Sunday 14 September 2008

Jobs for the Boys

Israel adopted the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system when it declared independence in 1948. This system was inherited from the pre-state political system of the "yishuv", the organisation of Jews living in Palestine during the period of the British Mandate. The essence of PR is that the representation in the elected assembly (in this case, the Knesset) is in direct proportion to the popular vote. So, if Party A wins 25% of the popular vote during the election, Party A will have 25% of the seats in the assembly.

There are certainly advantages to this type of electoral system. Professor Douglas J. Amy argues very strongly for a PR electoral system for the USA in his article "What is Proportional Representation and why do we need this Reform?". The main advantage that he cites is that minorities are afforded representation in the elected assembly in proportion to their minority status. He mentions both ethnic and racial minorities as well as women, who he feels are better represented under a PR system. Additionally, Amy mentions the fact that there is larger voter choice under a PR electoral system. All voters have the opportunity to vote for all parties standing in the election, and not only the candidates who happen to be standing in your voting constituency.

In Israel, however, it is clear to me that PR has not been successful. I believe that it has contributed to an environment where the elected representatives are not answerable to the people that have elected them. This is because of the primary system in which candidates are elected to party lists by paid-up members of their party. In principle, the candidates receiving the most votes in the party's primary get the highest places on the party's list. The higher the candidate's place on the list, the more likely the candidate is to be elected to the Knesset. Having said that, most parties reserve particular places for special groups of candidates. For example, a party may decide that it wishes to have a woman amongst its top ten candidates. If a woman is not elected in her own right to one of the top ten positions, the woman with the highest number of votes will automatically be promoted to the tenth position. The first two or three positions are usually reserved for the party's leaders to prevent them from having to suffer the indignity of fighting for votes in a primary. In general, it is more important for a candidate to gain a higher position on the list than it is for the candidate to ensure that his party gets a higher share of the national vote, although this is clearly also important. So candidates are more likely to pander to the party members who vote in the primary, than to the electorate at large who they really represent.

If I have the need to approach a member of the Knesset to represent a personal interest that I may have, who do I turn to? There is nobody who represents me and my interest despite the fact that my chosen party may be in power. If I am a voting party member, I can be sure of gaining the attention of any number of the members of the Knesset. But as an ordinary non-member of any party, I have no hope. This is where the constituency system is so much better. All citizens, party members and others, living in a certain geographic area are represented by an elected member whether you voted for him/her or not. This member is directly answerable to all residents in the constituency and relies upon them for re-election when the next election comes around. PR seems to lack this personal accountability.

In addition to the lack of accountability, PR also seems to contribute to attracting only a certain type of person to run for office. As an ordinary citizen, I would have no hope of gaining entry to one of the lists unless I have a long-standing relationship with a significant number of party members who I can rely to vote for me. There is no opportunity for me to stand as an independent who could be a solid representative for my consitituency and fight the election on the basis of local politics. Instead, PR forces all candidates to play a national political game which can often become dirty and even crooked. One only needs to cite the example of Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud Knesset member who was convicted of bribing party members to vote for her by entertaining them at a luxury hotel. She was the one who got caught, but there are no doubt others like her. All of this results in a certain type of person being attracted to offering him/herself for election, and frightens others off who may be excellent value as a representative. It leaves a strong feeling that the environment is one where there are only "jobs for the boys", and one where newcomers are not welcome and have little prospect of breaking in.

Amy's contention that minorities, and minority parties, have better representation has proven itself to be true in the Israeli example. This has, however, become exaggerated to the point where minority parties have way more power than their minority position justifies. There could be as many as twenty parties running in a general election. Any party achieving more than the threshold, currently just 2% of the national vote, will be guaranteed a seat. This contributes to the reality that Israel has never yet had an election result where one party has achieved an outright majority. Instead, the largest party may hold anything between 25% and 40% of the total seats on offer with the remaining seats being broadly distributed amongst smaller niche-interest parties. This requires a coalition to be constructed in order to form a government. In the process of forming a coalition, the minority parties are able to extract high value from the leading party in exchange for joining the coalition and supporting the government. The value that the minority parties are able to derive is usually significantly beyond what their minority position justifies. They have become experts at this process, and would be happy to sell out to either a left or a right-wing government as long as their demands are met. In addition, the smaller parties are known to change their stance mid-term and begin to demand additional value from the government. Usually, these demands are also accompanied by threats to leave the coalition if they are not met. Where the coalition is made up of a number of such minority parties, the leading party unfortunately spends more time keeping the coalition together than running the country, and this inevitably contributes to a very unstable system of government.

Whilst arguing persuasively for a PR system in the USA, Amy is fair enough to mention the fact that PR does not work particularly well in Israel and Italy. He attributes the PR problems in both these countries to thresholds that are too low. He uses Germany as an example of a country that has successfully adopted PR. Here, the threshold is 5% of the national vote. If the 5% threshold had been applied in Israel during the 2006 election, it would have reduced the number of parties sitting in the Knesset from 12 to 7.

In addition, he suggests applying PR to smaller electoral districts rather than one large district as is the case in Israel. So, instead of having one district with 120 seats, the idea is to split the country into say 10 districts of 12 seats each. The 12 seats would be divided according to the PR vote in that district. I imagine that this could work, on condition that the candidates for each electoral district are selected by people from within the district. This would address the problem of accountability to the people who are being represented.

It sounds to me as if Professor Amy is really advocating a PR system that is a hybrid. Without acknowledging all the problems with the way in which PR is applied in Israel, he is suggesting a slightly mixed system that plugs many of its weaknesses. I believe that his suggestions are workable, and would represent significant progress if adopted in Israel.

The likelihood of this happening unfortunately seems very remote. The problem is that the people who are responsible for adopting and agreeing these changes, are also the ones that are potentially threatened by them. Which of the "boys" are likely to amend a system that guarantees "jobs for the boys"? It seems that it is more than just the electoral system that needs changing!

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