliamentarian to seek reelection from the same voters who elected him originally. If they reelect him despite a policy change, it will be retroactively clear that they approved this change. If not, his betrayal will cost him his seat - a price that would make most MKs think long and hard before executing a policy u-turn. But in Israel, because MKs are elected by party lists rather than individually, no such balancing mechanism exists: An MK who betrays his original voters can simply switch parties and get reelected by different voters. Thus he pays no price for his betrayal, and his original voters can do nothing but swallow their bile and hope for better luck with their next vote. Had the Gil breakaways' original deal been approved, for instance, they would probably have won reelection, since most polls show Gaydamak's planned list making it into the Knesset. But they might well have been reelected by different voters: Those who supported Gil last election are not necessarily those who back Gaydamak today. Similarly, while some Kadima breakaways were reelected by the same voters, since many Likud voters switched to Kadima, others were reelected by people who had previously voted for different parties. This situation is devastating for democracy in two ways. First, of course, it encourages MKs to betray their voters for personal gain, since they need not fear losing their seats in consequence. The Gil breakaways were a particularly egregious example, but in practice, they merely did openly what many MKs before them did only slightly more subtly. Even worse, however, is the impact on voters' faith in the system. It is no accident that this growing phenomenon of MKs switching parties for personal gain has been accompanied by a steep decline in voter turnout rates, from roughly 80 percent in every election through 1999 to 69 percent in 2003 and 64 percent in 2006. If people feel that their vote is meaningless - that once elected, an MK can do whatever he pleases, and voters can neither stop him nor even punish him - then there is little incentive to vote. BUT A citizen who refrains from voting because he considers his vote meaningless is someone with no stake in the system. He has no reason to try to affect policy through political activity, since he does not believe political activity can affect policy. And he has no incentive to refrain from resorting instead to violence, since he does not believe he is thereby defying the majority's will, as reflected through its MKs; he is merely defying the will of 120 cynics whose positions du jour are influenced more by momentary personal interests than by their voters' views. A democracy can survive a few such disaffected citizens, but it cannot survive too many of them. And anyone who talks with ordinary Israelis will quickly realize that our falling voter turnout indeed reflects a growing number of citizens who consider voting pointless. This problem has only one remedy: revamping our electoral system so that MKs are directly elected, and must seek reelection from the same constituency. Otherwise, Israelis' disaffection with democracy will continue to grow - thereby endangering the country's survival as a democratic state.