January 16, 2013
The problem with Israel’s electoral system
Israel’s electoral system is the root cause of the disheartening polarization and superficiality on display in Israel’s current election season. Many wrongly point to the egos of our politicians as the underlying reason. In reality, powerful constitutional disincentives for collaboration shape our politics.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, whereby voters elect parties to serve in the 120-seat Knesset, based on proportional representation. Thus, a party that receives 10 percent of the votes would hold 12 seats. After elections, parties must establish a coalition of a minimum of 61 MKs, the head of which becomes the prime minister.
This system encourages divisiveness among the public. The 34 parties that will stand for election next week distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious versus secular, poor versus rich, Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, periphery against center, hawks against doves, Jews against Arabs. On the right, the joint list of the Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu is losing power to smaller sectoral parties such as Shas and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. On the left, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Shaul Mofaz — of Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima, respectively — failed to join forces in spite of evident similarities in their vision.
Meanwhile, after the elections, some of these parties inevitably will make up the next government, and many of them will repeatedly join forces on various legislative initiatives. Hence, while the public remains divided, the politicians collaborate.
A reversal of this pattern could be readily available through a simple amendment establishing as prime minister the head of the party that gets the highest number of votes. This would encourage politicians to join forces in inclusive political frameworks and broad sectors of the population to support two ruling Zionist parties on the right and on the left. It would also incentivize politicians to be centrist and pragmatic.
I hope that such a change will be the legacy of the coming Knesset. There will be a large parliamentary block that would support such a reform, and powerful forces are gearing up with the civil society as well. The position of the likely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party will be key, as in the current election campaign they have been the primary victim of the present electoral system.
Finally, a thought on the U.S. political system: The polarization of American politics and the deadlock in Washington may also result from a crisis in its electoral system. Decades of gerrymandering have turned most electoral districts into either red or blue, breeding ideological politicians who cater to their ideological bases and not pragmatically to the center. The United States thrived when it was purple. It is muddling through when it is red or blue. Go purple.
A final note: My personal perspective on these issues dates back to 1999: My service in the Bureau of the Prime Minister between 1999 and 2001 exposed me to the structural failure of Israeli governance. After a year at Harvard’s Kennedy School (class of 2002), I launched Re’ut to generate substantive impact, as well as an initiative named Yesodot (Foundations) to reform Israeli governance, which was active until 2004. I have served the cause of electoral reform ever since and am proud that the core logic of Yesodot is now commonly accepted by all other groups working toward this end.
Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Re’ut Institute in Tel Aviv.