Electoral Reform: Benevolent Dictatorship Needs Update
Interesting how my computer updates all the time whether I want it to or not and the Israeli government, with an outdated electoral system that does not really work anymore, does not. I, along with a number of other concerned citizens, tried performing a reset years ago and it was interrupted mid-way. My computer tells me not to turn it off until updates have been completed, but the government pulled the plug on a popular (not popular among those pulling a salary from the electorate, however) request for reform. The most I can do on my computer is delay restarting it in 4-hour intervals; it seems those in power in Israel have succeeded in burying the restart programme, and out-of-sight means gone, bye-bye, good riddance!
As it is, we Israelis have the wonderful democratic option of electing the (hopefully benevolent) dictatorship that will rule over us for the following four years (see how optimistic I am?). As many are aware, our elected officials are loyal first and foremost to their parties, since it is the party machinery that will determine their positioning on the party lists and, therefore, the chance they have of actually taking the exalted position of MK.
Then, once elected, they can do all kinds of political shenanigans, such as dissolving a working government or moving MKs around like scrabble pieces on a board, without regard to what the voter had intended when placing the slip of paper into the ballot box.
An Earlier Attempt at Electoral Reform
In fact, when I was active in a movement trying to change the Israeli electoral system way back in the 80s, I called MKs to talk with them about voting in favour of the bill to directly elect the PM as a first step in representational government (it was not what I wanted, but that was the first step we were able to set before the Knesset with the understanding that, after that, the issue of regional representation of MKs would then be raised). Here is a direct quote from one Likud MK that is etched into memory because it shocked me so (my editorial comments in brackets):
From your accent [Canadian], I can tell you did not vote Likud [really? No Anglos voted Likud back then?]. So who do you think you are to tell me how to vote in the Knesset?! In any case, my loyalty is to my party [he actually said that] and I will vote accordingly [and that’s the exact problem]. I am not a child who needs someone like you telling me what to do in the Knesset.
On the other hand, MK Ezer Weitzman and parliamentary aide Eitan Cabel phoned me personally after having received letters from me.They wanted to hear more detail about why I supported electoral reform. THAT is the kind of response the electorate needs.
Accountability in the Israeli Electoral System
There is no word for accountability in Hebrew and perhaps that says it all. Loyalty to the party, and not loyalty to the people they are supposed to be leading, causes lack of accountability to the people. The electorate does not vote for the parties’ central committees, we vote for MKs. And we are hamstrung before the elections even begin because we need to vote for a list made up of people we respect and those we do not and not necessarily in the order of better to less good candidates (in our own opinions).
A Bit More History
Just to show how warped our system is we can look to the elections of 1977, the elections that caused the dramatic about face in Israeli politics whereby for the first time in our history the Likud defeated Labour and Menachem Begin became our Prime Minister. As it turns out, having Begin as our PM was a good thing for Israel and I am not sure we would have been able to make peace with Egypt had Labour continued to rule. But that is beside the point of this article. Here is the point:
Likud did not win, Labour lost. And Labour lost because a new upstart party – Dash (ד”ש or: Democratic Movement for Change) – drained it of many of the 15 seats it would otherwise have won for ifself. The Dash platform included: democratizing processes within parties, electoral reform and clean, efficient government. Because Begin was able to form a small coalition at first without Dash, he did not invite them into the government for five months (smart politicking on his part), at which point Dash had lost some of the pivotal power it had enjoyed from its meteoric rise out of nowhere.
In exchange for party leader Yigal Yadin being made Vice PM, among other tidbits, Dash compromised their promises to their electorate. While Yadin was certainly instrumental in making peace with Egypt, he gave up what could have been our major electoral system reset. And we have not recovered since then.
After abandonment of electoral reform, a grassroots movement began with a hunger strike, in which I took part, in the Rose Garden facing the Knesset. The cause was taken up by a number of MKs and lawyers but by the time the Bill for Electoral Reform was voted on in Knesset it was far removed from what the initiators had intended. We were seeking representational government whereby regions would elect their MKs. Small parties, such as the religious parties, were afraid they would disappear and so they were opposed to this and the idea for combining party and regional representation was put forth. This issue was insurmountable at that time and the only change voted on was for direct election of the PM. This was supposed to have been followed by consideration of reform to the MK electoral system but the issue was never raised.
Without regional representational government, the change that was effected was doomed to failure and, as one analysis predicted, the half-hearted change gave the small parties even more power than they had had before direct prime ministerial elections. After three elections in which voters selected two ballots — one vote for a party and one vote for a PM — even this change was reverted to earlier form.
Need for Electoral Reform
When party interests conflict with the needs of the population, there is no question which of these should take precedence.
Moreover, in our current system, it seems almost impossible to accomplish the update required to ensure that the best representatives are placed before the people at election time. The religious fear that they have no chance to be elected in secular areas and that is why they feel they need the protection of having at least some of the votes remain votes for a party across the nation. I beg to disagree.
When Israelis will be able to choose the individual who will be their voice in the Knesset, they will examine what that person stands for, what laws he or she wants to implement for example, and they will vote for the person who will, in their opinion, promote change for the better — if they take the time to examine the candidates, in part by attending election meetings and raising difficult questions. Each region will examine its own particular candidates and it will no longer be the charisma of the party leader who sways the vote. I would gladly vote for a Haredi candidate, for example, if that individual seems, more than others (regardless of party), to be someone who will be accessible to me after the elections and responsive to the needs of the people in my region. Ditto an Arab candidate or a left-wing candidate.
A Step in the Right Direction
Before the last election, the threshold proportion of the votes, below which a party does not enter the Knesset at all, was raised. This resulted in consolidation of parties that held little hope of exceeding the threshold on their own. Out of this reform, the United List was born. The parties comprising this list won 16 seats as a unit, a spectacular accomplishment. This is a step in the right direction in general, while it may prove disasterous for Israel in this particular case.
Prime Minister Netanyahu promised electoral reform on his election platform. We still are waiting to see what he will do about that in the current term (but not holding our breath).
Advantages of Electoral Reform
Regional representation in the Knesset encourages loyalty and accountability to the regional electorate because MKs will know that their success or failure in the next elections will depend upon their performance over the current term in office.
Nothing is perfect, and a new electoral system will not be perfect either; we will still need to be on the lookout for improper use of power, for corruption and for other problems.
Therefore, I extend an offer to all those who care about this country, including those who want to “save” Israeli democracy from itself (you know who you are), to pull together and push for change that will really make a difference — electoral reform leading to regional representation and accountability. Then we will all have our own personal MKs to whom to turn when we want to influence our country’s policies. Then we will also be sure that the monies MKs receive for maintaining contact with the public are actually used for that purpose.
Can we get another grassroots movement going again or have we all run out of steam?
A version of this post was originally published on Times of Israel Blogs on 28 July 2015.