Professor Paul Eidelberg,* writing for Israel National News, calls on Israelis to “stop worshipping the sacred cow of proportional representation in a single nationwide electoral district.”
Indeed, idolatry can have rather serious consequences. The core of Prof. Eidelberg’s criticism is hardly novel; in fact, as he notes, it goes all the way back to the state’s first Prime Minister:
Ben-Gurion saw that by making the country a single electoral district, political parties would have to compete for Knesset seats on the basis of proportional representation (PR); and that, given a low electoral threshold, an absurd profusion of parties would emerge that would: (1) fragment the Knesset; (2) splinter the cabinet into rival party leaders; (3) hinder the pursuit of coherent and resolute national policies; and (4) enable elected officials to ignore public opinion with impunity.
The claim that elected officials face no retribution for violating public opinion could be subjected to empirical testing, and probably refutation. However, that is not my intention here. Obviously, Israel’s party system is fragmented, its cabinets often comprise political opposites and can be unstable, and the closed lists mean that individual MKs have little direct accountability to voters.
The solutions Prof. Eidelberg proposes are not a move to a disproportional system such as FPTP, but rather the introduction of regional districting within a PR system. He specifically mentions MMP, two-tier list PR (as in Denmark and Sweden), and STV. However, would any of these systems overcome the core problems Prof. Eidelberg sees with the current system?
If we assume that either MMP or a two-tier list system would have national compensation, the degree of proportionality would be unchanged from the current system. It takes somewhat of a leap of faith to believe that either system would result in a reduction in the number of parties. In fact, I am aware of studies that have shown that even a pure FPTP system would not sgnificantly change the number of parties, because, while the seat allocation is carried out nationwide, the main parties in fact have distinct regional constituencies. (Labor is strong in Tel Aviv and Haifa, Likud and the religious parties have their base in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Arab parties in Nazareth, etc.)
Given the regionalized distirbution of party support within Israel, the use of either STV or any districted PR that was based on relatively small (and perhaps variably sized) multi-seat districts without nationwide compensation would result in disproportional allocation of political power–something Prof. Eidelberg indicates in the piece he does not wish to countenance.
Whatever criticisms one can make about the Israeli electoral system–and there are many–we should not lose sight of the fact that sometimes countries have chosen and maintained the electoral systems that are most compatible with the actual social and political divisions that democracy must somehow reconcile. I have read many pieces on electoral reform in Israel–Prof. Eidelberg’s worthwhile piece being merely the most recent–but I have yet to find one that convinced me that any fundamental electoral reform would produce a more manageable system for the country. MMP or two-tier PR–with national compensation in either case–might have the salutary effect of enhencing accountability of MKs to constituents, but it would probably have little effect on interparty fragmentation or intra-cabinet rivalries.
It is certainly a debate worth continuing, however.
* Eidelberg is a Professor at Bar Ilan University, and Founder and Director of The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy.
I have done some reading of his Foundation’s website, and I will say that I find his substantive political positions absolutely repugnant. (In fact, they are quite openly racist.) Nevertheless, the debate on the electoral system is a core issue of F&V, and I will leave it here; I ask any potential commentators to confine discussion to the electoral system alone.