Some Prerequisites of Representative Democracy: They’re Missing In Israel

Few people in Israel have anything but the most superficial knowledge of representative democracy and its prerequisites. But then, what else should be expected in a country whose ministry of education systematically omits this topic from the public school curriculum and where even universities seem to be black holes on the subject?

It should first be understood that constituency or multi-district elections is a prerequisite of representative democracy. What is not widely known is that representatives divide their constituencies into four distinct groups of voters, each of which they treat differently.

  1. 1)  The largest group of voters is the district as a whole, or the Geographic Constituency.

  2. 2)  More important to most politicians is the second, smaller group of voters, the Re-election Constituency—those citizens a politician believes have voted or will vote for him.

  3. 3)  Smaller still is the Primary Constituency—the strongest supporters, i.e., those voters who determine election results.

  4. 4)  Finally, there is the smallest group—the handful of close advisors and longtime friends who make up a representative’s the Personal Constituency.

Obviously, a representative will be closely attuned to his Primary and Re-election Constituencies.

Since Israel does not have constituency elections, a member of the Knesset has neither a Re-Election nor a Primary Constituency. He depends not on the voters but on his party leader and party machine for his position on a party’s electoral slate for the Knesset. This makes Knesset members (MKs) as well as the voters relatively impotent.

MKs have to kowtow to their party leaders, especially when the latter are cabinet ministers. As for the voters, they are compelled to vote for an anonymous party slate; i.e., they must select one of about 30 ballots each bearing nothing more than a two- or three-letter code word for a party.

That the Knesset vis- -vis the government is feeble can be demonstrated by the fact that no Labor- or Likud-led government—and this now applies to Kadima—has ever been toppled by a Knesset vote of no confidence.

Precisely because the cabinet typically originates the most serious legislation, the first objective of those who enter the Knesset is to become a cabinet minister—the road to power and political longevity. This prompts MKs to perpetuate multi-party cabinet government on the one hand, and to oppose constituency elections on the other—despite the most pernicious consequences: inept, divisive, unstable, and corrupt government.

Returning to principles: It’s a well-kept secret that constituency elections are a prerequisite of representative democracy. Let’s try to understand the finer points about representation.

Representation is often defined as having one’s views reflected in the legislative decision-making process. Representation may also be defined as having one’s views reflected in actually enacted policies of government. The first raises the question: How well does the electoral system enable the national electorate to impress its opinions on the legislature? The second raises the question: How well does the actually executed policies of the government represent the opinions of the national electorate?

Israel’s single countrywide elections with fixed party lists insulates Knesset members from the voters between elections. Hence, the “representational bond” between MKs and voters is weak. Much the same may be said of cabinet ministers, since the latter, with rare exceptions, are MKs. It follows that Israel’s method of electing the Knesset does not enable the electorate to impress its opinions effectively on the legislative process nor on the actually executed policies of the government. This is hardly consistent with representative democracy.

Perhaps political scientists in Israel should hold a conference and make this message clear to the public. It might cause a revolution.

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