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Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

How to Make Electoral Reform Work

Daniel J. Elazar

The call for electoral reform for Israel has now become public on both sides of the ocean, as the Jewish state's "deadlock of democracy" takes on the characteristics of paralysis. The expectation is that once electoral reform is introduced, the minor parties and most especially those of the extreme Orthodox will no longer be able to block the formation of a stable government capable of acting.

Electoral reform is truly a necessity for Israel. It is important to more closely link the average citizen and his/her representative. It is vital to break down the exclusive power of the party oligarchies to determine candidates for the Knesset and thereby stifle the entry of new blood and new ideas into the country's government. But even as we press for electoral reform, we must understand that electoral reform is not enough.

If the goal of electoral reform is governmental stability, and rule by a party with a majority then electoral reform will not do the job. Israel is not the United States where differences of opinion are confined to a relatively narrow spectrum and two parties, each a coalition of groups, are enough. As in the countries of continental Europe, divisions of opinion and ideology in Israel are far more broader and more intense (As we have seen in recent years, even Great Britain has had a hard time holding onto the two party system. The Conservatives and Labour must contend with the Liberals and Social Democrats). The canons of democracy require that the permanent groups in Israeli society be appropriately represented in the country's legislative body, and the Israelis would not have otherwise. There are different ways that can be done but no way that could be considered by Israel for electoral reform will change the reality of two permanent groups - the ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Israeli-Arab minority holding the balance of power. Even if all the various small parties are eliminated, these two permanent groups would coalesce into two medium-size parties, each with approximately between 15-20% of the vote potentially behind it.

From the power point of view it makes little difference for the ability of one or another of the major parties to form a government or to maintain its stability if each of the two has approximately forty seats and forty more are distributed among the small parties, or each has approximately fifty-five seats and the remaining ten are so distributed. The lack of the majority is still the lack of the majority. It is likely that the two main permanent subgroupings are likely to have at least thirty seats between them; especially if they are encouraged to organize into unified blocks in order to get any seats at all, as would be the case with most of the proposed reforms. Both minorities constitute significant percentages of the total population and also are sufficiently concentrated geographically to win seats even in a territorially based system. One can expect them to exercise such leverage as long as parliamentary system is maintained as presently constituted.

The only way out of this dilemma is to embrace the other major constitutional reform proposed in Israel in the last two years -- namely the direct election of the head of government (Prime Minister) by the people. There are several proposals that have been submitted. The best call for popular voting for individual candidates for head of government who would be, in effect, the chief executive, with the individual winning the most votes, providing that he reached at least 45 percent of the total, becoming the head of the government for a four year term. Israeli voters would cast at least two ballots; one for the head of government and the other for the Knesset. Since it will be clear that only a candidate backed by one of the two major parties could get elected, the smaller parties would probably develop coalitions with one or another of the two largest parties and agree upon the candidate to be supported in advance. Even so it might be necessary to have runoff elections between the two leading vote getters if no candidate receives at least 45 percent, as is done in France.

Since proposals call for full separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches with the head of government appointing a cabinet that would be simply subordinate to him as in the United States. Other proposals are similar to the French model in requiring the cabinet to win the confidence of the legislature. Even the latter arrangement, which might be more appropriate for Israel, the fact that the head of the government would be elected to office in his own right for a fixed four-year term and would sit there whether or not his party has the leading number of seats in the Knesset, gives him a very strong bargaining chip and introduces real stability into government.

Some proposals provide that a Knesset could vote no confidence in the head of government and remove him by a two-thirds vote, or seventy of the one hundred and twenty Knesset members, or some other such extraordinary majority. In that case the Knesset would also be dissolved and there would be new elections for both. This would provide additional protections against a runaway chief executive who, of course, would also be dependent on a Knesset rendered more independent by not being tied to his coattails for survival, to provide a legislative basis for his policies and to vote the finals for them.

What of electoral reform? If this reform were adopted, then it would be possible to have an electoral reform that would allow full representation of all permanent groupings, giving them a vote but not a veto. With a separation of powers system in place, several systems could be considered. I would still suggest that the best system would be that used in a number of Spanish-speaking countries in Europe and in the New World and in some of the Scandinavian ones as well; namely the division of the country into a limited number of permanent districts -- say, twelve -- whose boundaries would follow present administrative subdistrict lines so that they could not be gerrymandered. Every ten years, the one hundred and twenty Knesset seats would be reapportioned among the districts on the basis of population so that each district would have the number of seats appropriate to its share of the country's total population. Under this system, voters would cast as many votes as there are seats in their district. They could either vote for a party list -- that is to say, a straight ticket, or could pick and choose among the candidates offered on the several party lists, thus encouraging the parties to nominate more attractive candidates with closer ties to the people in their district.

This system would allow for the representation of those permanent groupings in the society that deserve to be represented. From the democratic point of view that, when combined with the direct election of the head of government, would prevent those smaller groups from exercising inordinate power in determining who would govern.

Where does all of this stand today? Over the past two years there has been a movement among Israeli politicians favoring reform to move first to secure the direct election of the head of government. The first time that this proposal became more than a slogan was in December 1988 after the agonizing and the distasteful process of forming the Shamir-led National Unity Government. At that point, four private bills were introduced in the Knesset, three by Likud members with tacit agreement of Prime Minister Shamir.

As the National Unity government settled in and seemed to be capable of enduring, reform got lost in the shuffle, but with the latest government crisis leading to a collapse of that broad coalition, another round of distasteful maneuvering by the leaders of the two major parties to secure the requisite majority to form a government, and the resultant public disgust, the bills have been introduced once again. And again there seems to be some likelihood that both major parties will support the change out of desperation if not out of conviction. Thus the prognosis step in that direction is mildly favorable.

Now it is necessary to develop a proper system of checks and balances that would strengthen the Knesset as a legislature even while it strengthens the Prime Minister as the head of government. Unfortunately it is just as easy (or hard) to do reform badly as it is to do it well. So those of us supporting reform have two obstacles to overcome. First, we must win agreement to make these far-reaching changes and then we must design a change that would do what we want it to do, and strengthen rather than weaken Israeli democracy.

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