Israel's Electoral Complex

By Amotz Asa-El

Israeli politics needs a system overhaul.

Israel’s political crisis has reached alarming proportions. Never before in the country’s history has there been a state of affairs such as exists today, whereby the former president, the current prime minister, and those he originally appointed as finance minister, justice minister, and head of the Income Tax Authority are all in various stages of criminal investigation, indictment, or conviction for offenses ranging from sexual misconduct and tax fraud to unlawful patronage and embezzlement. Clearly, the political arena is in a state of severe moral deterioration.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Israeli public’s faith in the integrity of its governmental institutions is declining rapidly. This pervasive sense of decay has only been compounded by the Second Lebanon War, during which Israel’s politicians failed in their most essential task: The defense of the nation against outside threats. This failure raised questions not only about their morality, but also their competence. Moreover, the abundance of excellent leadership elsewhere in Israel-in, for example, the business, technology, and science sectors-forces one to ask why it cannot be found where it is needed the most.
Some place their hopes in a change of leadership. Yet it is hardly that simple: The magnitude of the corruption and ineptitude currently being uncovered, its penetration into all levels of national and local government, and its chronic persistence even in the face of widespread public revulsion force us to look for explanations that transcend momentary circumstances.
Concerned observers suggest several explanations for Israel’s current woes. Some point to excessively intimate social ties between businessmen and politicians. Others point to the replacement of Israel’s old collectivist ethos with a new individualism, one that places self-interest above everything else. And still others blame a cultural leniency towards the abuse of power. In fact, the root cause of Israel’s current political malaise is not moral or ideological, but structural: Namely, Israel’s unique electoral system.
Israel maintains the world’s most extreme model of the proportional electoral system, and the results are nothing short of disastrous. This system has been depleting Israel’s political energies for decades: It radicalized the territorial debate, debilitated the economy, obstructed long-term planning, derailed government action, distracted cabinets, diverted budgets, weakened prime ministers, destabilized governments, enabled anonymous and often incompetent people to achieve positions of great influence and responsibility, and blurred the distinctions between the executive and legislative branches of government. Perhaps most crucially, it has led talented, accomplished, moral, and charismatic people to abandon the political arena to the mediocre, unimaginative, and uncharismatic people who currently populate it. The electoral system’s contribution to Israel’s current crisis of leadership and governance is grave and possibly decisive. Now is the time, then, to probe its flaws and consider its replacement-before it is too late.
Historically speaking, electoral systems have fallen into two general categories: Proportional representation and relative majority. The former is often referred to by the abbreviation PR, and the latter is known as the plurality voting system. In its purest form, the PR system
allocates power between political parties according to the percentage of overall votes they receive in a single, nationwide election. By contrast, under the plurality voting system, voters cast ballots for candidates running in district elections. The candidate who receives the most votes is declared the winner. This is known as the “first past the post” or “winner takes all” mechanism. In effect, it means that votes cast for losing candidates are simply discarded. The PR system, therefore, attempts to represent the public’s collective will with maximum accuracy, whereas the plurality system tries to ensure stability through decisive outcomes.
The proportional system was contemplated in theoretical terms as early as the French National Convention (1792-1795). The term itself had surfaced in the previous decade, at the American Constitutional Convention, though not in the context of a discussion of PR per se, but rather of the states’ rights dilemma. The aftermath of that debate-the creation of the bicameral system, whereby one house reflects and another ignores the size of a particular state’s population-also produced America’s “first past the post” system.
Over the next half-century, advocates such as English educator Thomas Wright Hill, Swiss legislator Victor Prosper Considerant, and Danish finance minister Carl Andrae continued to make the case for PR.1 However, it was only with the publication in 1857 of Thomas Hare’s The Machinery of Representation that the PR system became the focus of a high-profile debate, one that pitted the philosopher John Stuart Mill against economist Walter Bagehot.
Mill’s arguments in favor of PR were presented in his Considerations on Representative Government, published in 1861, in which he praised the proportional idea for a variety of reasons.2 First, he believed that it would facilitate the political representation of “every minority in the whole nation.”3 Furthermore, Mill claimed, a legislator elected proportionally would represent a voluntary constituency of true supporters defined by their political beliefs, rather than an arbitrary constituency defined by geographical coincidence. The plurality system, according to Mill, forces a politician to represent all voters within a given district, including those who voted against him; under the PR system, however, “every member of the House would be the representative of a unanimous constituency.”4 Most important to Mill, a proportionally elected governing body would rectify the deficiencies of the plurality system, in which a relative majority imposes its will on smaller, non-represented minority groups. “Injustice and violation of principle,” Mill asserted, “are not less flagrant because those who suffer by them are a minority.”5
Bagehot’s counterclaims were published a few years later, in The English Constitution. Bagehot argued that PR would see the election of “party men mainly.” Those crowning them “would look not for independence, but for subservience.”6 Eventually, parliament would come to comprise “party politicians selected by a party committee and pledged to party violence.”7 Worse yet, a proportional system-or “the voluntary plan,” as he called it-“is inconsistent with the extrinsic independence as well as with the inherent moderation of a parliament-two of the conditions which, as we have seen, are essential to the bare possibility of parliamentary government.”8
The debate remained largely theoretical, as England, on which it focused, would not experiment with PR. However, the debate over PR was lent renewed relevance in the twentieth century, after a major power experimented with one of its purest variations. That power was Weimar Germany.
The Weimar Republic’s unique Electoral Law of April 27, 1920, later enshrined in Article 22 of its constitution, was passed against a backdrop of national defeat and social uncertainty. Though debated, it was ratified with relatively little public interest. At a time when luminaries such as Max Weber and Thomas Mann were compelled to preach such basic democratic notions as the merits of politics as a vocation and the possibility of patriotism without monarchy, the German public was not ready for a debate over the mechanics of democracy.9 Some, however, did caution that Weimar’s choice of an extreme proportional system would prove fateful.
The Weimar electoral system divided Germany into thirty-five regions in which votes were cast for lists of candidates fielded by the national parties.10 With the German population at 62.4 million, and electoral districts averaging 1.7 million inhabitants, a party needed to receive either 60,000 votes per district or 60,000 surplus votes garnered from several contiguous regions in order to enter the Reichstag. Then, further seats could be obtained with only 30,000 surplus votes collected from anywhere in the republic. This system ensured that almost no votes were wasted, but it also set the threshold for election at 0.04 percent on average. This effectively guaranteed that almost any political party, however small, would be granted some form of representation, and thus political power, in the Weimar legislature.
The boldness of this political experiment and its eventual failure were the subject of a heated debate among political scientists. Of those who witnessed the Weimar Republic’s emergence and demise, PR’s leading and most perceptive opponent was Ferdinand A. Hermens.11 Quoting German social theorist Friedrich Naumann’s warning that PR would make stabilizing the fledgling Weimar Republic impossible, Hermens presented an insightful analysis of the PR system’s drawbacks: The radicalization of political parties, the deterioration of the political elite, the demise of parties’ internal democracy, the depletion of overall political vitality, the decline of political opportunity for young people, and, ultimately, the stagnation of the entire political system.

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