The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy

12-Sep-2006

The Sacred Cow of Israel’s Electoral System Updated

Filed under: Democratic MethodsElectorate/DemographicsRepresentation — eidelberg @ 7:43 pm

Having just received Freedom House’s 800-page volume Freedom in the World 2005, I can now update not only the number of democracies which Freedom House ranks “free” (as opposed to “partly free”), but also set forth how many of these democracies are smaller than Israel both in population and in size. This article refutes the contention that regional or multi-district elections in Israel would favor its Arab parties and disfavor its religious Jewish parties. Although more needs to be said about regional elections, this article provides a rational basis for further discussion.


It seems that many benighted Jews in Israel believe that their system of government descended from Mount Sinai. Their educators have yet to tell them their first and greatest prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, deplored Israel’s governmental system. He deemed it divisive and discordant as well as unprincipled and undemocratic.

Ben-Gurion saw that by making the country a single electoral district, political parties would have to compete for Knesset seats on the basis of Proportional Representation (PR), and that given a low electoral threshold, an absurd profusion of parties would emerge that would (1) fragment the Knesset, (2) splinter the cabinet into rival party leaders, (3) hinder the pursuit of coherent and resolute national policies, and (4) enable elected officials to ignore public opinion with impunity.

This is precisely why the present writer has proposed multi-district or regional elections, without which politicians cannot be held individually accountable to the voters.

Israelis have nonetheless been weaned on the dogma that regional elections would be inappropriate for a small country like Israel. Their ruling elites have a vested interest in keeping them in darkness. These elites do not want the people to know that 48 (out of 88) democracies have smaller populations than Israel, that 45 of these have regional elections, and that 26 of these are smaller in size (while some are just as diverse).

Ah, but there is also the facile objection that regional elections will result in “disproportionality”—in Israel, a dirty word. Yes, disproportional representation of parties is a consequence of plurality elections—the case of the United States, Canada, England, and other countries. But these countries seem to flourish at least as well as Israel.

Dogmatists nonetheless boast that PR enables each distinct ethnic and economic as well as religious or ideological group to have its own party representatives in the Knesset, and this, they boast, is the acme of democracy.

It so happens, however, that Israel’s system of fixed (or closed) party lists enables these charming representatives to ignore their constituents. Shas did so in 1992 when, contrary to its campaign pledge, it joined the ultra-secular Labor-Meretz government. This chicanery was nothing compared to the marvelous 1999 election, when 29 MKs hopped over to rival parties!

Even more outrageous and momentous—it led to Israel’s Second Lebanese War—is what happened in 2004, when no less than 23 Likud MKs voted for the Evacuation Law, i.e., Labor’s “unilateral disengagement” policy which they campaigned against in the 2003 election. So let us stop worshipping the sacred cow of proportional representation in a single nationwide electoral district.

Okay, but some opponents of multi-district or regional elections say this will increase Arab representation in the Knesset while diminishing the representation of the religious parties. There is no logical or empirical foundation for this contention.

Given regional elections, the numerical representation of the various groups composing Israel’s society depends on (1) the number of electoral districts, (2) the number of representatives per district, (3) how the districts are divided geographically, and (4) the type of electoral system. Unless these factors are known, all talk about the over- or under-representation of any ethnic or religious or other group is sheer gibberish.

On the other hand, given Israel’s single nationwide electoral district, virtually all Jewish parties campaign for Arab votes since every vote counts under the system of proportional representation. This is why both Labor- and Likud-led governments have been so permissive about the seditious behavior of Arab MKs!

Now consider the shibboleth that regional elections will lead to “gerrymandering”—as if the scores of countries that have such elections are so benighted as to be incapable of dealing with the problem!

Gerrymandering (or malapportionment) may be avoided by means of “Personalized Proportional Representation.” In Germany the voter is given two votes, one for an individual candidate and one for a party list. The candidate vote is for a single-member district contest that is won by a plurality. The second vote is for a party list, and is used to provide compensatory seats to those parties which did not receive in the single-member districts the seat share proportional to their nationwide vote share. Much the same result can be achieved with a single vote, as in Denmark and Sweden.

Or consider the system used in Australia, Ireland, and Malta, where the voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives an overall majority of first preferences, the candidates with fewest votes are eliminated one by one, and their votes transferred according to their second and third preferences (and so on), until one candidate achieves a majority. No votes are wasted and gerrymandering is insignificant. (In fact, by issuing “how to vote cards” urging its supporters to adopt a particular ranking of candidates below first, a minor party, without obtaining any mandates, can be instrumental in deciding which major party shall head the government!)

Finally, and as the Yamin Israel party has pointed out, regional or multi-district elections would diminish the government’s inordinate concentration of power and, conversely, increase the role of local self-government, which would open the door to political talent and promote democracy in Israel.