By Fred W. Riggs
A Note Prepared for the Committee on Viable Constitutionalism (COVICO)
Israel's constitutional system mandates an extreme example of Proportional Representation, showing how it can aggravate cleavages within a polity: stressing representativeness in the interest of democracy it undermines the ability of its government to be effective. The Israelis have themselves been concerned about this problem and thought they could overcome it by electing their prime minister instead of having the choice made in the Knesset. I suspect that this constitutional change made the problem even worse because it addressed the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem. It's like using an ice pack to deal with a fever caused by malaria, rather than finding the mosquito-borne parasite that causes the fever. Let me explain, using some information about the Israeli system available at Elections in Israel posted by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
National: The entire country constitutes a single electoral constituency.
Proportional: The 120 Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party's percentage of the total national vote. However, the minimum required for a party to win a Knesset seat is 1.5% of the total votes cast.
Note: In the past, the task of forming a government and heading it as prime minister was assigned by the president to the Knesset Member considered to have the best chance of forming a viable coalition government in light of the Knesset election results. This resulted in a situation which accorded undue influence to small factions which, in return for their support of the coalition, made demands inconsistent with their relative size. In order to prevent this, in 1992 the Knesset enacted legislation providing for the direct election of prime minister.
The new version of the Basic Law: The Government entered into effect with the 1996 elections, and, together with relevant amendments to the Basic Law: The Knesset and the Knesset Election Law, inaugurated a new electoral system in Israel. For the first time, two separate ballots were cast, simultaneously: one for the political party chosen by the voter to represent him/her in the Knesset, and the other for prime minister.
... The different parties select their candidate list by various methods, whether primaries (among registered party members) or selection by a party committee or other body.
I believe the results of this system are inherently fragmenting. In most other countries with muilti-member districts there are many districts. That limits the number of parties that can be represented. In Israel, however, because the whole country is a single electoral district, it is possible for a scattered minority with 1.5% of the population to elect a representative. Having many small parties in a legislature increases the obstacles to agreement. The Likud cabinet included members of 8, mostly orthodox, small parties. 15 opposition parties were in the Knesset, including Labor.
As a result of the May 1999 elections, 15 parties now have seats in the Knesset, and 18 parties that ran candidates have no seats. Of the 120 members in the Knesset, Labor (One Israel) has 26 seats (with 20% of the vote) and Likud has 19 (with 14% of the vote). Neither of the major parties can govern without support from a congeries of small parties or in a coalition with its main opponent. But even such a coalition would require some small party allies! We have yet to see how many parties will be represented in the new cabinet of Ehud Barak. His 56% win in a two-candidate race by no means gives him a majority in the Knesset. He must build it by creating a precarious coalition.
Difficulties caused by the proliferation of parties in the Israeli system are greatly aggravated by electoral rules that weaken party discipline and inhibit cooperation between parties.
Party leaders have minimal control over their own Knesset members because they use primaries elect nominees, although the constitution permits party leaders to make the selection. The effect can understood by looking at how primaries work in the American system. The candidate nominated for President is not chosen by the party to be represented, but by voters in the primaries who make the choices -- the party conventions no longer make the decision as they used to do -- instead, they merely ratify the primary results..
Similarly, in Israel, party members vote directly for candidates who are then rank-ordered on a list according to the number of votes they receive from rank-and-file members. Since the most popular members of each party are likely to be the individuals who most forcefully push its agenda and ideology, the system leads not only to party indiscipline in the Knesset (abnormal in parliamentary regimes where party leaders usually choose their candidates), but it also assures the election of activists rather than compromisers.
The alternative "list" system described by Abdo Baaklini, on the basis of Lebanese experience, requires candidates selected by party leaders to secure support also from other parties in order to be elected. This method not only enables parties to impose discipline on their MPs, but also produces legislators more willing to support compromises with other parties. The Israeli system, by contrast, assures the election of activists likely to be uncompromising, and also likely to be undisciplined party members. Not surprisingly, such an assembly had difficulty reaching agreement on a Prime Minister and Cabinet. Superimposing a popularly elected Prime Minister could not solve this problem because any cabinet selected by the PM would still be composed of fractious party members unlikely to reach compromise agreements and also unable to command support from their own party members.
