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Another election – still no representation

Under Israel's electoral system, lawmakers are not duty-bound to represent the interests of the country’s citizens

Like many Israelis, I have yet to decide exactly how to cast my vote in next week’s election. A succession of polls indicates that around one in four Israelis have yet to choose who to select at the ballot box. Unfortunately, calculating who to vote for in Israel is rarely a simple exercise and the decision often boils down to little more than an educated guess at which party will pursue the most palatable agenda. Another troubling aspect of the electoral conundrum is the reality that my vote will not actually contribute towards choosing a representative, an individual likely to feel a responsibility towards me as their constituent. As such, the act of voting in Israel is reduced to participation in a formalized poll rather than the election of a representative. It is a serious flaw in our political process, which if rectified would immeasurably improve the way our country is governed.

A quick glance at the history of our electoral system is an indicator that it is in desperate need of reform. The system that we have in place today was inherited from the pre-1948 yishuv (Jewish community) and has remained largely unchanged ever since. In other words, we are using the exact same electoral system designed for a community of around 700,000 largely homogenous people, compared to a multi-faceted society of around eight million today.

The Israel of 2012 is almost unrecognizable from the Israel of the 1940s, yet we choose our parliament in almost identical fashion. Treating a population of several hundred thousand people as one electoral district, represented by all 120 members of Knesset, may have been appropriate seven decades ago. But in today’s highly complex country of several million, it means that all are represented by everyone and consequently no one. Many rightly argue that our system, which invariably produces an unwieldy coalition packed with unfeasible multiple parties, is an obstacle to the stable government and sensible long-term decision making that our country needs. Perhaps just as important though, the lack of real representation engendered by the current system also makes a mockery of the fundamental bond between the people and its parliament.

No need to pander to citizens (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
No need to pander to citizens (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The fact is that in Israel, we the voters are largely inconsequential to most members of parliament. Unlike other systems across the world, which employ local electoral districts, the ambitions and success of our legislators are almost entirely unrelated to the approval of the voters themselves. Members of Knesset are indebted to party functionaries who decide where they are placed on the list of parliamentary candidates. Their careers are far more dependent on party committees rather than public satisfaction. And who can really blame the MK who chooses to attend the bar mitzvah of the grandson of a leading party figure over a meeting of concerned citizens on important issues? With the party acting as a buffer between the voter and parliamentary candidates, our outdated system dictates that any vaguely ambitious politician must choose party before public. The result is that lawmakers are simply not duty-bound to represent the interests of the country’s citizens. Consequently, you and I have no address to turn to for representing our concerns or problems to government. There is no representative mandated to present your objection to the Housing Ministry over a local construction project or to lobby the Education Ministry for additional schools in your area. The voter-parliamentarian relationship is an entirely one-way street. You elect them with little prospect of representation in return.

Of course, our political parties are not entirely unaware of the need to ‘represent.’ Most parties can be seen scrambling before an election campaign looking to muster a ‘representative’ list of parliamentary candidates – This usually includes a certain percentage of women (outside of the ultra-Orthodox parties), a balance of secular and religious candidates, a few Mizrachim and perhaps a Russian or Ethiopian candidate thrown in for good measure. Let’s be clear, this is not representation. It is electoral lip service to the public. It mistakenly assumes that my concerns can be better represented by someone who happens to share the same skin color or level of religious (non) observance as me.

The real business of representation goes way beyond shared backgrounds. It also extends beyond shared beliefs. Even if you vote for a party that you assume will fight for the causes close to your heart, what happens if they don’t receive enough votes to enter the Knesset? Quite simply, you are left without so much as even a theoretical representative. We persist with a ‘winner takes all’ model of representation where those unlucky enough to pick the loser have their parliamentary voice snatched out of sight. Real representation requires local electoral districts because they produce legislators who are dedicated to addressing the concerns of their constituents whether they voted for them or not. Whether these local representatives are committed to doing so out of a sense of public duty, or because they understand that it will help increase their support at the ballot box next time round matters little. One way or the other, through social conscience, self interest or both, they are required to take an interest in their constituents. As such, local electoral districts produce genuine public servants, which can only benefit Israeli citizens of all political persuasions.

Previous attempts at electoral reform have inevitably been nixed by those afraid of weakening their own political position. During the current campaign, such reform has remained a side issue at best. Yet the absence of local representatives remains a fundamental weakness in the way our country is governed, effectively denying the people direct access to parliament. Hopefully far-sighted legislators in the next Knesset will push the reform agenda, although this may be wishful thinking. More to the point perhaps, if a party existed that seriously prioritized electoral change and local representation, it would certainly help to solve my voting dilemma.

About the Author
With over a decade of experience working with governments, politicians, NGOs and Jewish organizations in Israel and abroad, I hope to bring a fresh look at some of today's big issues.