A rather Israeli election crisis

A divided electorate, post-vote confusion...it all sounds familiar.

Cameron holds breath 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Cameron holds breath 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
A divided electorate, post-vote confusion, demands for reform and problems achieving a parliamentary majority. Britain’s new reality sounds rather familiar…
Despite following a totally different election system, Britain this weekend finds itself plunged into a rather Israeli electoral crisis, following a rather Israeli result in Thursday’s general elections. Curiously, however, the solution some are proposing is to reform the British system in the direction of the Israeli one. We, of course, know well enough to advise them strongly against it.
The British public has contrived to disappoint all three of the main parties: Voters gave David Camerons’s frontrunning Conservatives a huge increase in seats but denied them an outright parliamentary majority; they did not destroy but they did brutally punish Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor incumbents; and, perhaps ,most surprising, they flocked away from Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats at the moment of truth, actually reducing Lib-Dem representation in the House of Commons, though still giving Clegg the anticipated role of kingmaker in the hung parliament.
Watching from Israel, there was immediately much that was familiar. Precisely as was the case here last year, the publication of what proved to be a pretty accurate TV exit poll when the polling stations closed their doors produced not the clarity TV viewers had expected but, rather, conflicting claims of victory, dubious assertions of legitimacy and a largely baffled public.
Here, in February 2009, it was Tzipi Livni who hailed victory on behalf of her Kadima party on the basis of its slightly outperforming Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud – a celebratory assertion that was to prove thoroughly unjustified. Netanyahu quickly demonstrated that he, and not she, had the necessary votes to cobble together a coalition and become prime minister.
Over in the UK, in the early hours of Friday morning, it was the Conservatives’ leader David Cameron who rushed to assert that Gordon Brown’s incumbent Labor government had “lost its mandate to govern this country.” The trouble for Cameron was that while Brown’s Labor might indeed have lost the outright mandate to govern, the Conservatives hadn’t quite gained it.
In a striking indication of Britain’s unfamiliarity with the kind of indecisive result that is the norm in Israel but had not been seen there since 1974, it took some leading UK political analysts several hours to internalize the exit poll’s full significance. It was obvious, of course, that Cameron’s Conservatives had bested Brown’s Labor by about 50 seats, yet failed to win the necessary 326 seats for a House of Commons majority. What should have been equally obvious, but was not widely realized at first, was that Labor and Clegg’s Lib-Dems together couldn’t get to 326 either.
It is that failure of the more natural Labor-Lib-Dem alliance to muster a majority that now leaves Cameron trying to negotiate a partnership with Clegg, even though their two parties differ immensely on issues of integration with Europe, immigration policy, aspects of financial policy and, most crucially, electoral reform.
A magnanimous-sounding Cameron on Friday afternoon reached out to Clegg and proposed a “big, open and comprehensive offer” of parliamentary partnership. At a time when Britain faces acute economic challenges and the bitter war in Afghanistan, he said, people don’t want “bickering.” They want “stable government.” And so “I want us to work together,” he all-but pleaded.
The Conservative leader, needless to say, is desperate to turn his party’s advantage into a government that will see him not merely installed as prime minister in the next few days, but capable of holding onto that post for the next four or five years.
The trouble is that Clegg’s priority is to shift away from Britain’s constituency system – an admirable way of choosing members of parliament because it provides a concept so lacking in Israel that we don’t even have a proper Hebrew word for it: accountability. British voters know that they are choosing their own MP, responsible for their local area and their local interests, to be booted out next time if they fail.
The Conservatives like this system – it’s got Cameron back to the threshold of 10 Downing Street after 13 years of Labor’s Tony Blair and Brown. The Lib-Dems loathe it, and with good reason: They won almost a quarter of the votes nationwide, but because of the way the constituencies are drawn, and because of the relatively even Lib-Dem vote, they ended up with less than 10 percent of the seats in parliament. What Clegg and the Lib-Dems want is what we’ve long-since learned to revile here: proportional representation.
So even as Cameron was trying to woo Clegg, the best he could offer on electoral reform was the promise to establish a “cross party committee” on the subject – Westminster-ese for a non-binding forum that would come up with some recommendations that could be staved off endlessly. Cameron may have outscored Brown in the elections, but he didn’t deliver the knock-out blow, so he’s not as strong in his own party as he’d like to be this weekend, and there’s a limit to how far he can drag the Conservatives in Clegg’s direction.
There’s also a limit to what Clegg can accept. He needs overwhelming support from his party’s various institutions for any deal. He campaigned on a ticket of electoral reform, and he cannot now easily abandon that demand in return for a share of power.
To underline the point, a large crowd of protesters gathered to confront him in central London on Saturday afternoon. One of their spokespeople, singer and activist Billy Bragg, observed correctly that “the Conservative Party’s grass roots have no interest in electoral reform” but warned Clegg not to do a deal without it. “It’s very important that we get proportional representation at the next election,” said Bragg.  “It’s not Britain that’s broken; it’s the electoral system…. A fair voting system will enfranchise people across the nation.”
Clegg, coming out to address the crowd, stressed that his entire campaign had been for “better, more transparent politics.” He vowed to use the unique leverage he now has “to usher in a new politics.” Interestingly, however, he did not use the phrase “proportional representation.”
Meanwhile, canny fighter Brown is exercising his legal rights not to give up the prime ministership until or unless he is veritably dragged out of No. 10. He has given an avuncular blessing to the nascent Cameron-Clegg negotiations, and told them to take as much time as they need. But he has also reminded them, and the public, that he will be maintaining his statesmanlike position running the country in the interim, and that if their talks fail, he will be ready to step in and try and cobble together some kind of deal with whichever parties are interested. He’s also promised Clegg what Cameron cannot: Immediate legislation on a referendum for electoral reform.
British governments’ formal hold on power depends on their capacity to “command the confidence” of the House of Commons. This does not mean Cameron and Clegg, or Brown and Clegg should it come to that, are trying to sew up formal, Israeli-style coalition agreements. Britain has not enjoyed – or suffered – a coalition government for 65 years. A handful of times in the last century it was ruled by minority governments – governments that had no majority, but had concluded arrangements that enabled them to prevail in crucial votes. That’s the likely outcome this time, too. The last formal coalition was Winston Churchill’s wartime Labor, Conservative and Liberal government of national unity.
There is precious little sense of unity in British politics this weekend, however, and no certainty yet as to how the British constituency system’s capacity to produce an outcome similarly problematic to Israel’s proportional system will be resolved.
From the Israeli perspective, the prospect feared in Jerusalem of Clegg – who called for a halt to British and EU arms sales to Israel at the height of Operation Cast Lead -- securing control of the Foreign Office, as his price for a Lib-Dem share in power, remains a possibility.
But then, as the British are discovering, and as we have seen demonstrated so often here down the decades, when the electorate delivers a confused mandate to politicians unified only by their thirst for power, most everything is a possibility.