No Way to Run a Democracy

Electoral reform will not suffice to fix the short-term-ism that is destroying Israel's capacity for long-term planning and policy execution; reform of the internal processes of the parties themselves is required.

| Written By:

IDI President Yohanan Plesner argues that electoral reform will not suffice to fix the short-term-ism that is destroying Israel's capacity for long-term planning and policy execution; reform of the internal processes of the parties themselves is required. This op-ed first appeared in the Jerusalem Report.

My daughters love playing musical chairs. They sit in a circle with the chairs facing outward—one fewer than the number of players. When the music starts, the kids scurry around the chairs. When the music stops, they sit—randomly catching the nearest chair. It is highly amusing, but produces total chaos. The children step on each other's toes, bump into each other and topple chairs. The winner isn’t necessarily the fastest or best. Rather, she is the one who elbowed her way to an open chair or had the luck of standing in the right place at the right time.

Sadly, this is a metaphor for Israel's revolving-door government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's current cabinet has broken a record for internal instability: in its first year, nearly a third of the ministerial portfolios have been reshuffled. In just the last two months, Avigdor Liberman replaced Moshe Ya'alon as defense minister. Moshe Kahlon took over the Ministry of Economy (from Netanyahu, who replaced Aryeh Deri a few months ago). Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze'ev Elkin received the environment portfolio and Minister of Welfare Haim Katz was handed executive authorities over labor affairs.

While personal factors play a role, the growth of political instability is primarily a result of bad institutional incentives produced by a poorly designed electoral system. Nor is it a new phenomenon. Since the early 1990s, the average term for an education minister has been 1.8 years; for an interior minister, 1.3 years. Anyone who has ever held a position of responsibility will appreciate the difficulty of getting anything done in less than 2 years. Short-term-ism is destroying Israel's capacity for long-term planning and policy execution.

Unsurprisingly, the Israeli public is losing faith in its political system and in its elected officials. According to the 2015 Israel Democracy Index, 54 percent feel that Knesset Members are not doing their job. Trust in the government is 36.2%, trust in the Knesset is 35.4%, and trust in Israeli's political parties is only 19.1%. While a solid majority of Israelis (88.1%) identify strongly with the state and its problems, 78% feel unable to influence government policy. Israelis, in other words, are alienated not from their country but from a flawed system of government that is failing them.

Part of the solution lies in electoral reform.

The Israel Democracy Institute's political reform team has developed a comprehensive plan for boosting stability. At the heart of the plan is one simple suggestion: after a general election the head of the largest Knesset faction will become prime minister automatically. This change will reduce the Prime Minister's dependence on coalition partners. More importantly it will provide a strong incentive for voters to abandon the array of small sectorial parties that paralyze Israel's political system and throw their support behind two major party blocs (likely center-left and center-right). It will also encourage parties to join forces and form broader alliances.

While such systemic reforms are essential for enhancing stability, they do little to boost accountability, promote merit-based selection of political leaders or address the average Israeli's alienation from politics. To achieve these goals, we must reform the internal processes of the parties themselves.

At present, only about 2 percent of eligible voters participate in the internal party processes that produce the list of candidates for the Knesset. By contrast, in the US, 16 percent of eligible voters took part in the 2012 primaries. Israeli primaries are dominated by insider and interest groups, rendering politicians accountable to a handful of activists and leaving the bulk of the electorate disgusted with the choices they face on Election Day.

One remedy is to open up the candidate selection process to promote engagement, accountability and merit.

At a recent IDI roundtable discussion, we discussed the benefits of an open primaries system. The basic idea is to offer hundreds of thousands of disenchanted citizens the option to engage directly in the political process. By allowing others to participate in primaries without insisting on party membership, we introduce a new channel of influence that will dilute the impact of special interest groups and drive an influx of fresh talent. MK Tzipi Livni, who participated in this roundtable, is pushing the idea as a tool of unifying the fractured center-left bloc. No doubt, it can alleviate many of the similar weaknesses plaguing Israel's right-wing parties.

When Yitzhak Rabin first introduced primary elections to the Labor Party in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Israelis leapt at the opportunity to elect their future leaders. The spike in participation helped Rabin win the 1992 election and forced all other major parties to follow suit.

Israeli leaders must act now to open the next chapter of political reform. Musical chairs is no way to run a democracy.

Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

This op-ed first appeared in the Jerusalem Report