Local Government and Local Elections: Time to Move Away from Centralized Thinking

| Written By:

Israel’s system of local elections has been in place since the 1970s - but is it optimal? Taking into consideration the significant diversity in the size and character of different localities- does it make sense for the same system of local government and local elections to be implemented throughout Israel? Prof. Gideon Rahat proposes reform to enhance the compatibility of the system to the characteristics and needs of different localities.

Illustration | Flash 90

It is widely acknowledged that government and electoral systems should reflect the character of the society in which they operate. Thus, for example, those in favor of the proportional representation system used in Israel’s national elections explain that it is well-suited to the complex, tribal structure of Israeli society. Even those who oppose it, or who call for it to be tempered somewhat, base their argument on claims about the expected effects of using a less proportional system on Israel’s diverse and divided society. In other words, while the two sides differ on what is the right course of action, they both agree that the electoral system should be compatible with Israel’s social structure. 

This approach surfaces an important question: Does it make sense for the same system of local government and local elections to be implemented in all of Israel’s local authorities (towns, municipalities, and local councils) and among all their populations, which are so different from one another both in terms of their size and their character-—Tel Aviv, Netivot, Umm al-Fahm, Bnei Brak, Omer, and Karmiel, to name just a few? Is the current system—of direct elections for mayor and proportional party-list for the local council—tailored to the needs of each, and of all their residents? Is the quasi-presidential system implemented at a local level the best for all of them? The most democratic? The most efficient? 

At the moment, the author has no detailed recommendations on how to adapt different systems to different populations in Israel. Any proposed system must take into account the particular characteristics of each local authority: large or small; religious, traditional, or secular; individualistic or based on family clans; rich or poor; heterogeneous or homogeneous. This article seeks to spark debate both on the idea of using different electoral and government systems for different local authorities, and on the process through which the system of local government and/or local elections could be changed in each local authority.

Diverse Systems of Local Government: The British Case

A look at other states demonstrates the viability of diversifying systems of local government and local elections. In federal states (such as Austria, Germany, Canada, and the United States) this diversity is particularly prominent, as the rules are set by each regional entity, and sometimes at an even more local level. The British case is particularly interesting. In the United Kingdom, the Local Government Act (2000) allows each local authority to change its governance structure to one of several alternatives by means of a referendum of residents. Thus, while most municipalities have a parliamentary system in which the mayor is appointed by a majority of council members, others have chosen a model of direct elections of the mayor. London, with its 8.7 million residents, has a two-tiered, decentralized system: the role of mayor of Greater London (the supreme body) was created in 1998, and he or she is chosen by direct elections; while below the mayoral level there are 33 localized boroughs that are responsible for most of the local services provided to residents. In short, different local authorities in Britain have different local governance structures.

Illustration | Flash 90

Alternatives for Israel’s Local Election System

Council Elections

Introducing a local component into the electoral system: Currently, every local authority is defined as a single electoral constituency, with election results reflecting the relative number of votes garnered by each party list. However, because local authorities are comprised of a variety of areas, neighborhoods, and population groups, it is worth considering defining specific neighborhoods or areas within a given municipality as electoral constituencies that will elect one or more representatives to the city council.

Introducing an individual component: Currently, Israeli voters cast their ballots for closed party lists, often formed ad hoc for the purpose of the elections. The system thus does not allow voters to choose specific candidates for the council on an individual basis. At the local level, where the personal relationship between voter and candidate is highly significant, we might give some thought to allowing residents to vote for individuals from a list of candidates, rather than for an entire party list—which often exists for only a single term, and sometimes is even dissolved before the term is complete.

Mayoral Elections

Currently the heads of local authorities in Israel are elected directly. That is, voters cast two ballots—one for the mayor, and one for a party list for the local council. According to the 1975 Local Authorities (Election and Tenure of Head and Deputy Heads) Law, candidates must receive at least 40% of the vote. If no candidate succeeds in reaching this threshold, a second round is held between the two leading candidates. In the 2013 elections, second rounds were held in 38 of the 178 local authority elections. 

Given the relatively low voter turnout at local elections, holding a second round is superfluous and can even skew the results relatively easily. The need for a second round could be done away with by making minor changes to the electoral system. For example, one method used in other countries is that of preferential voting, in which voters rank the mayoral candidates according to their personal preference. If a candidate wins an absolute majority of first-preference votes, they are declared the winner. If there is no such candidate, then the candidate with the lowest number of first-preference votes is taken off the list, and the remaining preferences of those who voted for him/her are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process is repeated over and over until a candidate who has the most preferential votes is declared the winner. In this way, the elected mayor is the candidate preferred by the majority of residents, and a second round of voting is rendered unnecessary.

Example of a Preferential Voting System: Irish Presidential Elections 2011

Irish presidential election, 2011 (203) (204)
Party Candidate Nominated by % 1st Pref Count 1 Count 2 Count 3 Count 4
Labour Party Michael D. Higgins Oireachtas: Labour Party 39.6 701,101 730,480 793,128 1,007,104
Independent Sean Gallagher County and City Councils 28.5 504,964 529,401 548,373 628,114
Sinn Fein Martin McGuinness Oireachtas: Sinn Feinn & Independents 13.7 243,030 252,611 265,196  
Fine Gael Gay Mitchell Oireachtas: Fine Gael 6.4 113,321 127,357 136,309  
Independent David Norris County and City Councils 6.2 109,469 116,526    
Independent Dana Rosemary Scallon  County and City Councils 2.9 51,220      
Independent Mary Davis County and City Councils 2.7 48,657      
Electorate: 3,191,157  Valid: 1,771,762  Spoilt: 18,676 (1.0%)  Quota: 885,882  Turnout: 1,790,438 (56.1%)

System of Government: Quasi-Presidential System or a Parliamentary System?

Any serious discussion about the system of local government in Israel makes it essential to pose the difficult question of whether the parliamentary-coalition system, which was abandoned in favor of direct mayoral elections, might not be better for certain local authorities. The current dual system (direct mayoral elections and proportional party-list council elections) creates a situation in which the mayor almost always faces a split -- and sometimes even an oppositional council (in almost all cases the mayor’s own party list does not have a majority in the council), making it difficult for them to pursue their chosen policies. In specific local authorities it might be preferable to implement a combined electoral system (for example), in which the head of the largest party on the council is automatically appointed as mayor, unless there is a majority on the council that supports another candidate.

Changing the System

Serious consideration should be given to involving residents in deciding which electoral system is applied in their local authority. Any proposed change—whether external (by an independent commission of experts) or top-down (by the Ministry of the Interior or the Knesset)—should be assessed by local residents through a deliberative democratic process, and the final decision should be made by all residents. Including residents in making this decision will enhance political engagement on the local level and will improve residents’ sense of empowerment with regard to local affairs.


Since the 1970s, when Israel’s system of local elections was changed to its current quasi-presidential format with direct election of mayors, no real reassessment of this system has been carried out. In light of past experience, and given the huge differences among local authorities, there is good reason to examine the suitability of this system for different localities. Consideration should also be given to the option of allowing each local authority to define the system that suits it best. In this context, it is worth noting that a slightly different system is already being implemented in regional council, tailored to their unique structure.

The benefit to be gained from this approach and the reforms it will bring with it lies not only in upgrading local government in those local authorities, but also in strengthening democracy in Israel as a whole. Local government is an important foundation of democracy, and is part of the state’s network of checks and balances. It is no coincidence that dictatorial leaders seek to neutralize the strength of local government, while those who have democratic interests at heart call for the upgrading and strengthening of local democracy.