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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Israel's lousy electoral system

In the Wall Street Journal, no less a presence than Bernard Lewis reads an indictment of Israel's electoral system.
This system of voting by lists is the source of many of the difficulties which plague Israeli public life. In the English-speaking countries -- the oldest and most stable democracies -- voting is by constituencies. The founders of the state of Israel preferred the Weimar model -- hardly an auspicious choice. Voting by lists of this kind has several harmful consequences. First, it gives undue power to relatively minor groups. They can play a crucial role in the formation and survival of coalitions. This is not a healthy way to form or end governments, or to formulate and conduct policies. It is surely significant that of all the parliaments elected since the establishment of the state, only one survived to the end of the four-year term provided by the law. All the others were broken up by internal disputes within the coalitions.

A significant disadvantage of the present system is that there is no direct relationship between the elected members and the electors. In the Anglo-American system, every member is directly answerable to the people of the place he represents. They watch their member's actions, and vote accordingly in the next election.

In the Israeli system, the member is only responsible to the party leadership or, worse still, to the party bureaucracy. His success or failure in the election depends less on the will of the electorate than on the place assigned to him in the party list. This is not a healthy system, and it can only encourage the corruption about which so many Israelis complain today. The Knesset would improve dramatically in quality and experience if its members, including the members of the government, were obliged to fight and win their own election and re-election by the electorate.
Read the whole thing.

Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I am not a big fan of Israel's electoral system and that I long for the day when I will be able to call "my Knesset member" to complain about something. But I have to admit that I read Lewis' article with baited breath, waiting for him to propose a solution. He didn't propose one. In fact, the only hint we have of what he might suggest is that he did not approve of the direct election of the Prime Minister. I actually thought that was a good idea, precisely because it allowed me to split my vote by voting for a candidate for Prime Minister who had a chance of getting in and a party with a platform as close as possible to my liking. Perhaps it would have worked but for the fact that the Knesset was still able to impose 'coalition discipline' on its proceedings.

With a majority of the current coalition purportedly supporting electoral reform (Likud, Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu), one would think it could actually happen this Knesset session. But it's already clear that it won't and honestly, I'm glad about that. Electoral reform is not something that can be passed by the Knesset overnight, and since Knesset deliberations have always taken a short-term view, it's never been a priority. Think about it: The US declared independence in 1776, finished the Revolutionary War in 1781, but George Washington didn't become President until 1789. Why? Because the reason the US system has proved so durable is because it was so carefully discussed and implemented.

Ah, but we have to start somewhere, don't we? I agree. I would suggest that Israel select its own constitutional congress to sit and decide how the country should be governed. The problem is that this isn't limited to the question of how we select the Knesset. There are a whole host of ancillary issues that need to be considered. Issues like the following:

1. One of the reasons there's no electoral reform is that the 'small parties' don't want it and will cause any governing coalition that tries to implement electoral reform to fall. Part of that is selfish protection of their own positions, but part of it is a genuine concern that their issues will not be addressed in a two-party system. That's why the US has a bill of rights, which we don't (and should have). If you think those concerns are petty, please consider this: The ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi Shas party had 17 seats when there was a directly elected Prime Minister and you could vote for Shas with a Prime Minister from the Likud. They haven't had more than 11 or 12 since.

2. We don't really have a balance of powers here - the Knesset is supreme. The Supreme Court has carved itself out a limited authority to overrule laws enacted by the Knesset, but as I have described many times, the court itself is suspect as a reflection of Israeli society because by its selection process it brings a certain, specific set of moral values (read "Leftist") to the table. Any constitutional convention would have to account for how the court is selected.

3. I grew up in the US and I believe strongly in a government of technocrats who are experts in the ministries they handle and a strong executive to choose them. The problem with that kind of system is that it would take away all the patronage handed out by party hacks today - both in terms of 'where you are on the list' and the jobs handed out in government ministries. That's why as much as they pay lip service to electoral reform, the big parties don't want it either.

