by Giles Fraser
Monday, 2
March 2020
Idea
16:34

Proportional representation has trapped Israel in a ghost story

by Giles Fraser
Prime Minister Netanyahu, up on corruption charges, loathed by many, feted by a roughly equal number, appears unremovable from office. Credit: Amir Levy/Getty Images

There is a curious doctrine within the 16th century Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. In this tradition, the soul is on a return journey to God and in order to complete this goal it must fulfil all of the 613 commandments. But given that this may not be possible within the span of a single life, the soul may reincarnate into another body, thus to finish this task. This process is known as gilgul, meaning ‘cycle’ or ‘wheel’. But some souls get stuck in the process. Among them is the dybbuk, a ghostly figure of legend that is suspended between life and death. And the name of the dybbuk that is haunting Israeli politics is Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is the third Israeli election in the last year. A weary electorate is once again being asked to break the deadlock. But it is perfectly possible that little will change. The electoral gilgul will roll on again, looking for progress even though the chances are that things will remain pretty much the same. And there at the centre is Prime Minister Netanyahu, up on corruption charges, loathed by many, feted by a roughly equal number, and seemingly unremovable from office. Israeli politics cannot go back or forwards. It is stuck. And what makes it stuck is Proportional Representation.

The two main parties — Blue and White and Likud — are virtually equal, and not terribly different ideologically, with a whole host of smaller parties making up the difference. In Israel, and because of Proportional Representation, politics is all about the coalitions, with the smaller parties having a disproportionate influence on the makeup of any future government. The names of these parties may change a lot, but no amount of reincarnation can shift the underlying stalemate. And no one is confident that after another electoral cycle that things can change this time either.

Back in the dark days of Autumn 2019, when Brexit was stuck, neither able to go forward or backwards, I flirted with proportional representation as a way to break the log jam. I should have known better. For it was First Past the Post that finally delivered a much needed verdict.

For all its various faults, FPTP has the virtue of forcing different political temperaments to enter into coalitions with each other before elections rather than after them. And this means two things: 1) that we have a clearer view of the alliances we are voting for and 2) that the winning side is more likely to have the freedom to take politics forward. Stuck politics is a ghost story, unable to achieve anything, neither alive nor dead.

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