Good words for Israeli electoral system
We have a stable system in a stable country - no easy feat

By Einat Wilf
Published May 29th 2005 in Ynetnews
The Israeli electoral system, based on a fairly extreme proportional representation system to a single house of parliament - the Knesset, from which a government is formed based on coalition agreements - is much maligned, and subject to much bashing.

There are few people in Israel who do not think that a change in the electoral system will rid us of everything we hate about our politics.
Just last week yet another poll was published that indicated that nearly 70 percent of Israelis would like to see a change of our electoral system.

Changing the electoral system is particularly attractive to engineers with little patience for people. Rather than trying to confront a multitude of problems, they dream of engineering a system that will solve all the problems at once. So many of the brightest minds in the country and caring philanthropists are mobilized to the sacred cause of transforming our electoral system. 

In fact, such mobilization once helped tap into the popular disgust with politics, and for three short elections, subjected us to a system of direct elections for the prime minister’s office.

We're not alone

We yearn for America and envy its political system. We admire its stability, regularity. Instinctively, we think that almost every OECD country has a better electoral system than our own. It was, therefore, amusing to observe in many of my recent meetings with officials of other countries to realize how many of them are convinced that the political system in their country is a mess.

Officials from countries to which we like to compare ourselves complain of a system that results in political ineffectiveness, short-sightedness, constant bickering and infighting, corruption, and politicians who think only about their narrow political interests rather than the common good. 

Sound familiar? It’s nice to realize that we’re not alone.

So perhaps a few good words are in order. Let’s examine some of the achievements of Israel’s much maligned electoral system:
Israel has been a functioning, stable, constant democracy for all 57 years of its existence. It has never experienced anything close to a constitutional crisis. It has never experienced civil war, a military coup, or a revolution, or any attempt at them. There was never any need for a military intervention to protect the election results, election results were never contested, and democratic processes were never suspended.
That in itself is quite an achievement. There are very few countries that share this achievement - 21 to be precise (The number is the same when counting all countries that were constantly democratic since 1948 and when counting all countries constantly democratic and stable since their independence, although the countries listed under each category are different.). 

Now let’s consider the conditions under which these achievements were made:

  • An immigrant nation, made up of immigrants, almost all of whom either never experienced democracy, or experienced it in its terrible failure; a country that absorbed immigration in remarkable proportions.
  • A country that was forged in war, had to fight a major war every decade against the armies of countries dedicated to annihilating the country, experienced nearly 10 cumulative years of wars of attrition, and lived through terrorist attacks against its citizens in Israel and abroad, for all of its existence.
  • A country that is home to a large minority of citizens, who unlike ethnic and immigrant minorities around the world, belong culturally and historically to the nations that refused to accept its existence, and very premise for existence as a homeland for the Jewish people.
  • A country that experienced deep ideological debates that even led to the murder of its leader. And all this time, sustaining almost uninterrupted economic growth, that has lead it today to becoming on of the richest 30 countries in the world (of 192) in income per capita.
Unintended consequences

The achievements alone place Israel in the select company of 21 countries. Considering the conditions under which these achievements were made, Israel is in a category all of its own. So just for the sake of logic - it just may be that Israel has the best electoral system in the world. This might just be an objective statement.

When I studied the American electoral system in college our professor taught us how the planners of the few electoral reforms in the American system were all subject to the “law of unintended consequences.” 

For example, the primaries system was designed to rid the parties of the back-room dealings that were perceived as corrupt. It succeeded in doing so, for the price of making presidential elections so prohibitively expensive that they gave way to different and no less worrisome distortions to the system.

Our very own planners, who introduced the system of direct elections to prime minister, fell into that trap. A system that was to introduce stability proved even more fractious than the existing one. It appears that social engineers fail to anticipate the response of the people who are living under the new system.

So perhaps a little modesty is in order. The Israeli electoral system has proved itself remarkably stable and resilient in the face of unparalleled challenges. It has given voice to many groups in the country, long before other sectors did. It was even able to withstand the onslaught of social engineers who thought they could do better.

There is much that needs fixing in Israel. The electoral system is probably not one of these things.