Israel’s snap election and the police investigations against high-ranking officials from the Yisrael Beitenu party are reminders of the instability and corruption of Israeli politics. Israel is admittedly not the only democracy that suffers from these two ills, but they have reached unprecedented proportions. Both are amplified by a voting system that encourages the proliferation of political parties and produces politicians who are not answerable to their voters.
Israel’s voting system was not the outcome of an in-depth constitutional debate; rather, it was hastily adopted in the midst of war. Israel never had the equivalent of America’s Federalist or of France’s National Convention. In October 1948, during the War of Independence, the chairman of Israel’s election committee, David Bar-Rav-Hai, wrote that the need to hold elections within a short period of time made it impossible to design voting districts. Therefore, because of a lack of time, it was decided to hold the first elections for Israel’s Knesset without districts (the whole country was one district for the purpose of elections), and with proportional representation.
This is how elections were held in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine). Proportional representation without districts made sense at the time because the Jewish population was scarce and spread out in a land where Jews were not sovereign. What was appropriate for a small community under foreign rule, however, was no longer adequate for a sovereign country with a growing population.
Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was fully aware of the inappropriateness of proportional representation and absence of electoral districts. One of his first acts as prime minister was to try and pass a cabinet decision on district elections, as well as the replacement of proportional representation with majority voting. Proportional representation allocates power among political parties according to the percentage of overall votes they receive. Under the majority voting system, by contrast, voters cast ballots for candidates running in districts, and the candidate who receives the most votes is declared the winner (this system is also known as the “first past the post” or “winner takes all”). While proportional voting represents the public’s collective will with maximum accuracy, majority voting ensures political stability thanks to decisive outcomes.
Historically, the effects of proportional representation have been disastrous. France’s Third Republic introduced proportional representation after 1919. The result was a nearly comic political instability and government paralysis. Under the Fourth French Republic (1946-1958), the average lifespan of a government was of six months – because of proportional representation. In Germany, proportional representation brought the Weimar Republic to its knees and the Nazis to power.
Ben-Gurion was aware of this. Yet, Israel’s first elections had already taken place, producing small and middle-size parties that refused to switch to a system that would inevitably have wiped them. The rest is history.
Like everywhere else, proportional representation in Israel has produced political instability and extortion. Until the 1980s, however, both Likud on the right and Labor on the left were large enough to build more-or-less functional coalitions around them. This is no longer the case. Interest groups and social categories have created a plethora of small parties, realizing how efficient a tool those parties are to extort governments. Moreover, TV stars-turned-politicians no longer join grand old parties: they want to run on their own. As a result, Israel only has small and middle-size parties. The country has become, in effect, ungovernable.
This system also nurtures corruption because, in the absence of district elections, politicians are only answerable to their parties and not to voters. In Israel, politicians are either selected by their party’s boss (such as Avigdor Lieberman), or by their party’s members (which means, in effect, by interest groups that sign up thousands of phony party members for the sole purpose of advancing economic and other interests). Politicians elected in districts have to deliver; those elected by parties have to please.
The current government raised the electoral threshold from 2% to a bizarre 3.25%, but this reform will only make matters worse because it will eliminate small parties and, therefore, increase the extortion power of middle-size ones.
Israel is in dire need of electoral reform, but such reform is as unlikely today as it was under Ben-Gurion. In France, political reform happened thanks to a combination of national disaster (the collapse of June 1940 and the military rebellion of May 1958) and of a great leader (Charles de Gaulle). Alas, in Israel there are more potential disasters than great leaders in sight.