Corrupting Democracy

The relatively easy access to power available by manipulating the internal elections in the two big parties has led to phenomena that have outraged the Israeli public.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on March 24, 2005.)

It was Winston Churchill who said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” However, that is not the end of the story – there are many forms of democratic government, some better, some worse. On top of this, a system that has worked well in the past can be corrupted by the introduction of detrimental, seemingly innocuous changes. This is what has happened to Israeli democracy in recent years.

The growing public outrage against many of Israel’s politicians, although justified, should focus on correcting the imperfections in the system that have been imperceptibly introduced in recent years, bringing about the current sad state of affairs.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, as are most democratic countries today. It is one of the few parliamentary democracies in which parliament is elected by proportional representation. This is in some ways probably the most democratic parliamentary system of all, providing representation more or less in proportion to the support political parties enjoy among the voters and assuring political representation even for small segments of the public. However, it means that voters vote for a party list, rather than for individual candidates.

In other words, besides the Knesset elections, an integral part of the democratic process in Israel is the composition of ordered lists of candidates by the parties competing for Knesset seats. The general public has no say in the make-up of these lists, even though they play a cardinal role in determining the composition of the Knesset and the working of the Israeli government in the years between elections.

This is left wholly in the hands of the political parties. Many years ago the lists of the two large parties, Likud and Labor, the ones most instrumental in determining the composition of the Knesset, were determined by “selection committees,” but since then the process has been “democratized,” the lists being determined by primaries held in the central committees or in the country at large. It should be clear by now that Israel’s democracy can be seriously corrupted by faults and manipulations of this integral part of the political system.

That is exactly what has happened in recent years. The relatively easy access to power available by manipulating the internal elections in the two big parties has led to phenomena that have outraged the Israeli public.

This access to power by groups that have little interest in the ideological programs of the parties is made possible through two principal channels. First, the procedures adopted by the parties to determine the list of voters entitled to participate in the parties’ internal elections, who can then determine the composition of the central committee or directly elect the parties’ candidates for the Knesset.

And second, the practice of reserving slots for certain categories of candidates on the Knesset lists and severely limiting the number of candidates who can be selected by each voter in the primary elections, thus enabling certain candidates to be elected to the list with a relatively small number of votes.

In recent days, the public has witnessed the flooding of the Labor election rolls by people with no past association with the party, in preparations for the party’s internal elections. It has suddenly become clear that Israeli Arab citizens represent 30 percent of Labor’s membership. There is room for doubt that the Labor Party has really become  that popular among Israeli Arabs.

Likud set a similar example a few years ago before the Likud internal elections, with members of kibbutzim and clans suddenly appearing on the Likud election rolls, and disappearing from those rolls shortly thereafter. The composition of the Likud Central Committee, the present Likud Knesset faction and the never-ending demands by members of the Likud Central Committee for political plums in government service is the direct result.

The cure for this disease is easy to identify. First, limit participation in internal party elections to those who have been members of the party for at least two years. Second, restrict the number of places on the Knesset lists reserved for special categories of candidates and increase the number of candidates who can be selected by each voter in the internal primary elections.

All very simple, but you can be sure that there will be violent opposition to these changes from those quarters that have benefited from the distortions in the system in recent years. But unless such reforms are introduced in the two large parties, things will go from bad to worse.

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