To put this in perspective, Netanyahu has been slammed in the media today for giving the Finance Ministry to Yuval Steinitz. Steinitz is a young, brilliant former professor of Philosophy who has served as chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He's been in the Knesset for ten years. But as Finance Minister he has a 22% approval rating according to Haaretz. Netanyahu's other options were to keep the ministry himself (and take criticism that a full-time finance minister is needed) or to give it to his former rival Sylvan Shalom, a political hack who no longer has the following in the Likud that he once had, and who is much more in tune with the country's socialist past.... Netanyahu might have given it to technocrat Yaakov Ne'eman - a partner in a Tel Aviv law firm who has held a number of government positions - but he needed Ne'eman as a compromise candidate for the Justice Ministry to get both Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu into the government. So Netanyahu gave it to Steinitz, who has long been one of his loyalists.

If there were electoral reform, the Finance Minister would likely have been a technocrat.

4. In the US, all of these issues were handled by the constitutional convention (remember the Federalist Papers?). But Israel has a fierce streak of independence. Sometimes that's a good thing, but often it results in re-inventing the wheel. In my time in government service (I spent four years in one of the government's economic agencies in the mid-90's), I tried to introduce a set of American regulations verbatim into Israeli jurisprudence. I lost. They insisted on developing their own model. More than ten years later, much of my model has been adopted. But it took a long time.

Electoral reform is obviously needed, and I'm pleased to see recognition of that fact from a scholar like Bernard Lewis. But we need much than people saying it's needed. We need people who are willing to sit down and get their hands dirty working on it, and we need a government to recognize that electoral reform is a long-term process but that it has to start somewhere. And that the government has to be willing to pay for it in many ways.


At 4:16 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

An ideal electoral system would be along the lines of Germany's post World War II electoral system that mixed Weimar with Westminster and has led to stable coalition governments. But Israel is more heterogeneous than Germany and political reform takes time and consensus. An improvement in the system could if the political will was there. The reason no change has happened has less to do with parochial interests than the fact the country has always had more pressing issues to deal with that has caught its attention. And this time that dynamic is at work again.

For all its imperfections and shortcomings, Israel is the one country in the region in which a peaceful transfer of power is a normal occurrence. And Israelis and Westerners don't realize in a region of autocracies, tyrannies and absolutist monarchies, that its really remarkable. Israel does in a sort of fashion work, which can be regarded as a sort of miracle.

And in closing, Arutz Sheva picked up your blog post about the New York Times, Carl. Congratulations!

At 5:02 PM, Blogger LB said...

Israel needs a regional representation system. As you said, Carl, one needs to be able to call his Knesset Member, and someone from Haifa, say, can only do that if the MK only represent Haifa. Accountability to the people, therefore, and not to the party. Cliche as it might be, a language says something about the culture of its speakers - and Hebrew really has no word for accountability (I've heard of אחריותיות, but that just sounds artificial).

The problem with that is that local primaries have to be held leading to yet more wasted money...

Norman - can you explain shortly, what that mix of Weimar and Westminster was?

At 5:38 PM, Blogger James Gilmour said...

In Germany half of the members of the Bundestag (Federal Parliament, lower house) are elected by First-Past-The-Post from single-member electoral districts. The other half take seats allocated to the parties in accordance with each party's share of the national party vote, subject to a threshold of 5%. Each elector has two votes, recorded on the same ballot sheet: one X-vote for one local candidate; one X-vote for one political party. The party lists are "closed", i.e. the voters cannot change the order in which the list candidates fill the seats - that is decided by the relevant party.

This voting system is now best known worldwide as "MMP" = "Mixed Member Proportional", but was previously known by its UK name of "AMS" = "Additional Member System". NB There are many variations on the basic model, including the various versions used by the German Lander for their internal elections.

I would be sceptical as to whether MMP would work so well in Israel as it has done in Germany. Here in Scotland we use a regionalised version of MMP (AMS) to elect the Scottish Parliament. It has not worked so well here as it appears to have done in Germany. For a critique of the regionalised version of MMP used in Scotland, take a look at the Fairshare submission to the Calman Commission:

I do not have any detailed knowledge of Israeli politics, but from what I have read I get the impression those who want reform are looking for several things (though they may not express them in quite these words):
1. to maintain broad PR across the parties.
2. to clip the wings of some of the smaller parties, especially those at both extremes of the political spectrum (a view NOT supported by those small parties!!).
3. to obtain recognition of existing local communities within the political system.
4. to obtain local representation.
5. to obtain local accountability.

