Sunday, December 23, 2012

Time for electoral reform

At first glance, electoral and governmental reform may not sound like the sexiest topic around, but on deeper reflection, it is one of the most pressing concerns facing Israel at this time.

When it boils down to it, every significant policy decision affecting the citizens of Israel — whether it is the conflict with the Palestinians or domestic socio-economic issues — is made in the Knesset, the heart and soul of Israel’s democracy. 

At the outset, we must be clear: Israel has one of the most vibrant and flourishing democracies in the world. In one month we will go to the polls to freely elect a new government, with a plethora of candidates from every political persuasion and without fear or intimidation. Our neighbors from across the Arab Middle East are fighting, and dying, for this very same right.

Yet for all its virtues, Israel’s electoral and governmental system is also horribly dysfunctional and a prime reason for the political paralysis we find ourselves in all too often.

Knesset elections, for example, are supposed to be held every four years. However, since the founding of the state, we have replaced our government, on average, every two years. The rotation time for some cabinet ministers, especially defense, foreign affairs and education, is even worse, evoking a game of musical chairs.

Israel’s electoral system, which is based on nationwide proportional representation, also has one of the lowest electoral thresholds in the world, at 2 percent. The average for major democracies is 4-5%. As a result, smaller single-issue parties, including (but not limited to) the ultra-Orthodox, wield a disproportionate amount of power, holding the majority of the country to ransom. Amendment of the Tal Law (which exempted the ultra-Orthodox from mandatory military service) is perhaps the biggest casualty of this policy.
The low electoral threshold is also a major reason why, since the founding of the state, the power of every Israeli government has been dependent on assembling, and maintaining, fragile coalitions. With the shadow of elections always lurking, it is incredibly difficult to formulate and implement effective long-term policies when the main priority is keeping your coalition together.
In the current government, we also have the absurd situation where the key portfolios of prime minister, defense minister, foreign affairs minister and interior minister are all held by members of different parties. This is a recipe for disaster. When senior members of the cabinet make public statements, they often contradict the official government position. This is nowhere more destructive than on matters relating to national security.
But a host of other root causes also go to the heart of the systematic deficiencies with our electoral and governmental system, including:
— A lack of accountability, with individual Knesset members elected based on their position on a party list and not directly by the constituents.
— Insufficient separation of powers between the various government branches, which results in a lack of checks and balances and the absurdity of having MKs as part of the very legislature tasked with overseeing their own performance.
— Cabinet ministers appointed on the basis of back-room coalition deals, instead of on their skills and expertise in the field.
There are many other examples, far too many to count.
I don’t propose at this stage to offer a solution or alternative. Suffice to say, there are elements of both the current American and the British Westminster systems of government that are applicable and should be considered for Israel.
Simply put, we need a more stable system of government that is more accountable and representative and that has sufficient checks and balances, while remaining free, open and robust.
What is necessary at this critical juncture is not to propose a specific alternative but to engage in a nationwide grassroots campaign to highlight the importance of change and raise our politicians’ awareness of the issue.
Of all the major political parties, only Yisrael Beytenu has consistently made electoral reform a priority issue, repeatedly calling on the other major parties to put their egos aside and unite for the national good to reform the electoral system. Until now that call has fallen on deaf ears, but it was one of the main reasons behind Yisrael Beytenu's and Likud's decision to run on a joint ticket in the coming elections.
Israel’s current system of government may have been appropriate in 1948, when the state was founded. But it is long past its use-by date.
Yes, we continue to produce stunning achievements, but this is despite and not because of the current system, which is only hampering further growth, development and good governance.
With Iran and a host of national security threats looming ever more strongly on the horizon and increasing demand for social and economic change at home, the time for electoral reform is now.
Arsen Ostrovsky is an international human rights lawyer and freelance journalist. He has also previously practiced constitutional law in Australia.

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