Political parties have a bad reputation, especially in Israel where they are so numerous, so narrow, and so noxious. Although parties serve the purpose of presenting and supporting candidates, the latter are not personally elected by or accountable to the voters in multi-district elections.
Parties are everything
In Israel, parties are everything. Their primary function, David Ben-Gurion once said, is to divide the public treasury. Nevertheless, while parties are still necessary to democracy, it would serve Israel’s best interests to diminish their number and power. There are various ways of doing this.
The simplest way is to raise the electoral threshold for seats in the legislature. A better way is to adopt the presidential model of government with multi-district plurality elections for the legislature.
Only two parties, Likud and Labor, have sufficient party allies to compete for national leadership—although Labor is evaporating. What prevents the formation of a national two- (or three-) party system is that the Knesset continues to be based on a single national constituency with proportional representation. Israel is burdened with a parliamentary electoral system that splinters the nation into a welter of single-issue parties.
Limiting the number of Israeli parties would enlarge their mental horizons; for to compete effectively in district elections, each party would have to consider the views and interests of diverse groups of citizens. This is why Proportional Representation (PR) is not necessarily more conducive to the interests of minorities, even though the latter may win a few seats in the legislature. A legislature of numerous parties will be incapable of rational deliberation, and in such legislatures of petty rivalry and intrigue are typical.
Parliamentary v. presidential government
Although various political scientists are critical of presidential government, their arguments are of limited validity. Invariably they refer to the failings of presidential systems in Latin America, where parliamentary systems would probably fare no better.
Critics also deplore the “dual sovereignty” they associate with presidential governments. By this they mean that popular election of the president and of the legislature results in two competing “sovereignties.” (A parliamentary system is immune to this phenomenon, since the ruling party controls both the executive and the legislature.) Linked to “dual sovereignty” is the “gridlock” that supposedly occurs in the United States when the President and the Congress are of opposite parties.
Again appearances are deceiving. Studies indicate that the passage of congressional legislation is usually independent of which party controls which branch of government. Public problems must be attended, and American politicians, unlike their Israeli counterparts, are more attentive to their constituents than to their parties.
Also, the notion of “dual sovereignty” is misleading. A President represents the people in their collective capacity. He is expected to emphasize their common interests. This emphasis differs from that of a legislature whose members represent the particular interests of diverse constituencies. Although a legislator will presumably promote the common good, he is obliged to emphasize the concerns of his own constituents. (This applies to parliamentary governments with district elections, except that party-dominated parliamentary systems severely limit the independence of parliamentarians.)
Another defect attributed to presidential government is its fixed term. The truth is that parliamentary governments seldom succumb to a vote of no-confidence, meaning they usually run their allotted term. In Israel, no Labor- or Likud-led government has ever been toppled by a vote of no confidence. Politicians do not like to hazard their careers on new elections.
The one solid advantage of parliamentary systems is their “shadow governments,” which enable experienced politicians to assume office when the ruling party falls from power. This does not apply, however, to Israel where any mediocrity can become a cabinet minister, thanks largely to the absence of district elections.
One way of compensating for the absence of a “shadow government” is to require each presidential candidate (other than an incumbent President), to announce say five of his intended cabinet appointments. It may be assumed that only well-known, experienced, and respected public figures will be designated.
Finally, the presidential model is more consistent with Judaism than the parliamentary model. A president is an elected monarch. His election by the people is consistent with Jewish law. So too are multi-district elections. Combining the latter with a presidential system is the best way to overcome the regime of the parties.
The current “presidential debates” may be regarded as a consequence of the failure of the “party system.” But this failure is the result of the long-established system of Proportional Representation (PR) with a low electoral threshold, which magnifies the number of single issue parties, as a consequence of which Israel has never had a majority party at the helm. The simplest solution is to scrap PR and establish geographic constituency elections, the practice of about 80 of the 84 democracies on planet earth.☼
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