This mix of objectives seems, to me, to point towards a sensitive implementation of STV-PR (Single Transferable Vote), that is, an implementation with a flexible approach to the electoral districts (multi-member constituencies) so that the existing local communities are respected, obtain recognition, and provide the logical thresholds for determining the degree of proportionality. Through the preferential voting of STV-PR the voters would also get local representation and local accountability, if that was what they wanted.

But maybe the jump from the present closed-list party-list PR with a very low national threshold to STV-PR would be a step too far? Then, despite its inadequacies and problems, MMP might provide a stepping stone in the direction many would like to take.

At 5:52 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

LB - Edinburgh has explained it very well as MMP. A version of STV would be more suitable for Israel. My feeling is though that any electoral reform would more in the nature of a baby step rather than any radical sweeping change. And that is something every one in Israel can live with if a consensus can be found on what form it should take. But if they can compromise on conversion, one doesn't need to await the arrival of the Messiah to make Israel's government more responsive to its voters' wishes.

At 5:56 PM, Blogger LB said...

@Edinburgh - thank you for the extensive explanation.

It seems to be that MMP is what Netanyahu has proposed in the past (with 2/3 elected directly and 1/3 from lists). I'm not sure how much I would like that, since the objectives of electoral reform you mentioned, are mostly correct - but ranked backwards, in my opinion. Ergo - power needs to be removed from the parties establishments - regardless of size.

I'm also not sure how STV can be implemented on a national level - unless each district is represented by say, 3 MKs, in which case I think STV would be ideal. In any case, I think voting for lists is a bad idea in a country in which smoke-filled rooms still have far more power, even on paper, than the voters.

At 6:55 PM, Blogger James Gilmour said...

NormanF: don't underestimate the effect of the voting system. It defines the relationship between the voters and the elected members, and in consequence defines the relationship between the elected members and their parties, the Parliament and the Executive. One of the reasons why so many politicians oppose STV-PR is that it shifts the balance of power, away from the parties in favour of the voters - it increases their accountability to the local voters.

LB: you would not implement STV-PR "on a national level", other than to decide to implement it (or not implement it) across the whole country. All the members of the Knesset would be elected on the same basis, but from within specific multi-member electoral districts.

There can be complete flexibility in the size of the electoral districts - they do not need all to elect the same number of MKs. That was the point I made about tailoring the electoral districts sympathetically to the recognised, existing communities. Some will be larger, some will be smaller.

We changed to STV-PR in 2007 for our local government elections in Scotland (1222 councillors in 32 councils). Because of the political deal between the then coalition government parties, we were stuck with electoral districts that returned either 3 or 4 members. Instead, we should have had much more flexibility, from a very few 2-member districts, up to 8- or 9-member districts in the cities, and everything in-between.

I am not sufficiently familiar with the local communities within Israel, or with the sizes of their respective electorates, to be able to make any suggestions, but I am sure a scheme of multi-member electoral districts could readily be devised that would meet most of the various aspirations of those who want change.

At 6:57 PM, Blogger Mitzva Night said...

Livni played this one very well.
Its only a matter of time before there is another General Election (I'd give it less than 2 years) and she will win by an even bigger majority.
There's every possibility though that we'd have the same issue next time that we had this time - that of her inabaility to form a coalition. What next then? There are no new faces, its all the old boys once more... the system is rotten.
2009 - The Year of Instability

At 7:18 PM, Blogger LB said...

@Edinburgh - that makes sense, and sounds very appealing. With regards to the different local communities, I think there are many different options, but the most important thing right now is to wrest control from the parties themselves, and make politicians actually accountable to the voters.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger James Gilmour said...

LB: maybe "the most important thing right now is to wrest control from the parties themselves", but I would advise you not to approach the solution from that direction.

Instead of smashing your head against the wall of that concrete bunker, I would recommend that you entice the electors, and the politicians, to go the you want by offering them local representation and local accountability.

That will have the effect you want, but the presentation of the reform is very different, and dare I suggest, the chances of success are significantly higher.


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