Sunday 13 July 2008

Representation in Democracy (A New Electoral System Removes Major Existential Threats)

A New Electoral System Removes Major Existential Threats
An Address to Limmud London on 13th July 2008

1) Israel looks to be facing existential dangers today. Of course as long as it maintains a strong army and as long as its solid alliance with America endures it will continue to have adequate deterrents. The question of course is for how long? This is not a rhetorical question. America’s self interests and public opinion may sway and our neighbours’ military capabilities, regular or guerrilla, may improve. The only alternative therefore is settling the borders and normalising the relations with the Arab countries, and the sooner the better as the cost will mount.

2) In the short term Hezbollah, Hamas and the surrounding Arab countries are not immediate dangers. But the wave of Anti-Semitism which is poisoning opinions against Israel outside and the social and political disintegration inside the country are the real threat in the long run. No wonder we find such incongruous voices spelling this obvious observation: Ex–Knesset Speaker Avrom Burg, Nobel Laureate Prof. Oman and most recently Ahmedi-Nejad.

3) Central to these real threat is the break-down of Israel’s political structure that renders its three arms of the state dysfunctional. The people are exasperated and an irresponsible media is revelling in feeding their frustration. It sounds almost blasphemous but it needs to be said : the Israeli Media is unwittingly assuming a dual role of the Forth Arm and the Fifth Column in Israel. The most important controlling cure is reforming the electoral system which Israel has failed to do for 60 years.

4) The political structure is vital in shaping any country and gelling together its society. And at the heart of this structure is the electoral system which connects the sovereign people with their government. Unfortunately Israel chose by default the wrong electoral system for its specific requirements in 1948 and despite repeated attempts did not succeed to change it since .

5) Total Representation “TR” is an electoral system which can be adopted to suit many countries or adapted to improve existing systems. The purpose of this essay is to explain what TR is and how it works; and then to analyse why it is vital for Israel to adopt TR soon in the context of stemming the existential threats which Israel will be more and more exposed to in the future.

6) What is TR?

  1. TR Total Representation is a new electoral system based on the premise that every single vote cast in an election has to end up with some representation in parliament, whether directly or indirectly.
  2. It avoids the most serious defect of the Constituency First-Past-the-Post System familiar to us here in England, under which votes cast for the successful candidate are represented in parliament, while all the rest of the votes i.e. those cast for the unsuccessful candidates are left unrepresented, though they may make up most of the total vote in some constituencies.
  3. The Proportional Representation System “PR”, as practiced in Israel on the other hand, does allow representation to all votes cast and gives them equal weight, but it encourages small political parties and splinter groups, resulting in weak coalition governments where factional rather than national interests take over. Its greatest deficiency, however, is the lack of a direct link between the members of the electorate and their individual representatives in parliament; unlike the Single Member Constituency System it transfers this link to the political parties.
  4. ‘TR’ Total Representation offers a solution by combining the positive elements of both systems, i.e. the dominant element of representation in Proportional Representation and the direct link with the voter of the Constituency First-Past-the-Post System.
  5. According to TR parliaments would have two classes of MPs who would be equal in every way save for the manner by which they were elected. One class would be the accountable Constituency MPs (CMPs) who would be elected by a simple majority on a constituency first-past-the-post basis, exactly as they are elected today in the UK. The other class, Party MPs (PMPs) would be elected by pooling all the votes cast for the unsuccessful candidates in all the constituencies and dividing them proportionally amongst all the Parties which fielded candidates in the same constituencies.

7) The advantages of TR are:

  1. Government stability balanced with adequate representation. Stability is essential for governments to govern effectively and carry out long term planning. True representation is essential to translate the will of the people to supervise governments through parliament.
  2. Built-in Legitimate Sovereign Opposition to counter the tyranny of the majority and guarantee gradual change, thus rendering society open and not closed to necessary adjustments as they arise.;
  3. A voice for the losers. This devise declares the death of “Arithmetical Democracy” where the 51 per cent winner takes all.

8) Let us see now how TR can benefit Israel. Our tribal waves of immigration are not gelling and are not cohesive yet. The inhabitants of the borders and peripheries are abandoned. The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. The Arab minorities are getting more radicalised by the day. The rich and the oligarchs are allied with the political establishments and the Media. The Seculars are in mortal conflict with the Religious. The Supreme Court has by default appropriated to itself legislative powers and Judges are asked to direct the Executive and even the military operations of the Army. Governments became unstable and their authority undermined. The Knesset, the voice of the people between elections is so weak and divided that it is no more taken seriously, in fact it is discredited.

9) TR is a systemic tool that can help alleviate if not solve some of these problems because the first thing it does is to strengthen the Knesset and give it the authority it needs to intervene effectively to solve these problems. As a direct result of TR this new authority will be derived from every citizen in every corner of the land.

10) Let us see how in practice it works on the ground: The introduction of TR will bring the Knesset nearer to the people through their locally chosen regional MKs. who will individually be held accountable. It strengthens its authority in the eyes of the public and makes it easier for it to back and sanction difficult decisions taken by a stable governments. It asserts the primacy of the Legislator in the eyes of the citizens over the recently overpowering Judiciary.

11) The cornerstone of TR is the single MK Constituency. In the case of Israel it is of paramount importance to draw during the process of election all the voters in that locality together and to push the candidates to assume central political positions away from extremism in order to attract all the voters. Multi member regions as advocated by some colleagues in the recent President’s Commission on Government would deepen the division of the local communities along immigrant, ethnical and religious lines. It replants the defects of the present PR system into the regions. It can bring about the Lebanonisation of Israel.

12) But the most important outcome of the introduction of TR Total Representation is to integrate and Israelise our minorities without infringing on their religious beliefs or ethnic aspirations. The process of canvassing under TR, especially but not exclusively, in mixed Jewish/Arab localities would help to interweave and enmesh them into Israel’s political and social institutions. It would prevent the emergence of an internal Hamas from amongst their extremists, which is a far more dangerous than external Hamas.

13) And in the same process TR can through its implementation bind together the “new Jewish tribes” of Israel into local rather than disparate immigrant communities thus hopefully slaying the ghosts of Ashkenazi / Mizrahi / Russian / Ethiopian etc. that the PR system galvanizes and reinforces.

14) And finally and most importantly TR stabilises the government, allows it to plan long term and gives it the authority to take painful decisions with regard to fixing the borders and normalising Israel’s relations with all its neighbours.

Aharon Nathan was a member of the President’s Commission on the Governance of Israel. He set up and headed the first Civil Administration in the Gaza Strip in 1956.

Aharon Nathan, 13th July 2008