The Upcoming Municipal Elections

An Interview with Dr. Arye Carmon

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To mark the upcoming elections in municipalities and local authorities, the IDI website met with IDI Former President and Founder Dr. Arye Carmon to discuss his views on the complex relationship between the government and the municipalities, an issue that was discussed extensively at the 2008 Caesarea Forum.

According to Dr. Carmon, there is a fundamental problem with Israel's municipal electoral process because municipalities have yet to be granted constitutional powers. Indeed, the relationship between the central government and the municipalities is still based on legislation that dates back to British rule. This is an issue that must be dealt with immediately—municipal powers must be constitutionally defined. The Israel Democracy Institute has already offered a solution to this problem within the framework of its Constitution by Consensus Project, which offers a proposal for a constitution that could be acceptable to all Israelis and that would solve the issues rising from the ambiguity surrounding the powers of the municipalities.

The current situation of Israeli municipalities can only be defined as an anomaly, with three challenging characteristics:

  1. The problematic relationship between municipalities and the central government: Although mayors are policy making, elected officials, they are not in direct contact with the policy making, elected officials of the central government and must, instead, deal with subordinate clerks. As a result of this awkward situation, cooperation between the two levels of government is very difficult.

  2. The direct vote: The municipal elections were altered in the 1970's in order to strengthen the status of the elected mayor by allowing voters to cast a double ballot, voting separately for the mayor and for the city council. In fact, this new system led to the proliferation of small parties just as it did when it was implemented in the national elections in the 1990's. The final result is actually the opposite of the original intention because the mayor must now contend with a fragmented city council, which often includes nearly as many parties as it does members. For this reason, the Israel Democracy Institute strongly opposes the establishment of a presidential regime in Israel, which would likewise thwart the Prime Minister's ability to rule properly.

    Although there is no reason to return to the original electoral system, IDI fellows, Prof. Avi Ben-Bassat and Dr. Momi Dahan, have recommended raising the threshold for parties in municipal elections to prevent very small parties from joining the city council. This would, in turn, reduce the number of parties and create a better framework for local governance.

  3. Public Corruption: The third consequence of the aberrant situation that characterizes municipalities and local authorities is the high level of corruption, which seems to be more common in the local sphere than in the national one. Although we have yet to examine this issue, it seems that mayors often find themselves in an environment full of accusations of corruptions, true and false, when they set out to fulfill their municipal duties.

Our government today is extremely centralized and Israeli citizens do not feel that they can make a difference on the national level because they lack the means to influence their parties' representatives (unless they participate in primary elections). Similarly, they sense that they are unable to make a difference in their municipalities because they are not directly involved in the issues that affect their day-to-day lives. There is no doubt that we must rectify this situation by making some serious changes in our political culture.

In order to help fashion a new political reality, the Israel Democracy Institute recommends the implementation of several comprehensive reforms, which will decentralize and redefine governmental and administrative roles in Israeli politics. These changes imply a new definition for the term "participatory democracy", and focus on broadening participation in local politics.

A comprehensive reform of the education system that entails greater community involvement, as recommended by the Dovrat Committee, is a good example of the many advantages of decentralization. Today, there is a rift between parents and schools and parents have no say in their own children's education, or in the processes of selecting teachers and of establishing the curriculum. We recommend that the local authority assume administrative responsibility for the education system. The municipal head of education will work together with a body that will include teachers, school representatives, parents, public figures, etc., to create a reality in which the community will be far more involved in the schools, which will also strengthen municipalities.

This is only one example of how we can boost the involvement of the public in fundamental issues of municipal governance, which, in turn, will increase the importance of those issues and will generate greater interest among the public, ultimately leading to stronger municipalities and local authorities. This is our goal and we are determined to achieve it.