Time to Give the Voters a Voice

The dramatic Likud-Kadima coalition deal has been dubbed a “mega stinking” manoeuvre.  And in many ways, it represents all that is noxious about our political system.  Yet once the odour dissipates, the new unity government will have a golden chance to change the way we are governed forever.  Party leaders Netanyahu and Mofaz have been presented with the rarest of opportunities for an Israeli government to actually govern.  Moreover, they have indicated that they will grasp it to act in the country’s best interests and engender stability.  If they are to make good on their pledge, then there is no more important step for them to take than introducing root and branch electoral reform.  Piecemeal change to our electoral system is simply not enough.

If we needed any reminder of the dysfunctional nature of politics in this country, it was there for all to see last week.  After all, the elected parliamentarians and cabinet ministers chosen to represent the public were left in the dark over a top-secret backroom deal which overnight shifted the coalition’s fundamental composition and direction.  This cannot be an indication of healthy representative government.  We are now left with a government more bloated than ever, feeding off the promises of yet more ministries and titles.  With an opposition comprising barely 20% of the Knesset, this is hardly an advert for a robust adversarial parliament.  Unsurprisingly, the electorate appears particularly disillusioned with politics – Only 23% believe that the new unity government was brokered for the sake of the country’s future.

And yet, this unlikely alliance has the chance to dispel widespread scepticism and put an end to the haphazard politics of the past, by using the coming eighteen months or so to institute real change.  Mofaz in particular, will be under huge pressure to deliver solid achievements in order to justify jumping into bed with Likud.  With that in mind, Netanyahu and Mofaz have outlined a shared agenda.  It includes making progress on an agreement with the Palestinians and replacing the Tal Law with a workable arrangement.  However, with Israeli and Palestinian leaders currently little more than pen-pals and the Tal Law part of a much wider societal debate, few will be holding their breath for meaningful progress on either front.  By contrast, the unity government has boldly pledged to introduce electoral reform by the end of 2012. This has the potential to create genuine and positive, long-lasting change.

It is no secret that our current electoral system stifles the ability to govern.  Israeli Prime Ministers invariably find themselves preoccupied with ensuring that an awkward coalition remains intact, rather than planning the country’s future.  For too long, parties representing narrow interests have held disproportionate power in the political system, focusing the government’s energies on their own pet projects instead of the national interest.

This status quo is the product of an electoral system employed in the 1940s for a broadly homogenous community of 600,000 people. Ludicrously we persist in using the same system today for a complex society of seven million diverse citizens.  Some have suggested raising the electoral threshold to obtain a seat in Knesset from a paltry 2% to a similarly meagre 3%.  Others have proposed capping the number of ministers or increasing the number of Knesset members.  These measures would be of some help in stabilizing future governments by marginally reducing the power of small parties.  Tinkering with numbers though is not enough – It will do nothing to alter the troubling absence of true representation which gnaws away at the relationship between the people and parliament.

With the entire country treated as one electoral district, the 120 members of Knesset ostensibly represent everybody but in reality they are responsible for nobody.  Because Israelis choose a party rather than an individual at the ballot box, each member of Knesset owes their position to the party machinery, not the voters themselves.  In order to secure their political future, members of Knesset must satisfy party technocrats rather than work tirelessly on behalf of their constituents.  Sadly, one of the core principles of democracy, the idea that elected representatives must indeed represent the people, is purely theoretical.  This must be altered through ambitious electoral reform which does not pay lip service to change by simply playing with percentages and numbers. Instead, it must incorporate at least a degree of direct, regional representation.  The introduction of parliamentarians who receive a direct mandate from the people, rather than their party, would fundamentally change Israel’s political culture.  It would help bring politics back to the people, finally giving Israeli citizens a direct address for their grievances.  It would also help the unity government alleviate some of the misgivings over its creation.

In all likelihood, the coalition will take some steps to reform the electoral system, having already made the point of singling out its importance.  However, such efforts must not be limited to the cosmetic change of electoral thresholds and numbers of ministers.  If the government is allowed to masquerade this facade of reform as an achievement, then the real debate on direct representation will tragically be lost for the foreseeable future.  This is a golden chance to positively alter how our country is governed and to bring parliament closer to the people it purports to represent.  It is an opportunity which must not be allowed to slip away.

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.