Don't raise the electoral threshold

Increasing percentage of vote needed to enter Knesset diminishes number, impact of small parties, balance of power.

March 29, 2013 09:16

fullknesset370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu finally announced that he had succeeded in forming a government it marked the end of an exhausting, almost two-month negotiation process, marked by distrust, alliances, secret meetings and threats, which ended with haredi parties being voted off coalition island.

It provided an example of the pitfalls of our electoral system and its requirement that the government serve with “the confidence of the Knesset.”

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Obtaining and retaining that confidence in a party-list system often requires reconciling opposing interests, putting various parties’ narrow interests above the national interest, and never knowing how long a government might last.

To bring much-needed stability to Israeli governance, many, including the Israeli Democracy Institute and the “Yesh Sikui” electoral reform movement, call for raising the electoral threshold – the minimum percentage of the vote required for a party to enter the Knesset.

With the newly inaugurated government, they may get their wish. Several coalition partners have declared support for it and the coalition agreements reportedly state that the government will pass legislation raising the threshold from 2 percent (2.4 Knesset seats or approximately 76,000 votes) to 4 percent (4.8 Knesset seats or approximately 152,000 votes). And unlike other electoral reforms – such as district-based elections, which might harm powerful sitting parties – this one would only seem to harm the smallest of parties and benefit the rest, making it a reform that may actually be implemented.

But just as the 1992 reform for direct prime-ministerial elections led to unintended and undesired consequences, this next attempt at patching up the electoral system will not only fail to solve the problem; it will unleash a new set of unintended consequences, which may be impossible to reverse.

RAISING THE threshold would, it is claimed, lead to coalition stability by ridding us of those pesky small parties, making coalition formation a lot simpler.

Fewer parties means fewer coalition partners to satisfy in forming a government and holding it together. And no longer would small parties be able to exert influence disproportionate to their size.

In recent coalition negotiations, however, the prime minister hardly engaged any small parties. Negotiation woes were instead due to the mid-size parties. Their relatively greater size translated into greater demands, greater influence on the coalition, and, in the eyes of the prime minister, a greater threat to the government’s survival, since any one of them might bring down the government. So a larger coalition was needed, which meant more conflicting demands to satisfy.

If, instead, there were a number of smaller parties, Netanyahu might have had an easier time courting them.

Disqualifying small parties and redistributing their electoral worth across the political map, however, means that the current situation, in which mid-size parties have the upper hand and in which achieving stable government is no less arduous a task, will likely become the norm.

Other undesired consequences would also follow. For instance, the protection provided to minority sectors and minority political views – one of the few positive features of the proportional system – would be eliminated.

THE GREATEST danger would be the artificial consolidation and entrenchment of power in the hands of the few.

Practically, many five-seat, six-seat or even larger parties would likely be caught in the threshold’s disqualifying net as they would not be comfortable with the risk of elimination if they are unlucky enough to drop several percentage points on election day. Over time, even the brave among them would eventually stumble and be eliminated. So even parties who do not necessarily qualify for “small and pesky” status would be forced out via elimination, merger, or calling it quits.

The creation of a new party would also be an extremely risky endeavor. It would only be realistic if the new party leader was immensely popular and if the parties from whom the new party would draw support were equally unpopular. And even if the new party passed the threshold initially, over time it is still liable to disappear.

In such circumstances, Yair Lapid might not have formed Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni might not have formed Hatnua, leaving both Kadima and Labor to reap the benefits, though we now know voters prefer otherwise. And who knows how the threshold would affect voters’ willingness to consider new parties and skew the preliminary polling relied upon by would-be politicians before jumping into the fray?

With the risk of challengers both new and old significantly diminished, there would be less incentive for the sitting parties to achieve for the public.

Even worse would be the effect on individual lawmakers.

Today, the typical Knesset member is beholden to internal party players over and above the public – because it is they who set the order of the party list, which for an MK is the true contest of political survival. If an MK is popular with internal party players, and can earn himself a “secure” spot on the party list, he need not concern himself with what the public thinks of him. Conversely, if an MK is popular with the public but disfavored by internal party players, he faces certain political death.

Yet, as it stands today, an MK or candidate retains the option of circumventing the party bosses and appealing directly to the people, by joining or creating a new small party. The current 2 percent threshold already makes this a risky endeavor, a fact which former MKs Rabbi Haim Amsalem, Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari can testify to. Still, the creation of new parties like Yesh Atid and Hatnua show it is not impossible.

The very possibility that a popular politician might embark on such a course empowers him with the party.

The threats posed by both Moshe Kahlon and Aryeh Deri to their former parties, for example, resulted in their advancement: Netanyahu agreed to appoint Kahlon to head the Israel Lands Authority and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef reinstated Deri as Shas co-chairman. Even Naftali Bennett began his political odyssey by announcing the creation of a new party.

TO A GREAT extent, the only way to remain in a nationally elected office or to get there in the first place in Israel is to go along with the inherent corruption of being beholden to internal party players: the party chairman, vote contractors, central committee members, members of a party secretariat, etc. – small groups of people who do not face public scrutiny or voters’ wrath, least of all for how the party list is ordered.

But the possibility of leaving a party for a new one provides some measure of balance and potential for change. Eliminating that potential by raising the threshold would further entrench the often unknown and unseen few as the gatekeepers of political power. Certainly that is not worth the prospect of coalition stability that raising the electoral threshold may or may not provide.

The author is a Likud Central Committee member.

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