Electoral Reform Bill Suffers Procedural Setback in Knesset

The campaign for electoral reform in Israel suffered another setback Wednesday.

Uriel Lynn, chairman of the Knesset’s Law Committee, announced that a vote on proposed reform legislation could not take place before the legislature adjourns for its three-month summer recess July 24.

The bill, which calls for direct popular election of the prime minister, has passed its first reading in the Knesset. But it must still undergo second and third readings in the plenum before it become law.

But by the time the Knesset reconvenes in October, it may be too late for the bill to become law before the next elections, scheduled for November 1992.

Lynn of the ruling Likud party personally backs the legislation. He said that although work on the bill was incomplete, he would not call the committee into overtime session, because “experience has shown” attendance would be very poor.

Knesset member Haggai Meirom of the opposition Labor Party accused Likud of trying to kill the measure, which still lacks the endorsement of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The same charge was made by Avi Kaddish, who heads a citizens group, and 16 other reformminded activists who have been on a hunger strike outside the Knesset building since last Friday to protest parliamentary foot-dragging.

Kaddish warned that if the bill still has not reached the floor by Monday, their demonstration might no longer be peaceful.

PUBLIC OVERWHELMINGLY BACKS REFORM

Opinion polls show at least 70 percent of Israelis support electoral change, and it is expected to command a parliamentary majority.

But the prospect is feared by some in Likud, which has easily retained power under the old system since winning its first national election in 1977.

Shamir himself is said to be “not enthusiastic” over reform and to have advised his party’s legislators to think hard before supporting it.

A recent poll indicated that Laborite Yitzhak Rabin might beat Shamir in a direct election for prime minister.

The purpose of the direct elections bill is to reduce or eliminate the disproportionate political influence of the smaller minority parties, which include Orthodox factions and those on the far right and far left.

Under the present system, voters cast ballots for party lists, not individual candidates. Whoever heads the list of the party garnering the most votes tries to form a coalition government and, if successful, becomes prime minister.

In practice, coalition-forming has been reduced to marketplace haggling.

The small parties, some with no more than I percent of the popular vote, are in a position to extract from would-be prime ministers promises of legislation that would normally be opposed by a majority of Knesset members and exorbitant public funds for their favored institutions.

The electorate, in increasing numbers, has expressed disgust with the process. If future prime ministers are elected by direct ballot, the small parties would lose much of their leverage.

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