Sunday, October 29, 2006

I just want to briefly discuss some of the flaws in the government restructuring bill proposed by Kadimah and endorsed last week by the government. This bill made a lot less noise than Lieberman's proposal but is more likely to ultimately get passed.

--The bill proposes that the head of the largest party should be the default candidate for Prime Minister. This is not a good idea. The largest party could very well not be all that large and other smaller parties that are collectively larger might be more coherent. In fact, this method is usually proposed by those who wish to harm the small parties by scaring voters into voting for a party with a chance to be largest. Apart from forcing the voter to vote against his conscience, this strategy is based on the false premise that small parties are bad for governance. This is actually not true since a multiplicity of parties creates more potential coalitions.

--The bill proposes that the threshold for bringing down the Knesset and the threshold for bringing down the government should both be raised from 61 MKs to 70 MKs. But the threshold for bringing down the government and for bringing down the Knesset are two very different animals. It makes perfect sense to raise the threshold for bringing down the Knesset. The voters voted them in and are entitled to have their choice for a full term. On the other hand, the idea that 61 MKs support a specific alternative government but can't change governments (until they have 70) is both conceptually flawed and, ironically, damaging to the very stability the proposal wishes to achieve. As the elected representatives of the people, any majority in the Knesset is the sovereign. If such a majority is barred from replacing the government, it means that there exists an alternative government with greater support than the existing one. This is an untenable situation, theoretically and practically. In fact, the easier you make it to form a new majority government, the easier it will be to avoid hopeless deadlocks.

--The bill proposes that Knesset elections go over to the open-list proportional method in which each voter for a party gets to choose his preferred candidates from that party's list. This is a great way to slightly tweak the system to increase accountability. However, in some ways this particular version of the method gives the voters too much and in some ways it gives them too little. It gives too much because if the head of the list is a potential Prime Minister (see above), he should be identified in advance so that voters can make an informed choice. In short, the person in the top position should be meshuryan.

To understand why it gives the voters too little, we need to take note of the fact that the proposal offers voters the possibility of simply checking a box that says "I agree to the party's default ordering of candidates". Experience in Belgium and other countries where this has been tried shows that when this option is offered, most voters are lazy and use it. In addition, a candidate's final ranking is the average of his ranking among the voters and his ranking in the party's default list. As a result, it is very unlikely that we'll ever get anything that varies much from the default list. (Also this averaging will lead to ties and no tie-breaker is included in the law.) An alternative method would be to order all candidates who exceeeded a predetermined threshold in order of votes received and then fill out the list in the default order. There are many other more complicated methods, but this post is way too technical already. (Why am I not getting an argument about that from anyone?)


Anonymous Ben-David said...

1) Small parties have demonstrated their negative impact time and again in Israel - there is nothing representative or democratic in letting small splinter groups hold the rest of the country hostage in the parliamentary process.

Which leads to...

2) The really needed reform is to have elections by district, rather than by party list. Every system that primarily relies on list-based voting suffers endemic corruption and a culture of unaccountability and ineffectiveness.

Elections by district will kill several birds with one stone:

- it will immediately shift the balance of power from party apparatchiks to the populace, and create a political culture of accountability.

- it will immediately reduce the number of parties, forcing the creation of several cogent interest blocs and the development of a culture of healthy parliamentary give-and-take between those blocs.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I'm not getting your point.

1. Small parties can only hold hostages if the large parties are evenly split on an issue. How could it be otherwise?

2. If there are fewer parties, somebody will still have the swing vote. In fact, the odds of some party's impact (Shapley value) being far in excess of its size increases as the number of parties decreases, since there are fewer possible coalitions. (Imagine three parties with 55, 55 and 10 seats, respectively. The party with 10 has exactly as much power as either of the large parties.)

3. Actually, corruption is more endemic where elections are personal. In parliamentary systems, corrupt politicians are a liability to their party and are (often) dropped by the party. In personal elections, corrupt politicians are re-elected time after time. (Look at the list of most corrupt U.S. congressmen. The majority have been re-elected multiple times.)

