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Assaf Shapira
Assaf Shapira

Political reform: The imperative of the hour

Public trust in Israel’s political institutions has hit an all-time low. Only 10% of the Israeli public trust the parties; and trust in the Knesset (21%) and Government (27%) is not much higher. These are among the findings of the 2021 Democracy Index compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute. The political crisis of 2019–2021 intensified the need for system-wide reform, in order to bolster trust in the institutions of government. The Index also explored public backing for a number of potential reforms. Four of these reforms garnered significant support: Delegating powers from the ministries to local authorities; use of an “open” ballot in Knesset elections; adding constituencies to the system of Knesset elections; and requiring a majority of 80 Knesset members to amend Basic Laws.

The public is right: These are indeed the most critical reforms for ensuring the quality and future of Israeli democracy.

First, delegating greater power to local authorities serves the democratic principle of decentralization—maintaining checks and balances among several actors and entities, aimed at avoiding the concentration of too much power in the hands of one agency or individual. One of the main ways to decentralize power is to transfer authority from the central government to regional and local governments. In this regard, Israel is extremely centralized. According to various OECD indices, Israel is the country that delegates the fewest power to local authorities—and by a wide margin. Strengthening local authorities is important also because this is the government echelon closest to the citizens and best equipped to promote their interests. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that when it comes to dealing with issues that to a large degree are local in nature, local authorities should play a significant role.

Second, the use of an open ballot and the addition of constituencies for Knesset elections could significantly reinforce elected representatives’ sense of obligation and responsibility to their voters. The current system fails to do so, because it does not allow us to express a preference for specific candidates on a party’s list, or to vote for candidates who represent the area in which we reside. In an international comparison, the Israeli model is rare: Israel is the only democracy among OECD countries whose parliamentary elections do not relate to individual candidates or specific regions.

When it comes to voting for a specific candidate, the most common system is the “semi-open ballot”: Voters choose a party, and can then mark a limited number of specific candidates on its list. A candidate who passes a specific threshold of number of votes, is promoted to a higher slot on the list. In this system, elected officials would have an obligation to the wider community of their parties’ voters, who could reward or punish them on Election Day. This stands in contrast to the present system, in which they are obligated mainly to the party leader, the party’s institutions (committee/conference), or at most – to the party’s registered members.

When it comes to regional elections, the most common system is “multimember constituencies”: The country is divided into a number of electoral districts, each of which chooses several members of the parliament. This method, too, brings voters and their representatives in closer contact, and could be of particular benefit for promoting the interests of the periphery, which are all too frequently neglected.

Finally, a stronger anchoring of Basic Laws would introduce fixed and known rules to the political game. Today, some Basic Laws can be amended by a simple majority of those voting (such as most sections of the Basic Law: The Knesset); others (such as the Basic Law: The Government) require a majority of the Knesset (61 members) but no more. This is a dismal situation that allows any coalition majority to change the rules at a whim to suit its needs and interests. We have seen this over and over again in recent years, in the forms of amendments to tip the system in favor of the current Knesset majority (notably the rotation Government).

The Israeli system has many advantages, such as broad representation of many different sectors, and has produced many achievements. But it also has major defects. The four reforms presented here, which enjoy substantial public support, are crucial for strengthening Israeli democracy and boosting public trust. Now is the time to push forward with them.

About the Author
Dr. Assaf Shapira is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Governance and the Economy.
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