Elections in Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
In an election campaign speech at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for electoral reform that would restore the dominance of Labor and the Likud as the two largest political parties.
“We are splitting into little parties none of which can lead the state and this problem is getting worse,” the prime minister said. “In the last 66 years since the establishment of the state there have been 33 governments – that comes out to an average government lifespan of less than two years. This has cost us billions, not just in election costs but as a result of the economic uncertainty and the lack of governability.”
Netanyahu’s plan, which he promised to implement after March’s election, is to change the law so that it will no longer be the president’s prerogative to choose the party that will form the government coalition; rather the largest party will automatically be given that right.
The reasoning behind the proposal, which has been raised in the past, is that voters vacillating between, say, Meretz and Labor, or between the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, will be more likely to choose Labor or the Likud, respectively.
Even if this were to be true, there will continue to be small parties – particularly those that cater to the haredi or Arab populations. Still, the hope is that Israeli voters will be encouraged to restore our political system to the years before 1996 when either Labor or the Likud consistently received a large plurality of the Knesset’s seats.
Netanyahu also wants to institute a law which would require a super-majority in the Knesset to topple a government.
It is hoped this will help extend the average life of the government.
Since the establishment of the state, electoral reforms have been proposed to make governments more stable and protect them from the dictates of smaller parties that traditionally have been able to leverage their influence because the survival of the coalition depended on their support.
David Ben-Gurion consistently pushed for ending the proportional system of legislative government and switching to Britain’s regional first-past-the post system.
“I do not think that the appearance of 21 competing [party] lists in the Knesset elections in this little country of six or seven hundred thousand inhabitants is the expression of democracy or social maturity,” Ben-Gurion told the Knesset in 1949. “As a Jew, I am ashamed of this sick phenomenon.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In 2008, members of Labor and the Likud co-sponsored an ambitious bill based on the recommendations of an organization called Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel and a President’s Commission for the Examination of the Structure of Government. Both bodies – which operated in mid-2000 – called to elect half of the 120 Knesset members in regional elections; that the cabinet size be reduced to 18 ministers; and that the electoral threshold (then 2 percent) be raised to 2.5%. (The coming election will see, for the first time, the threshold at 3.25%.) Small parties – both religious and liberal – repeatedly foiled efforts over the years to reform the electoral system.
They would be the biggest losers, and opponents, if Netanyahu attempts to push ahead with his idea after the March 17 election.
Back in 2009, Netanyahu acquiesced to Shas and Yisrael Beytenu and shelved electoral reform for the sake of forming a coalition with them. Will he behave in the same way this time around? Even if Netanyahu is successful at implementing some or all of these electoral reforms or others – such as appointing ministers who are not members of political parties in order to minimize the influence of narrow interests such as business and religion on political decision-making – it is not at all certain that he will succeed in improving political stability or governability.
For instance, Italy, despite attempts at electoral reform, continues to suffer endemic political instability. This seems to imply that cultural factors or the unique political challenges faced by certain countries tend to enhance stability.
Improving governability and political stability are noble goals. It is unclear, however, whether, after the election, when Netanyahu is scrambling to cobble together a coalition, he will succeed in following through on his promise for reform. And even if he does, there is no assurance such reform will achieve the goals Netanyahu has set.