The Elixir of Electoral Reform in Israel

There is no perfect balance. The question is whether there is a better balance than the present system. Or, alternatively, whether the present system and its built-in instability makes the country ungovernable.

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By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on May 30, 2012.)

Twenty years ago the Knesset passed a law revising the Israeli electoral system, providing for a hybrid parliamentary-executive system wherein the prime minister was to be elected by direct popular vote. This incongruous system was adopted after a lengthy public campaign calling for a change in the existing parliamentary system. In the Knesset it was led by Amnon Rubinstein, an expert on constitutional law; David Libai, a well-known lawyer; Uriel Lynn, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution and Law Committee; and Yoash Tsiddon, a freshman Knesset member. They were at the time considered among the best and brightest members of the Knesset, but they were dead wrong.

The law, which was touted as bringing long-sought stability to the Israeli political system, actually turned out to be destabilizing, leading to increased representation for the smaller parties, something that any fool would have been able to predict. Nine years later the failure of this law was generally recognized, the law was abolished and Israel returned to parliamentary democracy. It should have served as a warning: Be careful when you tinker with the constitutional system; the results may very well turn out to be the opposite of what you might expect.

Now, twenty years later, the same cry is heard again: Change the system of governance! Public pressure is building up and it was one of the demands made by the Kadima party upon joining the Netanyahu-led coalition. Once again the demand is supported from many quarters. After all, who doesn’t want to make the country more “governable,” the government more stable, and to avoid frequent elections?

So what is wrong with our system? Maybe we should start by asking, what is right about our system?

Our system of proportional representation assures that parties have a presence in the Knesset in accordance with the votes they received. There is a minimum of distortion between the percentage of votes received and the Knesset representation obtained. Any deviation from that system would bring about distortions and possibly exclusion from representation for some of the smaller segments of the population.

But giving many small parties representation in the Knesset results in coalition governments that may not be stable, where minor members of the coalition obtain disproportionate influence. Unstable coalitions shorten the life of governments and frequently throw the country into early elections. The proponents of direct election of the prime minister thought they had found the elixir that would provide the perfect balance between representation and stability. It was a dream.

There is no perfect balance. The question is whether there is a better balance than the present system. Or, alternatively, whether the present system and its built-in instability makes the country ungovernable and therefore justifies substantial digressions from proportional representation.

Everyone would welcome measures that would increase government stability, but a great many Israelis would oppose the distortion in representation that would result from such measures.

In fact, the empirical evidence of this country’s political history does not indicate that Israeli governments have been unable to govern. Our governments have managed to fight wars, sign peace agreements and make major economic reforms without being unduly hindered by the present system. The hysterical calls for change seem hardly justified.

Israel will be governed by coalition governments for the foreseeable future, and all coalitions, regardless of their composition, may fall apart. The larger the party forming the coalition, the more likely the coalition is to be stable, but even coalitions formed by large parties can fall apart. It is a question of probability involving random factors.

It should also be recognized that it is the voter who is at the root of the instability. Those voters who prefer to express their sympathy for one of the smaller parties rather than voting for one of the large parties are in effect voting against stability, and possibly for “ungovernable” coalitions.

Raising the threshold somewhat above the present two percent of the vote required for a party to enter the Knesset might be helpful. But such a change will be of little use as long as parties are permitted, after entering the Knesset, to split in amoeba-like fashion from large parties into smaller ones, as has become the practice over the years.

That phenomenon is undemocratic and indecent, deceiving the voters who elected the party as it presented itself at election time. Prohibiting such splits may bring a net benefit to the present political system. All the other ideas being floated are, in the final analysis, probably damaging.

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