4. In parliamentary systems, politicians are constrained to follow a party line. This is good. Except in weird cases, like Sharon's Likud, the voter knows what he'll get. In direct elections, politicians are accountable in the sense that they spend tons of money on PR, dole out patronage and support (often silly) populist causes. Accountability in the U.S. in any meaningful sense is a myth. Incumbents are almost always re-elected (based on party affiliation) even though their constituents don't even know their names. Can you name your congressman?

5. How does reducing the number of parties create cogent blocs? It's quite obvious that both the breakdown of party loyalty and the elimination of small parties cause blocs to become less coherent. And how does this lead to a culture of healthy give-and-take? That sounds like an empty rhetorical flourish to me.

In short, I'm a very patriotic American in my spare time and a great admirer of America's political culture. But I don't think slavishly imitating the American political system will make Israel great in the way America is great. The problems lie elsewhere.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

The basic problem is that Sharon's Likud isn't a "wierd case". It's become the norm in israeli politics since at least the 1992 elections. Instable governments are not inherent in the Israeli system. Frankly the average length between knesset elections is slightly over 3.5 years since the founding of the State. The "instability" is b/c there is now a political culture whereby nearly all parties can lie to their electorate without suffering the consequences. See Amnon Lord's column from a few weeks ago. I don't think any changes to the system can solve this - which is why the whole "balagan" now is just smoke and mirrors. No one in the oligarchy REALLY wants a constitution.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Ben-David said...

Coming back to this thread a bit late, but....

1) Building on what Ben-Bayit said: the culture of indifference that allows parties to disregard their promises to voters stems largely from the situation in which a politician can build a career by heading to the Mateh Artzi and kissing tuchus - or by using other politicized hieracrhies like labor unions to work one's way up.

In contrast, district-based elections immediately impose a brake on such a system. Each MK is beholden to a specific group of voters for their political future.

In such as system, it's likely that MKs would have kicked back/pushed back against the core party idealogues on a host of issues - from religion to Oslo - because they knew that THEIR personal political futures were in jeopardy.

I am less concerned with corruption than with transparency and accountability. No system will eliminate corruption. We have to dismantle the system of party apparatichiks to get transparency, just like we have to dismantle the labor unions and banking monopoly to get an open economy.

And I think Israel has way more corruption in relation to its GDP than the US. I chalk up American corruption to indifference/apathy on the part of the populace, not to the system itself. Here it is the system that is closed and corrupt.

2) District-based elections will force out small parties that garner enough votes for 2-4 seats in the current system - or force them (and mid-sized parties) to moderate their positions - or at least explain themselves to more of their fellow citizens.

This can only be positive in Israel. Do we really need 4 religious parties?

A parliamentary system with several large parties - which themselves have internal cultures of mature compromise and horse-trading - yields governments with the stability to plan and execute long-term policies. Which is exactly what we need, yet do not have.

Taking the religious issue as an example: hundreds of thousands of MOR traditional Israelis want more Jewish content in their kids' education, and in public life. Yet not one of the religious parties is delivering on that, and Shas has started losing these voters - who once were drawn in by the ethnic issue.

One large MOR religious party - which had to moderate its messages to appeal broadly - would probably move many issues forward, and defuse much of the cultural clashes, while increasing the Jewish content and nature of the society.

The splintered, preaching-to-the-choir approach leaves us aimless and drifting, in many areas.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

BB and BD,
You both raise important points that deserve a serious response. I hope to soon post on these points. This thread has been superseded already so for now I'll just be very brief.

I agree that the party machinery here (any party) is part of the problem in much the way that other entrenched special interest groups are. They could use a good thrashing. But while direct elections would weaken the parties, they would probably not diminish the power of the entrenched post-Jewish establishment.

I agree that very small parties are bad for the reason you (BD) mention in your second post (but not your first). Too much homogeneity within parties creates rigidity and extremism. But there are better ways to prevent atomization than some of the ones that have been proposed.

2:41 PM  

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