A Threat to Democracy

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In this article, originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth, IDI Former President and Founder Dr. Arye Carmon argues that Israel must say an emphatic "no" to the presidential regime and a resounding "yes" to reinforcing parliamentary democracy in Israel.

For many weeks the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has been working on a constitution for the State of Israel. Part of this committee is a small minority attempting to establish within the constitution, and our lives, a presidential administration. The Committee is presently preparing a discussion on this matter. Only recently did we rid ourselves of the evil threat to democracy posed by the direct election of the Prime Minister. The proposal for a presidential administration is nothing more than the same idea presented in a different guise. There is much in the Israeli parliamentary system of government that needs to be improved and made more efficient, especially after having experienced the unnecessary trauma of voting by means of two ballots, but the proposal to introduce a presidential regime is nothing short of a genuine threat to democracy.

Parliamentary democracy is built on agreement, compromise and the constant need for consensus. In a divided society such as ours, only by strengthening these principles can we reduce the real threat to internal unity: the threat of disintegration. It is no coincidence that research demonstrates that only 32 out of 80 democracies around the world are considered to be stable, and only two of them are presidential systems. All the others have parliamentary systems. Nor is it coincidence that the dominant trend throughout the democratic world is a transition from presidential rule to parliamentary rule.

There are those (for example, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak) who claim that the prime minister cannot cope with the burden of serious problems on the national agenda unless he has the tools and the authority that come from direct election. But the fact is that Barak himself, in spite of his being elected directly and with a large majority, was unable to achieve the governmental stability that would have allowed him to make decisions while the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (which relies on a large party and a small coalition), appears to be safe until the end of its term of office, provided he doesn't become embroiled with criminal affairs. Implementable improvements in the election process and in defining the authority of the Israeli parliament (for example, raising the qualifying threshold or introducing regional representation) are likely to reinforce this stability even further and enable the prime minister to make the "critical decisions."

Parliamentary democracy is a mediated democracy, rooted in gradual progress and moderation, and for a multi-faceted society such as ours it is the only way to guarantee the broadest possible representation along with a political culture built on restraint. The presidential method is direct democracy, built by its very nature on winners and losers, and the non-representation of the losers. This method intensifies polarization, destroys the parties as the backbones of democracy and reinforces the adversarial style, with all this implies.

Therefore, we must say an emphatic "no" to the presidential regime and a resounding "yes" to reinforcing parliamentarianism in Israel.

Dr. Arye Carmon is Former President and Founder of the Israel Democracy Institute.

This article was published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on August 4, 2003.