Israel's Electoral Complex

By Amotz Asa-El

Israeli politics needs a system overhaul.

Hermens posited that, while it honors the democratic principle of ideological diversity, the PR system’s low threshold percentage for election makes it far too easy for non-mainstream political parties, including radical movements, to enter parliament. The system then sustains their activity-however destabilizing-by paying their officials, giving them a public platform for their inflammatory rhetoric, and shielding them from legal repercussions by granting them parliamentary immunity. According to Hermens, this allows a small, radical party to indulge in “world outlooks” that are never tested by “the stubborn facts of real experience,” in effect “unfolding a life of its own imagining.”12 The result is power without responsibility. In contrast, voters in a plurality system shun radicalism because they tend to base their political choices on practical considerations and local concerns rather than abstract ideology. Political parties operating under such a system are therefore compelled to field candidates who, despite leaning Right or Left, will tend towards the pragmatic Center. If they do not, they will not be able to command the kind of stable consensus that is a prerequisite for election under a plurality system.
Moreover, because PR relieves politicians of the need to court the majority, it inevitably gives rise to special-interest parties, whose members of parliament are “pledged to the consideration of one interest only.”13 Consequently, major national issues are neglected so as to make way for the narrow economic concerns of a small constituency. Some of these parties have no practical plans for running a country, focusing instead on an agenda of “social autarchy” whose aim is to preserve a partisan subculture among party members, including the establishment of social institutions-from sports clubs to kindergartens-so as to shackle constituents to the party regardless of external developments. Moreover, large parties gradually become subservient to special-interest parties, first by placing special-interest representatives on their candidate lists, then by abandoning themselves to the devices of these parties’ contradictory concerns. Eventually, the large parties lose their unity and, therefore, their ability to lead effectively.
As a result, according to Hermens, the PR system weakens and corrupts the nation’s political elite. Whereas in the plurality system “everything depends upon the voter’s opinion as to the fitness of the candidate,” in a proportional system “a candidate need not be the kind of man who appeals to a majority of the citizens.”14 Instead, he must be agreeable only to the specific minority group he represents. Consequently, “the country is deprived of some of the choicest of its leadership material.”15
At the same time, Hermens asserted, voters feel disempowered, since they “cannot consider any particular candidate as ‘their’ candidate, as people do in a single-member constituency.”16 Similarly, a candidate on a party list cannot consider any particular group “his” voters, since those who elected him in fact voted for his party as a whole. What’s more, those in control of the party hierarchy will “reappoint one another from election to election to the highest places on the party list,” which makes pleasing the party elders far more important to a potential candidate than fighting for his political following and convictions.17 The end result is the gradual takeover of the party system by people who are conformist in character, rather than ambitious, independent, or self-motivated.
This phenomenon discourages party rejuvenation, because the party’s old guard will inevitably refuse to step down from the top of the list, and younger members will be forced to curry the veterans’ favor in order to be granted a place on the list at all. This removes any motivation for younger politicians to challenge the old guard, squanders the natural fighting spirit of the new generation of party activists, and facilitates the rise of party apparatchiks with weak and submissive personalities. Even if young party activists are not inclined to be subservient at first, they must learn to become such if they are to survive politically. As a result of these factors, the party hierarchy fossilizes and eventually degenerates.
Damage to governance is particularly harsh, as PR first shrinks and ultimately destroys parliamentary majorities. Since any given election will produce extremely diverse results, the electorate never emerges with a clear, collective statement on the issues at hand. The morning after an election each party will claim that its programs express the will of the people, while in fact, the will of the people has not been expressed at all. In reality, once they are elected, lawmakers do as they please.
To make matters worse, PR creates coalition governments that “do not form an organic unit, and anything resembling real teamwork is impossible.”18 Cabinet members will think in partisan rather than national terms. The prime minister cannot be a leader, but only a first among equals. “He has little influence in the selection of cabinet ministers, and it may even happen that a party will place a man in a cabinet post with the express intention of using him as a check upon the prime minister and prevent his exercising any real authority.”19 Ultimately, “the cabinet works in much the same way as an international conference.”20 As a result, coalition governments often refrain from attacking vital questions at all; they simply let matters drift.
Hermens’ critique of the Weimar Republic’s PR system was, unfortunately, well grounded in fact.21 Between the adoption of the 1920 Electoral Law and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany held eight general elections. The ease with which parties could enter the Reichstag caused them to proliferate, from ten in 1919 to fifteen in 1928. Meanwhile, the proportionally elected parties had an inherent disinterest in cooperation, which accelerated the rise and fall of coalition governments, of which there were twenty between 1919 and 1933.22 These governments habitually included implacable antagonists, like populists and industrialists or republicans and monarchists, who seldom found common ground on any issue. This congenital disunity effectively paralyzed the German government, allowing extremist parties-whose popularity was exaggerated by the proportional system-to increase their power and influence by attacking the status quo. Indeed, the 1930 election, in which the Nazi party made its great breakthrough from twelve seats to 107, would have turned out very differently were it not for Weimar’s proportional system.23
Continental Europe learned its lesson from the Weimar debacle, and after World War II generally shunned this extreme form of PR. West Germany, and then post-reunification Germany, adopted a system in which half of its lawmakers are elected locally and the other half nationally. In fact, other than a handful of anecdotal exceptions-such as Iceland, whose population of 313,000 is barely that of a small city-veteran democracies have generally adopted a mixed or full plurality system, in which at least half of all lawmakers must personally run for election in their districts of residence. A completely proportional system-one that offers voters nothing but national party lists, and lacks any regional element-did not exist even in Weimar Germany, and exists nowhere in today’s significant democracies.
Nowhere, that is, except in Israel.
The precipitous degeneration of Israeli politics serves as a sad vindication of Hermens’ critique of PR. The problems themselves are well known: The Knesset is chronically fragmented; governments change every two years on average and ministerial turnover occurs at a dizzying pace;24 infighting, corruption, nepotism, and patronage are commonplace; long- term policy schemes, such as the Wisconsin Plan for the labor markets, the Dovrat Reform of the school system, or the Electric Corporation’s de-monopolization are abruptly modified, obstructed, and sometimes derailed by newly arrived ministers. Moreover, Israeli ministers frequently lack managerial experience and are therefore often overbearing. They micromanage, and dole out appointments and pork-barrel allocations at the expense of the long-term planning that both their duty and the national interest demand.
Consequently, Jerusalem’s political corridors are seen as lacking the vision, charisma, responsibility, and accomplishment that have become commonplace in Tel Aviv’s corporate boardrooms. More ominously, voter turnout is steadily declining, reaching an all-time low of 63.2 percent in the last general election. This included a sizable number of young voters who consciously treated their ballot as a joke, some by voting for the Gil pensioners party, and others by voting for Ale Yarok, a single-issue party which advocates the decriminalization of marijuana.
It should not be surprising, then, that accomplished young Israelis are far more likely to direct their ambitions towards the high-tech industry, business, academia, or the free professions than towards politics. Under the current system, they likely never will, since it demands their selection by and subordination to professional party bosses. As Bagehot predicted about PR in general, Israeli politicians are “party men mainly,” and as such they “look not for independence, but for subservience.” Consequently, talented young leaders shun politics, and the ones who do enter politics are seldom leadership material. Witness the critical mass of Israeli politicians who are either former briefcase carriers for other politicians or children of prominent lawmakers-the so-called “princes.”

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