Electoral reform

Since the establishment of the Jewish state there have been repeated attempts to change Israel’s electoral system.

Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R) (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R)
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Since the establishment of the Jewish state over six decades ago, there have been repeated attempts to change Israel’s electoral system.
Born in a moment of severe crisis with the War of the Independence still raging, and left nearly unchanged since, the system of proportional representation allocates power among political parties according to the percentage of overall votes each receives in a single, nationwide election.
Any party that manages to receive at least 2 percent of the vote gains entry.
Proportional representation with a relatively low threshold percentage – only the Netherlands has a lower threshold at 0.67% – tend to encourage the creation of fringe political parties – such as the Pensioners Party – with radical or narrow agendas that represent only a fraction of the population or with fleeting popularity.
Government coalitions are created by pulling together a patchwork of diverse factions. These governments are plagued with chronic division and instability. In many cases, a single small party can bring down a government, giving it inordinate leveraging power. Politicians tend to be unknown sycophants willing to toe the party line who are unconcerned with representing the voters since their reelection depends on internal party politics, not personal popularity.
As early as October 1948, just months after the creation of the state, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, sought to change the system. Ben-Gurion wanted to institute a plurality voting system similar to the British model.
Voters would cast ballots for candidates running in district elections. The candidate receiving the most votes would be declared the winner. Votes cast for losing candidates would be discarded. This system is also known as the “first past the post” or “winner takes all” mechanism.
As noted by former executive editor of The Jerusalem Post Amotz Asa-El, in an article titled “Israel’s electoral complex” that appeared in Azure (Autumn, 2008), about 10 bills calling for regional elections were presented to the Knesset between 1958 and 1988.
All such attempts at reform were torpedoed by small parties that were members of consecutive government coalitions – especially religious parties – and stood to lose the most.
Now a new attempt is being launched to bring about electoral reform.
Former Mossad director Meir Dagan has started a grassroots movement called Yesh Sikui (“There is a chance”).
According to Ma’ariv, the initiative is backed by businessman Gad Ze’evi, former IDF chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and PR guru Reuven Adler. Interdisciplinary Center president Prof. Uriel Reichman, a longtime advocate of electoral reform, is also said to be involved.
Dagan and others are calling to institute a system in which half of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers will be voted into office in regional elections. The other half will continue to be elected in national elections. By instituting regional elections, Dagan hopes to change the dynamic in which many MKs are chosen for their subservience to a single leader or party mechanism (Shas and Israel Beiteinu come to mind) or to a central committee.
Instead, leaders with strong grassroots backing will be brought into politics. These men and women will be forced to represent their voters in the Knesset, not the party hacks. And voters will expect MKs to be responsive to their demands, which will encourage more civic consciousness.
Holding regional elections increases the chances that lawmakers will be chosen for their unique talents, pragmatism and ability to get things done.
Another proposal being put forward by Dagan is to raise the election threshold from 2% to 3%, which will encourage voters to choose larger, more mainstream parties, thus bringing more stability to government coalitions.
Before these reforms can be implemented, many obstacles need to be overcome. Arabs and haredim must be assured that their unique interests would be protected.
Old political sensibilities, such as the belief that political representation should be given to every minority in the nation, would have to be reconsidered and, perhaps, discarded.
Splitting up the nation into regions would be controversial and could open the way for gerrymandering.
We hope Dagan will succeed in sparking a public debate that reevaluates our political system in a critical light.
Only once the wider public fully understands the ailments of our present political system and considers the alternatives will there be a chance that an initiative for electoral reform can succeed where previous attempts failed.