Ending the constant coalition crises

One solution is to return to direct election of the prime minister.

Israeli election ballots [File] (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israeli election ballots [File]
As election time draws near, we should all bear in mind that whatever the outcome of the elections, we are ignoring a fundamental, unavoidable problem. Once the elections are over, we shall still be saddled with the same coalition problems as before. The present crisis is the direct and inevitable outcome of Israel’s system of Knesset elections, because of the political divisions which are made possible by our present system of nationwide proportional representation. It is because of this system that yet another coalition crisis is unavoidable.
In the early years of the state – before the political overturn of 1977 – proportional representation functioned more or less adequately.
Concessions were made to lesser parties, in order to form a coalition, but Mapai, the Labor Party, was always in control. There was never the slightest doubt as to who would form a government, or as to who would be at the government’s head. Coalition partnerships were formed with the primary object of keeping Herut and the Liberal Party in opposition.
Today, the situation is totally different.
We have no less than six Knesset factions with more than 10 seats, and less than 20, apiece: Yesh Atid, Labor, the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi and Shas.
Seven other parties each hold seven or fewer mandates, ranging from United Torah Judaism with seven Knesset seats, to Kadima with two.
In the elections of 1981, the Likud held 48 Knesset seats, and Labor 47.
In 1988, the Likud held 40 seats, and Labor 39. Today, even a distribution of electoral mandates like that of 1988 seems an impossible dream.
In 1990 – following the “foul maneuver” and the fall of the national unity government – the electoral system and the system of government became untenable. The question of who should form a government – the Likud or the Labor movement – became dependent on the parties’ ability to tempt individual Knesset members to betray the voters who had put them in office and switch parties in exchange for personal benefits. This system became known as “Kalanterism.”
This crisis gave rise to widespread popular protest, and as a result a law was passed requiring direct election of the prime minister. This law remained in effect during three national elections: May 29, 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected; May 17, 1999, when Ehud Barak was elected; and the sole election of a prime minister, on February 6, 2001, when Ehud Barak was ousted following an electoral maneuver which he himself engineered.
It is widely agreed that the major shortcoming of direct elections is the splintering of the political map into a multitude of factions. The elector, after having cast his vote for prime minister, is free to vote for whatever party he prefers.
However, it became clear in the course of time that this criticism was not viable. Direct election of the prime minister was abolished in 2001. Since that time, we have reverted to again the system of nationwide proportional representation.
Divisions in the political map have grown even deeper – as the present composition of the Knesset shows.
We are back to the same situation as in 1990, with one important difference: Even though “Kalanterism” has been done away with, divisiveness has become even stronger. It is very difficult to form a stable coalition.
We are returning to the polls without having solved the fundamental problem. Some parties will lose Knesset seats, and others will gain; there will be mergers and coalitions, even before the elections. The media will give dramatic coverage to everything, but nothing will have changed in the basic situation, or in the composition of Knesset factions.
There are three possible solutions to the situation I have described.
The first is the adoption of regional elections, such as are practiced in the US and United Kingdom: the country is divided into geographical regions, and whoever gains the most votes in a given region becomes that region’s sole representative. Under this system, small parties tend to combine into large ones. They do this in order to retain a measure of political weight in elected bodies.
The system functions well in the US and the UK, where despite all ideological and social differences there are only two significant political parties in the one country, and three in the other. The need for governability, and for stability, overrides to a certain extent the principle of pure democratic representation.
Past experience has demonstrated the extreme difficulty of switching from proportional to regional representation in Israel, because such a switch must necessarily lead to the extinction of many small political parties.
A second solution is a return to direct election of the prime minister.
This system – despite its not having established itself in Israel – undoubtedly gives rise to greater governability and greater stability. The public knows, immediately after an election has taken place, who is to head the next government. The unscrupulous horse-trading which always precedes the formation of a coalition is curbed; in the struggle to decide who will form a coalition the readiness of politicians to make far-reaching concessions at the expense of the national interest knows no limits.
Direct election also limits the dependence of the prime minister on the various Knesset factions, and reduces the “balance of fear.”
The Knesset can always dismiss the prime minister – but if it does so, it also ends its own term of office. And the reverse is also true: the prime minister can dismiss the Knesset, but in so doing, will put an end to his own term, and bring about new elections.
Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a complicated system, which would be very difficult to resuscitate.
A third solution would be to establish by law that following a national election, whoever is at the head of the party receiving the most votes shall form the new government.
Such a law would establish pressure toward the formation of large parties.
Many of those voters who give their vote to small parties without necessarily having a deep personal commitment to them will move toward larger parties with an ideological base which best suits them.
The power of small parties will be reduced, even if they do not disappear altogether. There is no doubt that this is the likeliest, most practical solution available to us today.
One thing, above all, should remain absolutely clear: so long as we retain the system of nationwide proportional representation, we shall continue to experience one coalition crisis after another, with a heavy cost, in terms of loss of resources, continuing instability of government, and worst of all – a loss of faith in our political system, which will lead to public indifference to everything connected to the democratic process. Today’s coalition crisis once again offers clear proof that we have no alternative, but to reconsider the question of changing our electoral system.
The author was chairman of the Constitutional Committee of the Twelfth Knesset, which sponsored the Law for Direct Election, and abolished Kalanterism.