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Thursday, 22 June, 2000, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
Israel's paralysing democracy
Israeli flag
Governability has been undermined
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

Israel's electoral system has come under fire following the instability in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's governing coalition.

Ironically, the system was established four years ago to try to put an end to the coalition crises that dogged previous governments.

A system that panders to single, sectional issues and multiple tiny party interests is paralysing

Rosemary Hollis, Middle East analyst
But many people fear that unless it is changed again, the country could become ungovernable.

"The new system has undermined governability and deepened the fragmentation in the political arena," says Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

"It has proved to be the worst political structural change imaginable."

Two votes, many parties

The system - brought in for the 1996 elections - gives voters two ballots: one for prime minister and one for parliament (the Knesset).

Under the previous method, politicians found themselves unable to form single-party governments and were forced into trying to form coalitions from a plethora of other parties.

There is a serious concern that Israel is becoming ungovernable

Mark Heller, Tel Aviv university
The problem was exacerbated because the numerous small parties could be elected with as little as 1% of the national vote.

Elections produced a series of shaky governments held hostage by their junior partners.

Coalition horse-trading led to large administrative and financial payoffs, with small parties being offered either prestigious ministries or generous handouts from the state budget for their voters' interests.

The 1996 introduction of direct prime ministerial election - with an absolute majority of 50% required - was meant to provide a clear mandate to rule and authority for dealing with the small parties.

There was also an assumption that Knesset votes would follow roughly the same party allegiances as votes for the prime minister.

Ticket splitters

However, as it turned out, the twin ballot allowed voters to "ticket split" - voting on the one hand for someone they believed would be right for the country, and on the other to further their own political, ethnic or religious interests.

Ehud Barak
Mr Barak has inherited what many describe as an unworkable system
"A system that panders to singular, sectional issues and multiple tiny party interests is paralysing.

"The problems are great when there is low-level voter support," says Dr Rosemary Hollis of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Another problem was that polling thresholds were not changed drastically under the new system - being raised only to 1.5%, which still allowed smaller parties to get parliamentary seats.

"The result was that the two major parties, Likud and Labour, were shattered," says Arye Carmon.

The previous government to Mr Barak's, that of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, was paralysed by instability in the end.

Assisted suicide

"There is a serious concern that Israel is becoming ungovernable," says Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University.

Some lawyers and Knesset deputies are calling for a return to the old electoral law. A move to repeal the 1996 change has already passed its first hearing.

"There is a window of hope that in the time left, there could be some tinkering with the system.

"There is support in the opposition, especially with Likud," says Dr Heller.

But a reversion to the old system would not change the political reality.

However, Dr Heller says a rise in the parliamentary threshold to 5% - following the example of Germany - could flush out some of the tiny parties.

"The problem is that for the smaller parties, this would be assisted suicide, and that's not what they're about."

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See also:

21 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Barak's political battlefield
21 Jun 00 | Middle East
Shas: Breaking the Israeli mould
21 Jun 00 | Middle East
Barak rules out early elections
15 Jun 00 | Middle East
Arafat scorns Israeli peace effort
01 May 00 | Middle East
Barak faces coalition break-up
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