Israeli Election Plunges into Unknown Direct Vote for Prime Minister May 29 Could Result in Stalemate, 'Crisis'

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WITH the first United States-style primary elections behind them, Israel's plethora of political parties move into top gear today for the most complex and keenly fought balloting in the country's 48-year history.

Israeli elections seldom produce clear winners. But the May 29 elections may be in a league of their own. Untested electoral reforms, several new parties, turmoil over the future of Middle East peace, and the possibility of terrorist attacks make predicting the outcome of the elections a difficult venture for even the most seasoned observers.

A group of undecided voters, estimated at about 25 percent of the electorate, is expected to determine the outcome. Terrorist attacks between now and election day could count heavily against Prime Minister Shimon Peres, whose Labor Party is the current favorite. Party primaries, held for the first time last week, turned out to work more in favor of party machines than new contenders. On May 29, for the first time, Israelis will vote separately for a prime minister and for the party of their choice. In all, 120 legislators will be elected to the Knesset (parliament) on the basis of proportional representation. The new electoral system, rushed through in the last stages of the right-wing Likud government in 1992, combines elements of the US presidential system with the British parliamentary system, a mix some analysts say could result in gridlock. "We've taken everything out there in the world of democracy and put it in a blender, and this is what we are left with," says Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan. In the likely event that neither of the main parties wins a majority, the elected prime minister will have 45 days to form a government by assembling a majority coalition through horse-trading with the smaller parties. If there is a split ballot in which Israeli voters elect a Labor prime minister and a hostile Likud Knesset, Mr. Hazan argues, perpetual government paralysis could be the result. A worst-case scenario If the prime minister-elect fails to present a government to the Knesset within 45 days, there will be special elections only for prime minister but not the Knesset. He can go through this process twice. If he fails the second time, he cannot run again. "If there is a majority in the Knesset hostile to the prime minister, then we have MAD, mutually assured destruction," Hazan says. "In the new system, the worst-case scenario is opposing majorities in the two branches of government in a country divided on the most crucial issues with a high level of floating voters. "Then we are likely to reach a crisis of democracy and not just a crisis of government," Hazan says, as has happened in the past. Of course, it might not come to this. Other analysts argue that the direct election of the prime minister will give the successful candidate a degree of political clout that he would not have had under the previous system. "Whoever wins the election of prime minister will have a fairly good chance of forming a government because of the fear of losing a second election, the fact that he will have a public mandate, and the reality that small parties will be eager to win concessions," says Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolsfeld. …