Electoral reform

In Israel the low threshold tends to encourage the creation of short-lived parties with narrow or radical agendas.

Knesset votes to dissolve itself 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset votes to dissolve itself 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
MK Muhammad Barakei (Hadash) started it. Opposition lawmakers from the Arab parties, from United Torah Judaism, from Meretz and from Labor followed Barakei’s lead. On the Knesset’s podium, they used the speaking time allotted to them to stand in silent protest against legislation that seeks to raise the minimum percentage needed to enter the Knesset from 2 percent of the total vote to 4%.
The opposition MKs’ message on Wednesday night was clear: Raising the electoral threshold would silence the smaller parties – particularly the Arab parties. It was a unique moment of unity that brought together the Belz Hassid MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) and the homosexual MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) to defend the political rights of the Arab minority. The feeling of solidarity was so strong among the opposition members that Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On was driven to tears.
But is the raising of the electoral threshold really worth crying over? Since its founding, Israel’s political stability has been undermined by an extreme proportional representation system. One of its main features is a remarkably low threshold for election to the Knesset. Among Western nations with proportional representation systems, few permit parties representing such as small percentage of the population to receive seats in the parliament. In fact, only the Netherlands seems to have a threshold lower than Israel’s.
Extreme proportional representation systems do not have an illustrious track record. The Weimar Republic had such a system.
In Israel the low threshold tends to encourage the creation of short-lived parties with narrow or radical agendas.
Kach or the Pensioners Party come to mind. It also encourages fractiousness and the splintering of smaller factions from larger ones over minor differences.
Government coalitions that are cobbled together inevitably become a patchwork of diverse factions. And these governments are weakened by chronic division and instability. In many cases, a single party – often a religious one – can bring down a government by abandoning the coalition, giving the party inordinate leverage.
Over the past few decades the sizes of the two largest parties – traditionally Labor and the Likud – have steadily decreased due to the creation of short-lived centrist parties.
Until 1996, the two largest parties together consistently held more than 70 Knesset seats. Since 1999, they have garnered fewer than half the 120 mandates.
Raising the threshold is one step – among others such as institution of a first-past-the-post system with regional representation – that would encourage parties with similar agendas to merge. Ideally, two large parties – one left-wing and one right-wing – that represent the two mainstream positions on cardinal issues such as security and socioeconomics should garner the vast majority of the votes.
Undoubtedly, the proposed change will hurt the small Arab parties – Hadash, Balad and United Arab List-Ta’al.
But clearly the intent of the lawmakers who support the reform is not to discriminate against the Arab parties.
(Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima would not have made it into the Knesset under the 4% rule either.) There might be validity to the Israel Democracy Institute’s claim that the threshold should have been raised incrementally to give smaller parties time to get used to the change. Still, the Arab factions have ample time to form a unified list that will easily pass the threshold. These are parties that represent a fifth of the population.
Ideally, our political culture will change to the point where it will be possible to incorporate haredi and Arab politicians into the largest political parties on the Right and on the Left and there will be no need for parties with narrow agendas that represent specific sectors of society.
The beginnings of such a change are apparent in Yesh Atid, which has managed to incorporate a diverse list of parliamentarians – haredi (Dov Lipman), religious Zionist (Shai Piron) and secular.
Haredi and Arab MKs working within a large political party – the Likud, Labor or some other – would represent the interests of their constituents much better, particularly if the party to which they belong is a member of the government coalition.
Raising the electoral threshold – combined with other reforms in our electoral system – encourages precisely such a change. It should elicit hope, not tears.