Does the Israeli election result prove PR just doesn't work?

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2009

Whenever electoral reform – ie, proportional representation or ‘fair votes’ – is debated, those who oppose it will almost inevitably use a variation on the following arguments:

• it produces coalition governments which are weak, divided and indecisive (far better, obviously, to have strong government regardless of whether a majority of people actually voted for it);
• coalition are created by political deals in “smoke-filled rooms” which the voters have no control over (unlike our Parliamentary system of whipping and Prime Ministerial patronage, of course);
• The government which emerges bears no relation to the individual parties most voters support (compared with first-past-the-post, where the government formed may bear no relation to the popular vote);
• it’s complicated and confusing for voters (I know, how can the poor things really be expected to understand how to order their preferences numerically, 1, 2, 3 etc?);
• large, multi-member constituencies erode the clear and direct link between voters and their MP in single-member constituencies (whereas under the current system, of course, parties only need campaign in marginal seats, with the vast majority left as largely uncompetitive one-party states).

Anyway, you can bet your bottom dollar that, even as I write, somewhere someone will be writing an article suggesting that Israel’s use of proportional representation is to blame for the current Middle East peace crisis. Oh wait – look! – the Telegraph already has written that article.

So I was pleased to receive today an email from Make Votes Count refuting the “myths and ill-informed comment” that generally accompanies British reporting of elections held under proportional representation. Here’s an extract:

1. The election was very close between the two leading parties. When elections are close, the result takes a while regardless of system – the US Presidential election of 2000 took over a month (and was terminated by a dubious Supreme Court decision), and the 2008 Minnesota Senate election is still undecided! See our pamphlet ‘Close Elections Globally’ for more examples.

2. Israel is a very divided society (religious, ethnic, attitude to peace) and there is a need for even small minorities to get representation. It has an extreme form of PR for this reason. Nobody would suggest having a single national constituency and a very low threshold for election in Britain. You’re not comparing like with like if you compare Israeli PR to elections in Britain.

3. First-past-the-Post wouldn’t exactly be the answer in Israel! You would have a government with low levels of public support, low legitimacy, and low ability to deliver any agreements it enters into.

4. The formation and success of new parties (e.g Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu) in recent years has drained support from Likud and Labour and makes the process of forming a coalition and maintaining a stable government more challenging.

For more information on the Israeli electoral system and commentary from MVC about the Israeli elections, see Make Votes Count’s blog.