September elections might undermine Israeli democracy

Since the 2001 elections, there has been a significant drop in the percentage of voters in Israeli elections.

By CHRISTIAN KAUNERT, ORI WERTMAN
July 6, 2019 18:22
4 minute read.
September elections might undermine Israeli democracy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on the fateful night of May 29, when the Knesset dissolved itself and set September 17 as the date for new elections. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In less than three months, the State of Israel will go through another election. Instead of accepting the decision of the Israeli public, which clearly decided in favor of the right-wing bloc, a dangerous political precedent was created that could harm Israeli democracy.

The results of the elections on April 9 showed a clear victory for the right-wing bloc. It won 65 Knesset seats, while the center-left bloc, together with the Arab parties, won only 55 seats. Theoretically, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not have had much difficulty in forming a government. While 65 Knesset members from the right-wing parties (Likud 35, Shas 8, United Torah Judaism 8, Yisrael Beytenu 5, United Right 5 and Kulanu 4) recommended Netanyahu, only 45 MKs (Blue-White 35, Labor 6 and Meretz 4) supported Gantz (the 10 MKs of the Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al 6 and Ra’am-Balad 4, did not recommend any candidate).

However, Netanyahu was unable to obtain a majority of 61 MKs due to the refusal of Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman to join the government on the grounds that Netanyahu had surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox parties on the subject of drafting haredim into the IDF. In effect, Liberman, who declared during the election campaign that he was an inseparable part of the right-wing bloc and would support Netanyahu, decided to break the rules, and did everything in his power to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government. As a result, after he failed to form a government, Netanyahu led a move to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections in September.

Until recently, Liberman’s political platform traditionally focused only on security issues. Yet his precarious political situation left him no choice but to adopt a different political strategy. The political power of the Yisrael Beytenu chairman – who won a landslide victory in the 2009 elections when his party won 15 Knesset seats after promising that only those who would be loyal to the state could be Israeli citizens (a deliberate message against Israel’s Arabs) – narrowed the gap significantly in the last two elections.

Even though he served under Netanyahu as foreign minister from 2009-2015, and as defense minister from 2016-2018, in the last two elections there were concerns that Yisrael Beytenu would not be able to pass the 3.25% threshold needed to gain representation in the Knesset. In 2015, Yisrael Beytenu won six seats but only five in 2019, a significant drop in support for Liberman. In order to restore public support for him and his party, Liberman had to pull a new rabbit from his hat, and today he presents himself as someone who fights against Orthodox coercion. According to public opinion polls published in June, Liberman’s move seems to have paid off, as it is currently predicted that Yisrael Beytenu is about to double its strength in September.

 

WHETHER IT is the draft law or a political revenge against Netanyahu, it is inconceivable that Liberman, whose party won only five seats, will try to impose his opinion on Netanyahu, whose party won 35, and the other right-wing parties. Thus Liberman, who had declared day and night that he was part of the right-wing bloc under Netanyahu’s leadership, should have accepted the compromise proposed by the prime minister regarding the draft law. Eventually, the Yisrael Beytenu chairman, who preferred to preserve his political survival and suddenly became the defender of the secular public in Israel, dragged Israel into a costly and unnecessary repeat election that might cause the Israeli public to disregard this important democratic tool.

Since the 2001 elections, there has been a significant drop in the percentage of voters in Israeli elections. During the 1980s and 1990s, the voter turnout was around 80%, however, since the 2001 elections, only once (2015) did the turnout pass the 70% threshold. In the other six elections, the turnout was around 65%. In April 2019, which featured a fascinating and close race between the Likud and Blue and White, the turnout was 68%.

While it is hard to point out one main reason for the drop in voter turnout, many will agree that this decline stems from a drop in the public’s confidence in its politicians and in the political system. It appears that the last move to dissolve the Knesset and hold early elections, which stemmed entirely from an irresponsible political move by Liberman, could lead to a further drop in the percentage of voters and a loss of public confidence in Israeli democracy. In addition, a decrease in the percentage of voters will mainly serve the small parties. They will be strengthened at the expense of the large parties, which will further undermine governmental stability in Israel. Worst of all, the main concern is that early elections will become a political norm in Israel, as happened in Italy during the 1990s.

In the State of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, elections should take place once every four years. Otherwise, if early elections are held every time there is a political crisis, many Israelis will lose confidence in the political system and might choose not to vote.

Christian Kaunert is a professor of policing and decurity, the director of the International Center for Policing and Security at the University of South Wales, and Jean Monnet chair of EU counter-terrorism.

Ori Wertman is a PhD candidate at the University of South Wales, was a foreign affairs and political adviser to former Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog, former deputy chairman of the Labor Party Youth, and a former candidate on the Labor list.


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