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September 21, 2014 | 26th Elul 5774

In the Voting Booth

February 25, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

We seem to have survived the election that no one wanted, and behold! no charges of corruption, no recounts, no violence - and a clear outcome. What more could you ask for in a democracy today? And yet, there are a number of unsettling aspects to Israeli democracy. I remember well the frustration I felt when facing the typical ballot in a US election - after voting for the president, vice president, senator, congressman, state representative, state senator, and a few major local officials, I remember moving down the ballot to various minor functionaries and judges, candidates I had never heard of; how could I vote for these responsibly? Sometimes I left them blank, sometimes took a chance and voted, uneasily, a straight ticket - and left the booth feeling vaguely unsatisfactory as a citizen. Well, here we have no such problems. Before the introduction of direct elections for prime minister (a change that may well be on its way to being undone), political life here consisted of at most two votes in an election cycle: in local elections, you vote either for a party slate for city council, or for a candidate for county executive. In national elections, you voted only for a party slate - and now for a prime ministerial candidate too. That means that in national elections you enter the voting booth, where you find a tray with little compartments, each containing a stack of slips printed with the name of a party, and another tray with slips for the candidates for prime minister (in this most recent election, there was only one tray: a pile of slips for Barak, a pile for Sharon, and a pile of blanks). You choose one slip from each set, place it in the envelope received from the registrar, seal it, and drop it in the ballot box after leaving the booth. That’s it. No lists of offices, no referenda on bond issues, no local representative. If you are active in a party, then you might have participated previously in a primary for choosing the party slate. Otherwise, choosing that one slip is your whole political involvement.

What this means is that ironically, in a small country that has a self image of one big family, where everyone knows everyone, where everyone is involved, there is no direct link between the citizen and the national government. There is no local, regional, or personal representation. The large parties tend to try to create slates that are geographically diverse, but no member of the Knesset represents me or my locality or even my region of the country. No one has a special interest in the development of my area, there is no one in particular to whom I have any reason to turn with a problem or suggestion. No one owes me anything.

Therefore, like many of my fellow citizens, I watch the antics of the Knesset members with alienation and amusement. The Knesset is the butt of many jokes, as it is known as a place where disrespect, disorder, rudeness, and inflammatory rhetoric are common. Statements are made from the podium - about other members, about parties, about ethnic and religious groups - that would be unthinkable in the culture of the US congress or senate. Openly cynical compromises on “core values” are commonplace, in order for coalitions to be formed and preserved. There is no constitution, so the rules can be changed easily (like the change to direct election of prime minister, like ad hoc laws to require special majorities for particular issues). The fact that cabinet ministries are distributed as political spoils means that ministers come and go according to coalition maneuvering, without regard to their competence or familiarity with their area of ministerial responsibility. So, for example, we have had no minister of education for months, and if, as many predict, there will now be Knesset elections in several months, whoever is given the position now will probably leave it then. Meanwhile, a huge, centralized public school system drifts along with no policy leadership.

We may have the only democracy in the Middle East, but it is far from a perfect one. Then again, if I lived in Italy, or Florida, I would probably feel a similar frustration. Maybe democracy is inherently imperfect, given that it is the rule of the people - who are certainly imperfect!

 

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