Monday, 7 July 2008

Democracy: Dem-All-Crazy, Crazy-Dem-All, Demonstration of Craze, Crazy Demonstration

'In a political crisis, there are two valves that can be used to find a solution: money and ego. I prevented the money valve, they had no choice but to give up on the ego.' Roni Bar-On, Israel's Finance Minister, quoted in Ha'aretz last week.

I won't bore you with the latest in the interminable battle for supremacy between Mr Olmert and Mr Barak. However, if there is one thing and one thing alone I have learnt from living in Israel, it is that Proportional Representation, as a means of selecting the legislative wing of a government, is a Very Bad Idea indeed.

I used to be a fan of it - for a while, back in the days when I was young and naive (specifically, if you are wondering, round about 1997, when the Lib Dems in England were promising the hypothecation of, I think, 1p in the basic rate of income tax to be used to fund the education system in the United Kingdom. I'm no longer a big fan of either hypothecation or the Lib Dems, although I do believe that a government has an absolute duty to fund education up until University - or alternative. But I digress...) until I realised it created what can only be described as the harlot's prerogative through the ages - power without responsibility.

To explain - the threshold for representation in the Knesset is, I think, 2.5% (I can't be arsed checking - it'll take too long). In effect, it means that any party organised enough to identify and mobilise its core vote can expect some representation in the country's parliament.

Proportional Representation militates against an absolute dominance of the parliament by any one party, and instead promotes consensus and coalition building. In theory. In practice, small parties with no intention and no real desire to rule the country can hold the bigger blocks to ransom, demanding lord knows what in return for their vote. In truth, it sounds a bit like Hamas before they made the mistake of winning the elections in 2006...

There isn't any one culprit in this stupid state of affairs - the religious parties, like Shas are usually pretty good in exhorting cash for social projects, 'independence' from the school curriculum for their schools (I use the word 'independence' advisedly, since this practice merely reinforces a modern type of slavery, in my opinion - but that's another matter altogether) and increased welfare payments for large impoverished families - their usual constituency. But they merely play the game well. Everyone is culpable to some extent.

Bibi, for example, slashed welfare payments and introduced the return-to-work Wisconsin Plan when he was Finance Minister a few years ago. Economic eggheads think that it was a wonderful thing, and helped pull Israel out of a recession. I'm not so sure, but since I can't manage my own resources effectively, I'll hold my counsel...

Anyway, Bibi is itching to get back into the Prime Ministerial seat again, but doesn't want to be the one holding the bloody knife when Mr Olmert is finally put out of his, and the country's, misery. So he let it be known that he will bump up welfare payments again if Shas, currently a minority member of the current administration, withdrew their support for Mr Olmert.

Which is about as unprincipled as one can get. To their credit, Shas refused - possibly holding out for something better...

Another example was Avigdor Lieberman's brief tenure as Strategic Affairs Minister, a reward for bringing his party, Israel Beitenu (Israel, Our Home) into the coalition for a brief while. Since Mr Lieberman, broadly speaking, carries a grudge against the non-Jewish world in general and Arabs in particular, this was a particularly inspired move, akin to handing the keys to the asylum to the most crazed inhabitant on grounds of seniority. Thankfully, he didn't last long before carefully shooting himself in both feet.

My point, essentially, is that proportional representation is actually the antithesis of good democracy (a contradiction in terms in itself, but never mind), and anyone who argues otherwise ought to watch the political scene here for a little while, and weep.


Sometimes - not very often, mind - I actually feel a little sorry for Tricky Udi, Prime Minister. Even if what he says about the Talansky affair is true, that the money was merely for campaign purposes, he has been at the very least unethical in accepting money under the table, as it were. But he isn't alone.

Campaign funding is a murky, messy business. Ask Teflon Tony, or Bertie Ahern, for example. These two achieved perhaps the most momentous peace treaty since Camp David, but all everyone remembers now is that the one was flogging off knighthoods in return for party donations (allegedly, obviously), and the other...well, libel laws being what they are, I won't go into it, other than to say that Irish Taoiseachs have a proud tradition of accepting brown envelopes from industrialists in return for...nah, I'd better stop there.

There was an interesting - and depressing - article in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago about Sheldon Adelson, the third richest man in the world (and the richest Jew, by his own estimation). He sees no reason why he shouldn't use his riches to subvert - whoops, slip of the keyboard there - influence democracy to suit his needs. Results so far are mixed.

But I do wonder why I bother to vote.*

The child is awake. Time to play. Have a good day.

*Why do I vote? Because I thnk that everyone should be entitled to have a view, no matter how misinformed, about affairs of state, and to participate in the manner in which they are administered. Because occasionally - not very often, but occasionally - voting does change things, and I am an optimist. Because people died in order for me to be sniffy about the state of democracy today. Because I don't believe in wars.

It's not voting that I am against - it's the manner in which 'democracy' is carried out. There is a great song by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, 'Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense' (the title for today's blog comes from the song), which encapsulates my views pretty much perfectly. I'd have posted an MP3 of it, but my friend administers his musical estate and I'm pretty certain she'll sue me. But if you can find it, listen to it. It's a cracking song.

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