News Analysis: Local Election Results Spurs Drive to Repeal Direct Election of Premier
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News Analysis: Local Election Results Spurs Drive to Repeal Direct Election of Premier

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The results of Israel’s local elections may well mark the turning point in the fragmentization of the country’s politics during the past decade.

A movement has been gathering steam in the Knesset to repeal the direct election of the prime minister — and last week’s election results might provide the impetus to fuel this change.

The concern now preoccupying politicians and academics alike is that the last round of national electoral reform, put in place by legislation in the early 1990s and first applied in the 1996 election, has gravely backfired.

It has seriously eroded the large parties, increased the representation in the Knesset of the country’s many small- and medium-sized parties, and thus weakened rather than strengthened the prime minister, as it was intended to do.

Along with what happened in the Knesset elections two years ago, last week’s local elections also resulted in a drastic weakening of the two major parties, Likud and Labor, and a further strengthening of ethnic and other special- interest parties like the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the immigrants- rights Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party.

Mayors who were swept to power in many of the main cities pay little or no fealty to Likud or Labor, preferring to identify themselves as independents or as loosely affiliated with one of the big blocs.

The accentuation of special interests over the collective, of the ethnic over the national, is deeply worrying to many Israelis.

Within the political community, there is growing concern for the future of Israeli democracy if the fragmentation of the electorate continues.

The new shape of Israeli politics was particularly evident in last week’s election results in places like Ashdod and Jerusalem.

In Ashdod, the port city that formerly had a heavily Moroccan population, an immigrant list called Ashdod Beitenu — or “Ashdod, Our Home” — became the largest party on the new city council.

The swing of the political pendulum in Ashdod, mirrored in other towns with large immigrant populations, has elicited bitter comments from some political veterans.

But it has also prompted the leader of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, to speak in a New York Times interview of a social revolution.

Both reactions may prove overstated, as the new immigrants become older immigrants and cease viewing life solely through their immigrant-oriented prism.

That process of assimilation, however, shows no sign of overtaking the country’s fervently Orthodox, or haredi, population, who, along with another well-defined special-interest group, Israeli Arabs, achieved by far the highest voter turnouts.

In Jerusalem, where large numbers of secular Israelis did not bother to vote, the haredim will now hold half of the council seats, making Mayor Ehud Olmert more beholden to them than ever.

Meir Porush, the leader of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Front who also serves as deputy housing minister, charged this week that the secular factions in the capital ran “scare campaigns” against the haredim while in fact secular life, especially on the Sabbath, is burgeoning in the city.

Porush insisted that most of those who are leaving Jerusalem are not secular Israelis but the Orthodox, who have been driven away by rising housing prices.

But the evidence of countless secular families tells a different story, and there is a widespread sense across Israel that the capital is in danger of becoming a haredi-Palestinian city.

As the movement for national electoral reform gathers adherents, it should be remembered that this reform began in the 1980s on the local level.

It was the local elections system that was first changed by legislation to give voters two ballots: one for mayor and another for a slate of council members.

In the past, voters could only select the party of their choice. Party bosses would then decide who held which municipal post.

The reform on the local level seemed a breath of fresh air blowing through the musty and often corrupt corridors of Israeli politics.

Younger leaders were chosen as mayors — and the two big parties repeatedly scrambled to belatedly back candidates who seemed set to win based on their own popularity.

But this fresh breeze rapidly soured when the reformed voting system was translated, in 1996, from the municipal to the national level.

The 1996 national election was the first in which Israelis had two ballots: one for a party slate seeking Knesset seats and one for the direct election of the premier.

Labor and especially Likud emerged from that election with a sharp loss of Knesset seats.

Between them, the two major parties can barely scrape together a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

The outlook for the next election, if it is held under the same system, has them losing yet more seats to Shas and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah.

The logic, understood too late by the reformers, is that when people are given two votes, they tend to split their vote.

In 1996, a vote for Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud or for Shimon Peres of Labor did not necessarily translate, in the second ballot for Knesset seats, into a vote for their respective parties.

Instead, many voters threw their support to other parties that they felt better represented their interests.

Netanyahu’s premiership, as a result, has been characterized by the premier’s ongoing dependence on unruly and demanding coalition partners.

Granted, under the amended electoral system, these partners have no alternative to Netanyahu — unless they are ready to dissolve the Knesset and risk their seats in a new election.

This was supposed to have been the glue that kept the coalition welded together. But in practice the imbalance between the Likud and its partners has made for constant instability.

Now, however, the tide may be turning back to the previous electoral system, in which voters cast one ballot for a party, and the winning party had the task of forging a government with its leader as premier.

While Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak are still unsure of how to position themselves in the growing debate, their party colleagues increasingly seem to favor reverting to the previous system.

Ironically, therefore, the striking successes of narrowly based groups in the latest local elections may prove the high point of sectoral politics as Israel makes a return to the electoral patterns of the past.

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