Election reforms have increased representation but killed functionality - opinion

The single largest problem in Israel’s electoral system is that in the history of the state, no party has ever received 51% of the mandates - required to form a government without a coalition.

People cast their ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv during the Knesset election on March 2, 2020. (photo credit: FLASH90)
People cast their ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv during the Knesset election on March 2, 2020.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
As Israel holds its fourth election in two years, it’s difficult to deny that something in our electoral system is broken. No matter which party wins elections, the real losers are the people of Israel, who have been the victims of political games for years, even during a global pandemic. With partisan gridlock and polls leading up to the elections predicting more of the same, the problem is far deeper than yes to Bibi or no to Bibi. If we are serious about a functioning democracy, we should consider major electoral reform – and reducing reliance on exclusively proportional representation.
The single largest problem in Israel’s electoral system is that in the history of the state, no party has ever received 51% of the mandates, the percentage required to form a government without a coalition of other smaller parties – meaning governments have always been held hostage to the whims of smaller, sometimes fringe or special interest parties. As a result, we’ve had repeated unstable governments and an election an average of every 2.3 years, at a cost of NIS 800 million each.
While the parliamentary system in theory allows for a more representative government (or proportional representation), the reality is that the smaller parties and a lower electoral threshold result in political gridlock and inefficiency, and it creates a government of unreliable leaders. We desire and deserve honesty from our elected officials, yet in the structure of the government, a politician can’t win an election without first promising not to sit with political rivals in a coalition, and then reversing course the second they are elected if they even have a prayer of accomplishing any of their goals.
Even if the party leader tasked with forming a coalition is able to, he or she will be beholden to smaller parties who will sink the government the second their agenda items are threatened (if history is any indicator). This system has also resulted in the appointment of ministers not on the basis of experience, knowledge, or skill, but on the basis of rewarding political allies. Such political blackmail is not permitted in the private sector, with strict rules and regulations for lobbyists and against bribes, yet we tolerate a system which has our elected officials engaging in the same type of backroom deals.
There are a number of ways to prevent or reduce the gridlock which seems to occur election after election in Israel, and some of them have already been tried, but not in the right circumstances. For example, Israel held direct elections of the prime minister three times, after reform of the Basic Laws in 1992. The results were less than ideal. Because voters could choose the prime minister directly, the turnout for larger parties like Likud and Labor (at the time) was very low, as voters chose parties with more specific viewpoints. The result was the prime minister had difficulty forming stable coalitions, again.
ANOTHER METHOD is increasing the electoral threshold to weed out smaller parties which prevent legislative agendas from being achieved. This occurred when Israel increased the threshold to 3.25% in 2014. This has helped reduce the number of parties, and urged parties to run together in elections, yet it also has led to the subsequent splitting of parties once a government is formed. It’s a step in the right direction, but clearly not enough.
While there is no reform without unintended consequences, a further increased electoral threshold combined with the direct election of a premier could help prevent some of the gridlock we see today. A higher electoral threshold would reduce the total number of parties, encouraging smaller parties to join in with larger parties, and in doing so, the electorate could choose the prime minister directly, without creating a situation where he or she cannot form a stable government due to the power of smaller, special interest parties. This type of electoral reform would not only increase governability, but as a result would also build trust in government as the Knesset would have the opportunity to implement change.
A further and more drastic reform that could increase accountability for elected officials and eliminate the lack of democratic selection in party lists – as the majority of parties do not have primaries – is the implementation of regional representation. Similar to the system in the United States, districts would have elected officials for Knesset representing the parties on the basis of their population. Obviously, this is a complete reform in the system of government that would change the democratic process from voting for a party at the national level to voting for a representative of a party who would represent the local interests in Knesset. Such reform would ensure that all of Israel’s populations have representation in the Knesset, while also making elected officials accountable to the people instead of the parties in how they vote.
That being said, in the absence of a government which could implement such a drastic change, a more realistic electoral reform today would most likely be a return of direct election of the head of government, combined with an increase in electoral threshold. Of course these reforms both come with the risk of a government that doesn’t have representation for certain groups or interests, something that would need to be addressed within the larger parties.
However, if the status quo is the complete inability to govern – to pass a budget, to address critical issues such as conversion laws, to establish a constitution – then what good is that representation in the first place? A government which cannot govern doesn’t do the people any good. For that reason, Israel must demand electoral reform.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative, a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute, and holds an MA in Political Communications from Tel Aviv University.