Under these circumstances, the need to have a "strong man" as PM hinges both on the dynamics of a popular (rather than parliamentary) election, and on the importance of having a leader able to dominate the cabinet as well as the parliament. A leader unable to master this headstrong set of committed activists will be vulnerable to strong attack and, lacking a fixed term of office, to calls for new and very heated elections. In most parliamentary systems, the possibility of changing governments by a parliamentary vote generates incentives for cabinet members in a coalition of parties to cooperate and for parties to support rules that enhance party discipline. They know that even a small storm could cause them to lose their posts.
Having an elected PM, it seems to me, is a formula for disaster because, by raising the threshold for provoking a cabinet crisis it permits tensions to build to extreme levels before the dam breaks and a new popular election for the PM becomes necessary. It does so because members know their resistance to agreements will not soon provoke a crisis, and they also need to be uncompromising in order to maintain support by their own party's members.
In countries not so strongly committed to democratic rule as Israel, this formula would surely lead to autocracy as a strong man, backed by military force, imposes his will.
Representative governments need not only to reflect public interests and needs, but also to be able to govern. A highly responsive democracy that cannot make and carry out tough but necessary policy choices courts autocracy or anarchy. It strikes me that the Israelis have bent over backwards to be democratic without paying much attention to the requisites of effective governance. Viable constitutional democracy, in my view, requires a regime based on some kind of optimal trade-off between responsiveness and effectiveness. The challenge of constitutional design is to balance these two contrary values.
All of these problems are compounded by confessional differences which produce a permanent minority of Arab Muslims, some 17% of the population -- about one million in a total population of less than six million. The Arab vote has been fragmented but, in the last election (1996), several Arab groups combined to form a United Arab List which was able to win 4 seats in a unicameral legislature with 120 members -- i.e. 3%, far less than its popular ratio. In the recent May 1999 elections, the UAL won 5 seats with 3.4% of the votes. Before the creation of the UAL, the Arab vote was fragmented between several parties. The largest of them, the Arab Democratic Party, won 1 seat in 1988 and 2 in 1992.
I doubt that any Arab was ever seated on the Cabinet, but I may be wrong. The Arab Movement for Change, which supports the Palestinian cause, has not won any Knesset seats. Perhaps Israel's "permanent minority" of Arab Muslims is ambivalent about seeking to improve its status within Israel or pushing, instead, for the Palestinian cause -- the Islamic Movement in Israel holds that its members seek acceptance as "loyal Israeli citizens".
If Israel were a secular democracy based on the separation of church and state, this could be a feasible goal. In fact, however, Israel defines itself as a Jewish homeland, which makes all gentiles a permanent minority. An amendment to its basic law provides that no party's list will be accepted in elections to the Knesset if "expressly or by implication" it negates:
(1)... the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People; or
(2)... the democratic character of the State.
This rule poses serious problems for citizens who are not Jews, and it rasies quesions about the meaning of "democracy." Does not democracy involve not only majority rule but protection of minorities? Two other states that have recently come to grips with this problem are South Africa and Norther Ireland where recent agreements have been reached on the basis of what they call sufficient consensus. It permits the accommodation of permanent minorities whose consent is required, However, may not be possible to reach such agreements within Israel until its external relations with Palestinian non-citizens have somehow been settled. This question raises broad issues about the role of religion (and race and ethnicity) in modern states. Since I have written about this elsewhere, I shall not say more about the subject here -- see Nationalism and Constitutionalism for background analysis or, more specifically , Electoral Systems. In this 1996 essay, I argued that proportional representation usefully gives ethnic minorities a political voice, but the Israeli case suggests some limitations to this generalization. FWR
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Elections in Israel
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Updated: 27 May 1999
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