Israeli Election Results Show Responsiveness of Proportional System

by Devin McCarthy // Published January 24, 2013

Yesh Atid supporters celebrate their party's successful election / AP

In a result that has shocked many political observers, Israel's January 22 elections saw Israelis cast votes in roughly equal numbers for parties in the current left and right coalitions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud Yisrael Beteinu party list was expected to cruise to electoral victory, and even expand the slim majority that the right wing coalition had held in the previous parliament. Instead, the results likely will force Netanyahu to form a more moderate coalition, giving the new center-left party Yesh Atid a substantial role in government after its strong electoral performance.

As election analysts marvel over the dramatic rise of Yesh Atid, the untold story of the election is the fluid way in which the Israeli electoral system responded to changes in the political views of Israelis. When the popular tide turned against Netanyahu and the right wing in the leadup to the election, Israelis felt that they had a real chance to change their government, unimpeded by electoral rules. That's because Israel uses a proportional representation system to elect its legislature - a system that is very different to our winner-take-all American system, as I explained before the election.

This responsiveness stands in stark contrast to the intractability of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2012 elections, in which the Republican majority only slightly declined despite resounding nationwide popular support for Democrats. Because of Israel's proportional system, its leadership is fully accountable to its people, something which cannot be said for the American Congress.

That is not to imply that the Israeli electoral system had a perfect showing on Tuesday, as it exhibited many of the problems that I noted in my prior post. There were seven parties that received less than 6% but more than 2% (the threshold for election) of the vote, making for a complicated coalition-building process. Furthermore, Israelis were not able to choose any of the specific representatives who will be seated in the Knesset in the general election due to Israel's use of a closed party list system.

While there are many groups that are working toward electoral reform in Israel, no one is seriously proposing switching to a single-member district, winner-take-all model as we use in the U.S. One prominent coalition of reform groups, called Save Israeli Democracy, is advocating dividing Israel into medium-sized multi-member districts using proportional systems - a system very similar to FairVote's Fair Voting Plan for the U.S. House.

Israel's system may not be perfect, but contrasting the outcomes of November 6 and January 22 shows that it is far better than the American model at responding to the will of its voters.