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Voting in Israel: A Humiliating Travesty of Democracy

How do citizens of Israel elect the 120 members of the Knesset—their parliament? Before answering this question, certain facts need to be recalled.

First, Israel makes the entire country a single electoral district where parties with fixed slates of candidates vie for seats on the basis of proportional representation.

Second, given an electoral threshold of only 2% (of the total votes cast), a welter of parties compete in an election. (The 2005 election witnessed 31 parties of which 12 reached or exceeded the threshold and won 3 to 29 seats.)

Third—and to abbreviate the process: of the 120 candidates elected to the Knesset, the one heading the plurality party will be Israel’s prime minister, at least 20 others will be cabinet ministers, and 6 or 7 more will be deputy ministers. Hence, roughly one/fourth of the Knesset’s members will enter the Government. And that is precisely an MK’s ambition: to become a cabinet minister. That’s the road to political power and political longevity. Mark well that the cabinet controls the voting results of the Knesset, which means that the Knesset, unknown to most people, is little more than a cipher.

But now it’s election day, a holiday or funday. The polls open at 8:00 a.m. and close at 10:00 p.m. Let’s simplify this aspect of Israeli-style democracy.

Sara, a good citizen, goes to her assigned polling station at 9:00 a.m. She enters a room where volunteer clerks are sitting at a table. She presents her ID and her name is checked off on a voter registration list. She’s given an empty envelope which she takes to a voting booth a few steps away. In the booth Sara sees about 30 stacks of ballots on a table. The ballots are 3-inch square slips of paper. Appearing on the slips is nothing more than two or three Hebrew letters representing a particular party, i.e., a slate of party candidates. The names of the candidates do not appear on the slips or anywhere else in the voting booth. Sara selects a slip, inserts it in the envelop she was given, leaves the booth and drops the envelope in a box in front of the clerks. That’s it, for Sara and most other voters.

But what about Avi? As he approaches the polling station at 9:45 p.m., he notices countless ballots strewn on the ground. How’d they get there, Sherlock? Easy. Some unscrupulous voters, before leaving the voting booth, stuffed their pockets with the ballots of parties other than the one they voted for. After leaving the polling station, they discarded the slips. Hence, when Avi enters the voting booth, he may not see any of his party’s ballots. He complains to the clerks, but it’s too late to obtain more ballots.

Avi has thus been “disenfranchised” thanks not only to one or more corrupt voters, but also by an electoral system conducive to such corruption. Moreover, by losing his vote—and perhaps others—the party of his choice may not reach the electoral threshold! A travesty of democracy. But what makes it a humiliating travesty?

The slates of Israel’s major parties—until 2005, Labor and Likud—may have the names of as many as 120 candidates. Other parties will have much smaller slates. The method of ranking candidates varies from party to party, but is determined by the party’s own machinery and membership. Few citizens know what this is all about. What do they know?

The ordinary citizen will surely know the name of the leader whose party he intends to vote for and some other candidates of that party. He may also know the names of a few other party leaders, but not much more. A better-informed citizen may know the names of five or six party leaders and some of their party colleagues. But will such citizens know that incumbent politicians, instead of using their own judgment, are told how to vote on public issues by their party leaders? Hardly.

Since an incumbent doesn’t have to compete with a rival candidate for his or her seat in a constituency election, the voters are not likely to know very much about the incumbent’s failings. Voting for a party slate is pretty much an act of blind faith—more so than in the 85 countries that have constituency elections. Here’s more.

In Israel, no party has ever come close to winning a Knesset majority. Since every Israeli government has therefore consisted of a coalition of five or more parties, the voter will not know which parties will form the Government. In fact, the voter will not know what’s what until those five or more parties hammer out a coalition agreement regarding the Government’s program, which may occur two or three weeks after the election!

Actually, the voter will remain befuddled even after the Government is formed, since each of the parties composing the Government will have its own priorities, in consequence of which one or another party, sooner or later, will threaten to leave the coalition and bring down the Government. This is why the average duration of Israeli governments is less than two years.

From beginning to end, the ministers representing these rival parties compete for more power or a larger share of the national budget to augment their and their party’s influence among the voters in the next election—usually two years away. The voters, given no clear sense of national purpose, will have no confidence in their discordant and transient governments.

The public is disgusted with these shoddy governments. Journalist Michael Freund writes: “Like that car in the circus, the Knesset is a relatively small body. So … how does it produce so many clowns? One after another they come pouring out, splashing onto the front pages of our newspapers each morning with new and sundry tales of corruption, indiscretion and outright sin.”

Freund wants new elections, but this will only produce more clowns and more corrupt politicians, all of whom are not individually accountable to the voters and can therefore ignore public opinion with impunity. No wonder an increasing majority of the voters feels powerless, the more so the higher their level of education.

Clearly, voting for party slates in Israel is a humiliating travesty of democracy.

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