Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Two down. Seven million, four hundred and forty one thousand to go.

All Israeli men up to the age of 40 are required to do army reserve duty (מילואים miluim in Hebrew) for anything up to a month each year. I quite enjoyed my reserve duty, as many do. It can be a bit of fun, in some ways, away from the trouble and strife, an opportunity to be macho, and to leave the humdrum office world behind. I always saw it as some sort of open prison sentence, bringing you into contact with all walks of Israeli society, and making you appreciate the finer points of life (solid buildings, normal work hours, soft toilet paper).
On one occasion, I was assigned to a jeep patrol, together with my officer and a driver. We drove around the area – beautiful desert countryside, gorgeous weather, no complaints this end – until we decided to pull up somewhere, get out the old primus stove and make coffee. As we sat and drank the thick, sweet coffee, the others began chatting about whatever was the political hot subject at the time, I can't remember what. The driver – a young Russian immigrant, brawny, imposing, great fellow to have on your side – expressed his opinion, and the officer – a young second generation Israeli, intelligent, terribly polite, hi-techie, with a degree in Chinese – gave his. And then, being the well brought up fellow he was, he asked my opinion.
The real problem, I said, was the voting system. 
You see Israel has a simple, proportional representative electoral system, and the country acts as one single constituency. Voters get to choose a party, and each party wins seats in the legislature in direct proportion to the percentage they garner of total votes cast. If Party A gets 10% of the vote, then Party A gets to fill 10% of the seats in parliament. Simple, straightforward. 
Only this system, as I explained to my audience of two, has a terrible flaw: There is no direct link between these elected representatives and the electorate. No link, and therefore no accountability. (To prove the point, there's no word in Hebrew for accountability). If the country were split, electorally speaking, into constituencies (wards, boroughs, call them what you will), then each area would elect their own rep, and he/she would be answerable (another word missing from the Hebrew lexicon) to that local population.
Well at that point we had to get back to our patrol. We clambered back on board: the driver, the officer, and me the "soldier". The wind was quite fierce, particularly as we were zooming around in an open jeep, so there was no chatting as we drove. Until we reached our next view point, where the driver stopped, and we all got down from the jeep. Immediately the officer – let's give him a name, shall we..., yes, Shahar - turned to me and said "Well it wouldn't work here." (He'd clearly been thinking about what I'd said). "Israel's too small. The constituencies would be too small." But we're bigger, or more populous, than Ireland, Finland, Denmark, I answered. And anyway, in municipal elections in Israel, towns are also "small". You don't need a minimum size.

We completed our patrol of the area. Shahar called through to our base, and we hopped back on the jeep, and continued to survey the beautiful countryside. The wind whizzing past, the sun shining.
Now we came to a tourist spot, a ridge providing a panorama of the rocky desert. We stopped, alighted. Shahar turned to me. "No, it still wouldn't work. The religious areas would all vote for the religious parties." Not so. Such wards may indeed plump for a religious candidate, but you'd find that every major, political party would put up as their candidate in that area a married, religiously orthodox man. You'd find that this system would in fact adopt and internalize the features of our multi-cultured society within the parties, I said, instead of picking on these differences and using them as wedges to sever sectors of society for political gain.
And so it seemed, that at each stop, after clearly thinking about it some more, Shahar brought up another objection, a flaw with this proposed system. And I would offer some defense.
Finally, we reached the base. The driver parked the jeep. We unloaded our equipment. Shahar turned to me, with one last comment, "So how do we change our system then?"
So there is hope. At this rate, I should be able to convince the entire Israeli population in time for the elections in 2156J
Shahar, bear in mind, is educated and intelligent. I was surprised that he had no idea what other electoral systems there are. He had no idea that Israel is actually alone in the democratic world in this respect, having only a single constituency. Every other country, from tiny Luxembourg (half a million population, 4 constituencies) to India (hundreds of millions and 543 constituencies) recognizes the necessity of direct personal elections. It keeps the elected representative on his toes and in touch with the public mood. This was very much an aspect of this summer's vast social protests. Our elected legislature, the politicians, were out of touch. They have no link with the ordinary voter. They don't come across them when traveling on the buses, or queuing in the supermarkets, or waiting in line to renew a passport. 

Back in the early days, when I was new and wet behind the ears in the country, I visited some elderly relatives. They were a retired school teacher and bank director. Real Israelis. And I expressed my opinion that the electoral system should be changed. I'm used to the typical Israeli response "But that wouldn't work here." Not so from this couple. They immediately responded, "But that's just what Ben Gurion said."


  1. It seems that Brits are very proud these days with the "other" elections system. One may think that perhaps Israel should adopt the constitutional monarchy system from its very fundamental core, i.e. the monarchy. In the middle east sovereign's spring this is a not unthinkable idea.

    Is the blogger real name BB, or a mere try to beautify by B de Bono the Israeli PM.

  2. In the US the area representation leads to a lot of wasted money being sent to that representative's constituencies. The famous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, and many many more. The term for it is "pork." I don't know if I would be happy giving our politicians more reasons to waste money... :)