Was return to single ballot a mistake?

By Uzi Benziman
Published January 29th 2003 in Ha'aretz

Yesterday's vote shows, among other things, that the return to the single ballot system has not met expectations: Contrary to the predictions of the instigators of the current electoral system, the 16th Knesset has failed to create two large parties, equal in power; it has not significantly cut the number of factions and it has not strengthened the ruling ability of the elected government.

Yesterday's vote shows us that merely changing the electoral system - a purely technical move - is not enough to cure Israeli democracy of its ills. The political difficulties reflected in the frequent change of government and the absence of a political center of gravity capable of leading the people to a definitive decision stem from the depth of the Israeli experience, and in order to overcome them, there is a need for an internal healing process that will consolidate the rifts and unite the people around a common denominator.

A perfect electoral system does not exist and every democratic state deliberates on that issue, once in a while adapting its electoral procedures to the reality emerging within its society and the difficulties that its existing electoral system arouses.

In praise of the Israeli electoral system one can say that it has developed an animated and ardent democracy. The proportional representation system that Israel has employed since the foundation of the state remained in place even after the inception of direct prime ministerial elections in 1996. Although there have been occasional calls to change the proportional representation system to a majority electoral system, in which the winner takes all, they never took off: Not everything that suits a well-established, genteel democracy, such as Great Britain, or a nation that sanctifies patriotism, such as the United States, is applicable in Israel. In this young and emerging nation, supreme value has been given to maximum representation of all sectors of society - at the expense of stability.

The State of Israel wakes today to a political and parliamentary imbroglio no less grave than previous ones, perhaps more so. The Likud may have become the largest party, but it still lacks sufficient parliamentary power to exercise its will. Labor has shrunk to a medium-sized party that is not able to threaten the Likud regime and is equal more or less in strength to Shinui. Labor and Likud's satellite parties remain equal in their parliamentary weight to the previous Knesset. Shinui has greatly increasede its strength on the previous Knesset, but isn't strong enough to act as a counterweight to Likud.

All this doesn't mean that the return to a single ballot was necessarily a mistake; changes of that nature require time until they are fulfilled. One can also see Shinui and Labor as being politically close; joining them together would create a parliamentary bloc equal in strength to Likud and thus the old/new election system could be said to justify itself.

The attempt to improve the tools used by Israeli democracy to elect its representatives will continue, but are no substitute for the deep changes needed to bring it to agreement on its supreme national interests. The dispute over the future of the territories is the principle divide splitting Israeli society, and without the scales tipping on this issue on the basis of an internal reconciliation, the political system is doomed to instability.

The problem is that in order to achieve a definitive outcome there is a need for a national leadership with a strong public standing. The chances of such a leadership emerging from the ballot box is conditioned, in no small measure, on the electoral system. This Catch 22 was illustrated last night in a frustrating and depressing manner.