Analysis: Israel must change its electoral system

By David Newman, February 19, 2009

There is only one certainty that has emerged from last week’s elections in Israel. We badly need serious electoral reform to allow a system which will enable the establishment of a government within days of the polls. It has to be a government which can rule the country for four years, until the next scheduled elections, and which can focus on the urgent issues of security, peace, education and welfare without spending most of its time in machinations aimed at keeping a slender majority together.

We attempted electoral reform in the 1990s, with direct election of the prime minister. But instead of achieving more stable governments, we ended up with an even greater fragmentation of the larger parties and an increase in the power of the smaller parties. People split their ballot rather than unifying their vote between the country’s leader and the party of their choice.

Immediately after the latest results, three of the four major party leaders — Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Avigdor Lieberman — all highlighted the need for serious electoral reform. Lieberman went as far as saying he would make it a condition for entering any coalition.

I teach electoral studies to Israeli students. We compare and contrast the British, American, Israeli and other systems. There is no optimal solution. Either you sacrifice proportionality for stability of government, as in the UK, or you sacrifice stability for true representation, as in Israel. Both countries require reform.

What we need is a system somewhere in the middle; a mixed electoral system, as is practiced today in countries such as Germany or Denmark. There, half of the parliament is elected from constituencies and the other half from a national list. Regional representation is maintained through the constituencies (something sorely lacking in Israel today) while proportionality is ensured through the “topping up” process from the national list. Smaller parties tend to get more seats from the national list than from constituencies, while the reverse is true for the larger parties. These countries elect a lot fewer than the 14 or more parties we have in Israel.

It is a possible way forward. Given the comments and statements of party leaders following our most recent election stalemate, this time we may finally be able to implement the changes which Israel’s political system so sorely needs.

Professor David Newman teaches in the Department of Politics and Government in Ben Gurion University.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010