All the recent polls predict that had the elections been held today, the current coalition would emerge much weaker than it is now. These polls reflect the public mood and the sentiment of the majority that is opposed to the judicial overhaul disgusted by the government’s priorities since it took office four months ago. Citizens who are concerned about the survival of Israeli democracy can draw encouragement from these polls, which also provide a significant push to the impressive protest movement.
The balance of power can still change
But the liberal camp should not let the heady aroma of the polls lead it astray. To begin with, the elections will not be “today” or at any time in the near future. Even if the Knesset does not serve its full term until 2026, political events and developments could shuffle the deck and affect voting preferences. The fluid situation here in Israel could change the balance of power between the two political blocs.
More importantly, it is quite likely that if the judicial overhaul achieves its goals, the next elections will be conducted according to new rules which will engineer the results in a way that benefits the coalition parties and prevents a change of government. It is crystal clear that if the plan to neutralize the High Court, weaken the gatekeepers, and hand over absolute and unlimited power to the government is implemented, changing the electoral system will be the next objective.
Why? The logic is simple: The current government, like every populist government that succeeded in dismantling the checks and balances on the executive power, cannot afford to lose an election. An election defeat will mean handing over this unlimited power to the “privileged and despised elites who do not represent the real people.”
When there are no restraints on what the government can do, the road will be open to “adjustments” (tricks) and “reforms” (schemes and conspiracies) in the electoral process that serve to perpetuate the coalition’s hold on power.
This is not mere speculation. It suffices to look at what has happened in several countries in similar circumstances. In Hungary, when Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister in 2010, his party won a large parliamentary majority that enabled it to rewrite the constitution and revise the political ground rules as it saw fit.
Revising political ground rules
THE FIRST step was to amend the Elections Law, by means of an opaque process with almost no serious political debate. Among other things, the ruling party cut down the size of the parliament and redrew the constituency map in its favor. In addition, it extended the right to vote to ethnic Hungarians living abroad (most of whom identify with Orbán’s nationalist line).
These reforms helped Orbán rack up a huge majority in 2014 and again in 2018 and further tinker with the election laws to benefit him. In advance of the elections in 2022, he changed the law so that it became difficult for rival parties to meet the conditions required to run.
In Turkey, Erdogan has proceeded in a similar fashion. Ahead of this month’s election, his party pushed through changes in several rules that apply to elections: It lowered the threshold, changed the formula for distributing seats in parliament, and transferred challenges to the results to biased judges who would be selected through a lottery.
All these steps work to the advantage of Erdogan and his party. In addition, the Disinformation Law passed about six months ago restricts freedom of the press and imposes limits on social networks and online media outlets. This law is intended to eliminate the possibility of reports of electoral fraud or irregularities and various shenanigans on Election Day.
What about us? If the High Court and the gatekeepers are stripped of their power, the road to “adjustments” and “reforms” will be very short. There will be no need for crude measures that would elicit anguished protests (such as conditioning the right to vote on military service or Torah study). A set of specific ideas ostensibly meant to improve the electoral procedure will suffice.
Some bills of this sort have already been submitted. Of course, all of them are justified by their sponsors with fancy language: from reviving the “Cameras Law,” which is likely to deter Arab voters from going to the polls, through elimination of the national vacation on Election Day, politicization of the Central Elections Committee, and on to making it easy to ban parties. All these measures would work in favor of the current Government.
Israel’s electoral procedure is not perfect, but nevertheless it runs smoothly. Vote-counting proceeds efficiently and reliably, and the public perceives the results as legitimate. This is reflected in the last global Electoral Integrity Index, which ranked Israel 33rd out of 172 countries. However, if the judicial overhaul proceeds, the odds are good that we will soon find ourselves in the neighborhood of Hungary (ranked 97), Venezuela (136), and Turkey (138).
And so, we must not be disillusioned by the polls. We can surely take encouragement from them but must not be lulled into complacency. The battle is far from won; every citizen for whom Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state is precious, must continue the uncompromising struggle against the coup. We simply cannot count on having a second chance.
The writer is a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor at Ashkelon Academic College.