Analysis: A very Israeli election

Deeply divided electorate, post-vote confusion, rival victory claims.

election mess 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
election mess 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
“The people have spoken,” several British politicians rushed to proclaim on Friday morning, “but we don’t quite know what they’ve said.”
As the vote count drew toward its close after Thursday’s UK general elections, the frontrunning Conservatives had narrowly failed to win a parliamentary majority; the Labor incumbents, though lagging well behind, had chosen not to admit defeat; the Liberal Democrats had not scored the breakthrough they had anticipated but still had a potentially pivotal role to play… and a highly unusual degree of confusion reigned at Westminster.
Watching from Israel, however, there was much that was familiar. Precisely as was the case here last year, the publication of the TV exit polls 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.
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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 “has lost its mandate to govern this country.”
The trouble for Cameron, however, was that while the Conservatives have indeed significantly lifted their parliamentary representation, and pushed Labor far back into second place, they have not managed to win the necessary 326 seats for a House of Commons majority. And that failure plunges Britain into a rare, though not unprecedented, power struggle.
Brown is not formally required to resign. Indeed, he vowed overnight to “play my part” in ensuring Britain has “a strong, stable and principled government.” And he demonstrably returned to the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street on Friday morning from his Scottish constituency – striding defiantly through the front door and ignoring reporters’ shouted questions about whether he was going to quit.
“You don’t have to sound quite so horrified,” protested Lord Peter Mandelson, one of Brown’s key advisers, overnight, when his suggestion that Labor could yet cut a deal or two to retain power was met with some spluttering objections by a TV interviewer.
British governments’ formal hold on power depends on their capacity to “command the confidence” of the House of Commons. Behind the scenes now, Brown and his team, and Cameron with his, are frantically reaching out to potential partners, trying to cement formal and less formal alliances that might enable them to win that parliamentary “confidence.” Cameron, as head of the biggest party, obviously has the advantage, but Brown is plainly not going to step aside easily.
As had been widely anticipated before the vote, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are the key potential kingmakers, but they fared far worse than expected – actually losing seats on the last parliament. Labor and the Lib-Dems together can’t muster a parliamentary majority, and that reduces Brown’s propects of hanging on by a lot, and reduces the Lib-Dems’ leverage a fair bit too.
Still, 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 joining a coalition, remains a very real possibility.
Apart from the evidence of a deeply divided electorate, the post-vote confusion and the rival claims of success and moral legitimacy to govern, there were Israeli echoes, too, in a most unBritish chaos at some of the polling stations. Hundreds of people were turned away in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and beyond, deprived of their right to vote because the election officers were overwhelmed by the turnout and couldn’t process all the voters before the 10pm deadline. There were minor scuffles, sit-ins, attempts to prevent ballot boxes being transferred to the counting stations, and a lot of very unhappy rejected would-be voters.
What is entirely unlike Israel, however, is that the records show 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 informal arrangements that enabled them to prevail in crucial votes. 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 about how the British constituency system’s capacity to produce an outcome similarly problematic to Israel’s proportional system will be resolved. A formal coalition, in which the Conservatives or Labor join up with the Lib-Dems and other small parties? A minority government?
There is agreement that the Queen, who like our president has certain ceremonial duties to perform at times of transition like this, must be kept “out of politics” and not remotely drawn into the bickering and the infighting.
And there is also some agreement that the British system, as Lord Mandelson said on Friday morning, “is on its last legs.” Ironically, he and other political leaders are looking to proportional representation as a panacea. We here, of course, know better.