Setting electoral threshold at 4% is irresponsible

No Arab minority party in the Knesset has ever attempted, let alone succeeded in, toppling a government.

By YOEL SHERIDAN
August 12, 2013 19:53
Members of the 19th Knesset [file].

Knesset 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )

I strongly object to raising the electoral threshold to a level that will exclude minorities from the Knesset. No Arab minority party in the Knesset has ever attempted, let alone succeeded in, toppling a government. Nor has any left-wing minority party been part of the past shenanigans where dirty deals were done between the majority parties and individuals.

The argument that reducing the number of parties in the Knesset will stabilize the government is belied by past experience here in Israel; all the shenanigans took place when the leading parties each had close to 40 seats each. And the most recent British election results produced instability and forced a coalition in a country whose system is designed to exclude minorities.

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And what can be more deadlocked than the American government, where there are but two parties who have not managed to pass a budget for the past four years? Why should the Arab parties combine when they have strong ideological differences? Why should one expect communists to combine with religious activists? Would one expect the Jewish parties of the Left to combine with the ultra-Orthodox parties? Why the double standards? And what is expected of the joint Jewish and Arab party? Additionally, the exclusion of the Arab voice from the Knesset is detrimental to the social and political well-being of our society because it will divert it to the streets and generate demonstrations and violence.

Where else will they be heard? The following extract from the Israel Declaration of Independence indicates quite clearly that exclusion of minorities from the Knesset is against the basic principles of the Jewish state: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The real fault with the current electoral system in Israel is that it fails to provide a sufficient differential between the number of votes received by the leading political party and the party in second place, and I would suggest the following as a viable solution.

An essential element of democracy is for the minority to have a say without undue power and for the majority to have power, but not absolute power. There are calls in Israel for the replacement of the current system by the “first past the post” system, albeit with some amendments.

There is the claim that electing a representative from a specific constituency will make him or her more accountable to the voters, but the recent scandals in the UK show that this is not necessarily the case.

Honesty and dedication are the real answer to quality government, and while no system can guarantee this, safeguards can be incorporated. In fact, electoral systems fail when the differential between the two major parties is too small. Then, minorities that hold the balance demand a price, well beyond their electoral strength.

This phenomenon has occurred too often in Israel.

The parlous state of the British political system should give cause for re-examination of the electoral system not only in Britain, but also here in Israel. The May 6, 2010, election in Britain revealed the unfairness of the “first past the post constituency voting system.” The Lib Dem party that received 23% of the popular vote gained only 57 seats in Parliament instead of 150 seats to which it would have been entitled under a proportionate representation (PR) system as operated in Israel. Yet the leading party did not get an overall majority and had to form a cooperation government. The first past the post system that is supposed to produce a strong government does not always work.

The fault with the current electoral system in Israel is that it fails to provide a sufficient differential between the number of votes received by the leading political party and the party in second place.

This fact has made it very difficult for any major party in the Knesset to form a coalition without paying too high a political price.

This was true even when the leading parties garnered over 40 mandates, as in the 1980s, prior to the disastrous introduction of the direct election of the prime minister. It is also true today when the leading party has only 21 seats in the Knesset and the second party has 19. This would have produced a differential of only two had there not been a pre-election convenience combination with another party that received only 11 seats! Even this did not avoid the usual problems involved in obtaining the support required to form a government without too many concessions encroaching on the leading party’s basic policies.

There are those who wish to change the electoral system by introducing a presidential system or a regional constituency system or a mixed constituency and proportional representational system. There are also those who wish, misguidedly, to eliminate the smaller parties by dramatically raising the current threshold percentage. In view of our previous bad experience we should be extra-cautious of innovations that require a two-ticket ballot, or are out of character with the Israeli electorate.

None of the proposed changes address the crucial problem of narrow differentials that have plagued the Knesset (and incidentally also the German and American legislative bodies and lately the UK).

A relatively simple solution to the problem of narrow differentials in Israel is to award the party list that gains the highest number of popular votes a bonus of say 20% or 25% of those votes, at the expense of the other parties, whose votes will be proportionately reduced by between five and 15 percent.

Part of the reduction is buffered by the normally lost votes in any proportionate voting system and by the Bader-Ofer and transfer arrangements already current in the Israeli system, so that the transfer of votes would have a softened effect on the minority parties while greatly increasing the essential differential between the leading parties. It is worth noting that in the “winner takes all” systems, the losers lose a full 100% of their votes.

This brief article does not allow for a detailed mathematical explanation and while 20% or 25% seems to be a viable number, it is not in itself sacrosanct. The optimal percentage bonus could be determined objectively by a non-political electoral committee. The resultant increased differential would remove much argument and would enable viable coalitions to be formed with fewer parties in relative comfort.

This proposed percentage electoral bonus system has the advantage over the current and other proposed systems in that it guards the rights of minorities, removes the argument as to who is the winner, it avoids the “winner takes all” system and yet provides the winner of elections with sufficient power to govern in coalition without having to pay too high a price to coalition partners, it allows the runner-up a major voice in opposition or in coalition, and retains the basics of the existing system which is familiar to the Israeli electorate, which should enable all parties in the Knesset to give it serious consideration. It does not exclude the introduction of other representative accountability improvements.

The writer is the author of From Here to Obscurity and Gold Ducats and Devilry Afoot


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