Israel's PR system

Short Essay on the topic:
What are the problems of Proportional Representation as manifested by the Israeli experience?
Comparative Politics and Israel

The Israeli electoral system consists of one nation-wide constituency with a Proportional Representation (PR) election while maintaining a threshold of 2% of the vote for parties to earn representation in the Knesset. While each democratic electoral system inherently presents certain pros and cons, the Israeli case has been plagued with a number of worrisome problems that bring into question the effectiveness of the system as it is currently laid out.

The Israeli case is defined as a consensus democracy in which PR elections should theoretically produce a system of bargaining and compromise because it allows a multiplication of parties and increased diversity within the legislature. This is seen as a boon because it more faithfully represents the realities of the population as a whole and allows no one to gain a significant numerical advantage within the Knesset while dispersing the policy and decision-making processes.

However, the system has its drawbacks as well. With such a low threshold the PR system turns from allowing a healthy multi-party political structure to creating a system flooded with a multitude of small parties. This extreme fragmentation of the political system creates a number of problems. Because so many differing players are involved in governance, the process slows down significantly as each party must weigh in and decide on their own about each matter. This initially seems like a positive factor as it can be construed to contribute to greater stability by decreasing the chances of quick changes and possible disaster because of unintended consequences from badly thought out legislation. However, the danger exists for complete paralysis of the process and may also contribute to faster regime changes because of party disagreements within the ruling coalition.

The unity governments of the 1980s provide an example of this type of interaction. In the late 1970s the Israeli political system shifted from being solely dominated by one party to a bipolar system dominated by two blocs. As the two blocs faced off and were of near equal strength, the option of a full majority emerging in one of the blocs disappeared. This necessitated extreme compromise between all the parties that led to such a slowdown in political governance and at some times governmental paralysis that the perception emerged that the system itself was broken. Having such a low electoral threshold, which allowed many small parties to emerge that could become “kingmakers” by siding with the bloc of their choice, exacerbated this situation.

The PR system in Israel also allows for ineffective governance because the major party fragmentation impairs the ability of the Prime Minister to both form and maintain a stable coalition. Having to tempt more smaller parties into joining a coalition by offering large incentives makes coalition building harder and reduces his ability to lead the coalition as he must give away many of the prime positions and influential posts in exchange for support. This can also have disastrous effect on the maintenance of the coalition as, if one of those parties feels slighted in any way, he might find someone withdrawing suddenly. Effectively, the PM must spend more of his time politicking rather than governing.

The PR system also results in a general lack of accountability within the political system. Because so much of the governance process is made up of compromise and negotiation, parties can easily foist the blame for failures onto other parties, individuals or situations rather than being held responsible. This lack of accountability translates into a lack of effectiveness- no party can be significantly punished at the ballot box and formally lose the mandate of their constituency, resulting in a stagnation of party activity and political process.