Say no to a two-party system

Yesh Atid, a likely coalition partner, will probably reignite the debate over electoral reform following its entry into the government.

March 11, 2013 22:20
3 minute read.
Yair Lapid makes first speech before Knesset, Feb 11

Yair Lapid 370. (photo credit: LAHAV HARKOV)

Israel’s electoral system seems to be despised by almost everyone. Is it not those small, pesky parties that create so much instability in governance? It is analyses like this that lead many Israelis to support a two-party system, even though the current system is by far the best choice for the Jewish state.

Under the status quo, party lists compete for representation in the Knesset in a system of proportional representation. With a guarantee of Knesset seats for parties that win more than two percent of the vote, tiny parties are often able to squeak past the electoral threshold. This creates difficulties for the prime minister, who is forced to create unstable coalition governments comprised of many small parties.

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To solve this problem, many suggest Israel should adopt a two-party system.

The ways to achieve this goal vary. Some suggest the establishment of district-based elections, others propose a dramatic increase in the electoral threshold. These proponents suggest that, with just one right-wing party and one left-wing party, Israel can eradicate political gridlock.

Unfortunately, it is these people that often neglect to appreciate the true beauty of Israel’s pluralistic system. It is a true testament to the existence of Israeli democracy that Jews of Russian descent, Ashkenazi haredim, Sephardi haredim, Religious Zionists, Arabs, liberal-secularists and Muslims all have parties that represent their own interests. In a two-party system, this diversity would disappear, posing an enormous issue with regard to voter identification.

For instance, the proposed right-wing party would have an unusual blend of secular nationalism, Haredi Zionism, haredi non-Zionism and Religious Zionism.

Would right-wing voters, who are normally able to vote based on their specific preferences, feel comfortable voting for a party that has no ideological cohesiveness? Frankly, it is absurd to imagine Reuven Rivlin (Likud Beytenu) and Eli Yishai (Shas) as members of the same party.

The same is true of the proposed leftwing party. Is it practical to place Haneen Zoabi in the same faction as both Yair Lapid and Shelly Yacimovich? If a system like this is ultimately created, one should not be surprised to witness a dramatic drop in voter turnout. Such has been the case in the United States, where many voters stay at home due to a lack of voter identification.

Ultimately, this conundrum forces us to answer a very significant question: How can Israel maintain its pluralism and increase coalition stability at the same time? There are three main changes Israel can implement that would satisfy both these requirements. Raising the electoral threshold to 3% would be a good place to start.

This would not only lower the total number of parties that enter the Knesset, but also increase the size of the parties that ultimately gain representation.

Additionally, Israel’s Basic Laws should include a provision allowing the leader of the largest faction to have the first chance at forming a government following an election. This would encourage ideologically similar parties to run on joint tickets, and encourage the electorate to vote for larger parties.

Finally, the breakup of factions following an election should become completely illegal.

The former two points have no impact if factions can later subdivide into multiple mini-parties.

Some may consider this solution too moderate, yet those critics should take a keen look at Israeli history before they seek to offer sweeping reform. Back in the 1990s, Israel’s electoral system was reformed so that the prime minister would be elected directly. This reform sought to strengthen the stability of the coalition, yet the reform led many voters to split their vote and strengthen small parties even further.

This horrible system was later replaced with the old system, and although stability was never achieved, Israel learned a valuable lesson: Radical reformation can backfire.

Why does this matter now? Yesh Atid, a likely coalition partner, will probably reignite the debate over electoral reform following its entry into the government.

When that debate happens, the people of Israel need to know the true nature of all their options so they can make a constructive decision about political reform.

Only this will bring about the much needed change the people of Israel deserve. To the chagrin of those that yearn to make the Knesset look more like Congress, the establishment of a two-party system will just make the situation a lot worse.

The writer is a student at New York University.

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