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News Analysis: Labor Committed to Election Reform, but Road Ahead Filled with Obstacles

A modest but significant step toward electoral reform was taken last week when the Labor Party’s Central Committee voted to support legislation providing for the direct election of the prime minister.

The decision, binding on all Labor Knesset members, would reduce if not eliminate the disproportionate leverage of the small parties, which represent only a minority of the electorate.

Its significance lies in the fact that the country’s second largest political party has committed itself toward a radical change in the way Israel elects its leaders.

But Labor’s decision is no more than a minor step on the long road to electoral reform, which is strewn with countless pitfalls and obstacles.

Despite widespread public sentiment favoring reform, no political pundit in Israel today is prepared to predict that the next election, due in or before 1992, will be conducted according to rules different from all previous elections.

Given the divided, splintered nature of Israeli politics, they cannot comfortably predict that the next elections will not be followed by the same horsetrading, political bribery and blackmail that has marked the coalition-building process after past elections.

Among the major hurdles to be overcome before Labor’s proposal or any radical reform becomes law is Likud’s vow to some of its junior coalition partners neither to promote nor approve any change in the present system without their advance agreement.

Within the Likud itself there is little enthusiasm for the proposal adopted by Labor, and without unanimity between the two biggest parties it seems impossible even to hope for a change.

CONCERN ABOUT FASCISM

Some observers wonder whether it is entirely coincidental that the electoral reform proposal adopted by a majority of the Labor Central Committee is precisely the one a majority in Likud is said to oppose.

Conversely, the alternative proposal Labor rejected is the one that would probably win a majority in the Likud Central Committee.

The Labor proposal calls for separate but simultaneous elections–one for the Knesset and one for the prime minister.

It was supported by the party chairman, Shimon Peres, and by his rival, Yitzhak Rabin. Each presumably sees himself a potential victor.

The proposal provides that the government set up by the nationally elected prime minister could be brought down by a simple majority of 61 in the 120-member Knesset.

Similarly, the prime minister would need a reliable Knesset majority to govern because the legislature could always deny him funds under the budget law if he tried to go it alone.

Advocates of this plan argued that the arrangement had built-in checks and balance to ensure that the man or woman elected prime minister could not become a dictator.

Opponents argue that the proposal could breed fascism if some unscrupulous candidate of vague ideology pandered to the popular mood and romped to victory in a direct election.

In such event, they say, it is unlikely that the Knesset members would vote to bring the government down and themselves out of office.

The alternate proposal, which lost by 280-150 in the Central Committee, called for automatic installation of the leader of the largest party as prime minister before coalition talks.

Proponents of the plan argued it would retain the essence of the parliamentary system while stripping the small parties of their disproportionate power to determine who will rule.

The voters at the ballot box would in effect determine the identity of the prime minister, leaving the parties less room for maneuver in subsequently forming the government.

CONSTITUENCY IDEA ABANDONED

It was clear if unspoken that the Laborites who backed the winning proposal have strong doubts about their party’s ability to win an electoral majority in the foreseeable future.

But they are more sanguine that a Labor Party leader could win the office of prime minister, someone like Rabin for example.

Likud members, on the other hand, consider their party stronger with the electorate than any one of its candidates. There are also Likud members, similar to their Labor counterparts, who fear an incipient dictatorship.

Longtime advocates of electoral reform were distressed by the virtual abandonment by both big parties of a key element of past reform moves: a constituency system of elections to the Knesset. That would ensure a direct link between Knesset members and the people who vote for them.

Under the present system, Knesset seats are assigned by the parties according to a predetermined list. Those nearest the top are assured a seat; those near the bottom are usually out.

The system does not encourage closeness between voter and representative. But election by constituency is no longer central to current thinking on reform.

That has been attributed to the implacable opposition of the small parties, which are pivotal in the present government.

Both big parties also are apparently pledged to their respective small allies not to propose raising the threshold for entry into the Knesset to any more than 2 percent. At present, a party need poll no more than 1 percent of the popular vote to gain a Knesset seat.

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