Go beyond electoral reform
Naomi Chazan
Published March 4th 2004 in Jerusalem Post

Much earlier than anticipated, talk of elections is in the air. As usual,
insistent calls for political reform accompany the prospect of a return to
the ballot box in Israel. Almost all such discussions focus myopically on
changing the electoral system. Dealing only with how politicians are
elected, however, without addressing broader issues of government
restructuring, can have a detrimental effect on Israel's already fragile
political institutions.

It is high time that those concerned with fortifying Israel's democracy
realize that political redesign is not a piecemeal undertaking. It is a
package deal involving not only alterations in the electoral system but
also shifts in the relationships between the various branches of government and in the rules of the political game.

Tampering with electoral reform, however tempting, should not be equated with what Israel truly needs - a broad, coordinated revamping of the system in its entirety.

As a Jerusalem Post editorial ("Beyond the Threshold," Feb. 29) noted
correctly earlier this week, the easiest way to engage in political reform
without changing anything is to raise the threshold from the present 1.5
percent (probably to 2% in the next elections). Fiddling with this minimum is an artificial device that at best might reduce the number of political parties in the Knesset.

All small factions - and not just the Arab parties - oppose it. Such a
cosmetic move simply does not go to the heart of the problems of governance that continue to plague the system.

Predictably, most advocates of reform - the editors of the Jerusalem Post included - lay the blame for Israel's governmental malaise on the country's extreme proportional representation system. As in the past, they offer a shift to a majoritarian (first past the poll) alternative as a panacea for chronic political ills.

The assumptions underlying such proposals are misleading, if not entirely
fallacious. First, they present majoritarian elections as the norm in the
democratic world and proportional ones as deviations. This is palpably
untrue: the vast majority of stable democracies today boast proportional
representation systems.

Second, they presume that Israel's elected officials do not mirror their
constituencies. But Israel's parliament is, in terms of its sociological
profile, probably the most representative of all working national
assemblies in the world. Confusing societal representation with the
capacity of individual legislators to represent the public interest is, to
put it mildly, unhelpful.

THIRD, PROPONENTS of a partial - if not a complete - shift to majoritarian elections misdiagnose the problem inherent in candidate selection techniques. Both Labor and Likud have provided for geographic quotas on their lists. Those selected on a regional basis have usually not measured up to the standard of their counterparts elected on the national slate. Geographic representation alone, unaccompanied by a drastic overhaul of the candidate selection process, solves nothing.

Finally, these self-styled reformists run the risk of falling into the
reductionist trap they so convincingly debunk. Content to tinker with
electoral reform, they ignore the institutional and behavioral aspects of
Israel's endemic problems of accountability, legitimacy, and efficiency.
Any attempt to deal with these issues necessitates a much more
multi-layered strategy than that offered by simplistic proposals for
electoral reform.

The initial phase of a deeper political transformation requires a decision
regarding the essential organization of Israel's government: Is the country
going to continue as a parliamentary democracy, or is it going to adopt a
presidential system? Given the destructive experience with the
semi-presidential direct election of the prime minister, it is clear that a
move away from a parliamentary system is inadvisable.

Therefore, the question of improving accountability becomes crucial. This
involves three parallel measures. Structurally, serious institutional reform is necessary. This means streamlining the ungainly bureaucracy, instituting judicial review, and considering changes in either the size of the Knesset (impossibly small for its tasks) or in its structure (moving from a unicameral to a bicameral assembly). Normatively, basic values of equality, tolerance, and pluralism must be constitutionally entrenched and
practically implemented. On this basis, a more explicit set of checks and
balances would be put in place.

Electorally, the proportional representation system has to be modified to
inject a greater dependence of elected officials on their voters. This can
best be achieved by the decentralization and reorganization of the present system. Geographic representation can be secured in multi-member districts selected on a proportional basis. Individual accountability can be augmented by allowing for personal preferences on the ballot (as is customary in most countries in Western Europe). Such steps are likely to enhance legitimacy as well.

Israelis need to take a critical look at the functioning of their government. This challenge is broader and far more intricate than electoral reformists would have us believe. Surrendering, once again, to partial electoral changes can have even more severe consequences than in the past. Any new attempt to improve governance should take into account structural,
institutional, behavioral, and normative facets of this task. It should also recognize the highly professional character of political change.

With these caveats in mind, Israel can get its political reform right this time.

The writer, a former Meretz MK, is a professor of political science at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem.