A Hard Look at the Election System

It seems that for the time being we are stuck with proportional representation despite all its drawbacks. It is therefore most important that the parties’ internal election procedures be as fair and democratic as possible.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on December 10, 2002.)

Formally our Knesset members are elected on the day when the country’s voters go to the polls to elect the Knesset. Actually, the majority of Knesset members are elected in the internal selection process of their respective parties some weeks before the Knesset elections. Therefore, the political parties’ internal elections, especially those of the big parties, are in many ways as important, if not more important, than the Knesset elections in determining the composition of the Knesset.

This is the result of the proportional election system existing in Israel, where political parties present an ordered list of candidates for election and it is the top of the list that is elected to the Knesset based on the share of the votes the respective parties receive. And yet, the internal party elections are quite arbitrary, differ from party to party, frequently lacking all rationale and lending themselves to manipulations that may be in the interest of specific candidates but are not in the best interests of Israel’s democratic structure.

Although the idea that proportional representation ought to be discarded in favor of district elections has been around for many years, it is just as well that Israel has retained the system of proportional elections. In a society as heterogeneous as Israel, district elections are likely to preclude adequate representation of various minority groups, such as the Arab population, the Orthodox Jewish sector, or new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Such lack of representation might lead to a sense of alienation within these communities and retard their integration into Israeli society.

It seems that for the time being we are stuck with proportional representation despite all its drawbacks. It is therefore most important that the parties’ internal election procedures be as fair and democratic as possible. Although just how the parties go about selecting their lists of Knesset candidates is their own business, and is not likely to be dictated by the Knesset or some judicial authority, it would be well to devote some thought to this important issue.

The first question is what should be the forum that selects or elects the party’s candidates. Should it be all the voters throughout the country that are registered members of the party or should it be a party institution, such as the Central Committee, that has been elected by them?

The two big parties, Likud and Labor, have chosen somewhat different paths on this matter. Both elect their leading candidate – the potential prime minister, should they form the next government – in country-wide elections. Likud elects the rest of the list in the Central Committee, while Labor leaves the election of its Knesset candidates to its membership throughout the country. Does it really matter?

The logic of proportional representation, where votes are cast for a party rather than for an individual candidate, implies a close association and even allegiance of the candidates to the party that has selected them to appear on its list of candidates. Their constituency is the party and a party institution, like the Central Committee, which continues to function throughout the Knesset’s tenure and to whom the Knesset members are accountable, is the best representative of that constituency. It seems therefore appropriate that the Central Committee be the forum for selecting the candidates for the Knesset. This principle is probably valid even for the selection of the party’s candidate to lead the list. The argument that candidates elected by a wider public are likely to show a greater degree of independence, although having merit, must be recognized as being inconsistent with proportional representation.

A second question has to do with reserving slots on the party’s list for representatives of geographic areas, minority groups, age groups, and so on. Reserved slots are by their very nature a distortion of the democratic process, arbitrarily restricting the choice of the voter, and should be kept to an absolute minimum. Whereas, there is some justification for reserved slots for representatives of the country’s national minorities, who might otherwise not be elected in a party forum, there is little reason to reserve a slot for somebody who hails from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or the coastal area. The proliferation of such reserved slots is nothing less than a perversion of the democratic process.

There are many other issues that bear on the system of the parties’ internal elections that hopefully will be analyzed in the weeks to come, now that their importance is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

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