Election Rules Matter

In any country having democratic elections, the elections are not the most important thing. They do not ensure that that country is a democracy. More significant is the relational bond between the electors and the elected.

Prof. Paul Eidelberg,

Paul Eidelberg
Paul Eidelberg
PR
New immigrants to Israel may find it difficult to understand Israel's political system. The truth is most native Israelis are in the same boat. This is why I wrote Jewish Statesmanship: Lest Israel Fall six years ago.

In any country having democratic elections, the elections are not the most important thing. They do not ensure that that country is a democracy. More significant is the relational bond between the electors and the elected. In other words, after the elections are over, will those who make the laws of the country be under public control? Will those seeking reelection have to account for their record in office? This depends very much on a country's parliamentary election rules.

Israel's parliamentary elections rules enable those elected to the Knesset to ignore the opinions and interests of their electors with impunity. The reason is this:

In Israel, the entire country constitutes a single electoral district, in which parties compete for Knesset seats on the basis of proportional representation. In other words, Israelis do not vote for individual candidates, but for a fixed, party-ranked list of candidates. Since parties in Israel are symbolized by a few letters on a ballot slip, most candidates on the party lists are unknown to the average voter. Various consequences follow.

First, candidates for the Knesset do not compete with each other as individuals in a particular district, as in almost every other country having democratic elections. Hence, the legislative performance and previous campaign promises of an incumbent are not publicly exposed by a rival candidate. Second, since an MK is not accountable to the voters in a constituency election, he can readily ignore their opinions and interests.

What makes this state of affairs all the more intolerable is Israel's perilous situation in the Middle East. Israeli politicians may be no worse than others, but Israel's political institutions magnify their vices. The consequence is lack of public confidence in Israel's ruling elites, something a besieged country can ill afford.

There are other pernicious consequences. Although some parties have primaries, the party leaders can wield very much influence over, and in many instances determine, the order of candidates on the party lists. The result is anything but democratic. Because the Knesset's members owe their position and perks to their parties and not to the votes of constituents, they cannot function as judges of their government's policies, as do legislators in all democratic countries.

Now, let me fast forward to the January 2003 national election, whose paramount issue was Labor's policy of unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza. The voters overwhelmingly rejected that policy by giving the Likud 38 seats, and Labor, only 19.

Nevertheless, Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon adopted Labor's policy and, by means of political bribery, induced 22 Likud MKs to support unilateral "disengagement" by voting for the Evacuation Law. Hardly any of those Likud MKs would have done so had they been individually elected by, and accountable to, the voters - the practice of all genuine democracies, many of which are smaller in size and population than Israel.

Now, ponder the consequences. Hamas - a proxy of Iran - gained control of the Palestinian Authority. Kassam missiles rained on S'derot and some hit Ashkelon, without effective retaliation by the IDF. The capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas terrorists set the stage for the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah terrorists, which precipitated Israel's debacle in Lebanon.

Election rules matter.

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