Excess factions and electoral reform – there is a remedy

A woman casts her vote in the March 2015 elections (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A woman casts her vote in the March 2015 elections
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The main factor that has weakened and still weakens the Israeli proportional representation electoral system is the all too narrow differential between the two leading political parties (or blocs).
The closeness of the number of votes each rival leading party receives unduly increases the minority influence and magnifies the difficulties in forming a credible coalition government. This was true prior to the introduction of the direct election of the prime minister in 1996 and after its abandonment in 2003. That disastrous experiment exacerbated the problem and resulted in the introduction of the cult of personality. It also split the electorate into its many factions, so much so that in the 2015 general election, the largest party has managed to attract only 25 percent of the popular vote. The 20th Knesset now comprises a collection of small, smaller and even smaller parties fighting for their own narrow interests.
In any reasonable political arena, parties that cannot attract much more than 20% to 25% of the electorate would be considered small parties. This was very true of the 19th Knesset, which could only survive two years due to the unnatural coalition between disparate ideologies. Party leaders had to renege on their promises to their constituents in order to find a place within an emasculated government. Unfortunately, the same appears to be happening again.
Political leaders need to get together to form symbiotic relationships prior to general elections so that they can present voters with two rival political blocs that can each represent plus or minus 40% of the electorate. Coalitions should be made before, rather than after, the election.
Leaders of the smaller parties need to be brave enough to get off the fence and make their compromises prior to the election so that they will not, later, have to inevitably renege on their promises. Parties can still stand separately within the blocs and their leaders will be more comfortable and more effective in government when they are open with their constituents.
Although the Israeli electoral system reverted to the basic PR system in 2003, the electorate has remained split and the cult of personality has persisted to the degree that today, very little political policy is properly debated. Who are you voting for is the order of the day, instead of policy.
The attempts to solve the problem by raising the threshold percentage to 3.25% have failed miserably. It has been a facile exercise. In fact there will be more parties in the current Knesset than there were when the percentage threshold was but 1%. Worse still is the fact that the differential between the “large/small” leading parties remains narrow. Indeed, after the inevitable split of the unnatural pre-election alliances of convenience, there will be more factions in the upcoming 20th Knesset than there were in the 19th! It is also worth noting that in 1996, when the threshold percentage was low, the leftwing Ma’arach faction and the right-wing Likud faction were, between them, able to get support from some 80% of the Israeli electorate, whereas today the Zionist Union and Likud can garner only 20% to 25% each.
Problems arise in every democratic electoral system. The British and American systems with their two or three major political factions disenfranchise minorities and, as we have seen in their recent elections, have also failed to produce the strong governments that their systems were supposed to provide. In all these cases the lack of differential restricts the authority of government.
Political systems cannot easily be transplanted, they need to be compatible with in-situ demographic and cultural environments.
A relatively simple solution to the problem of narrow differentials in Israel is to award the party list that gains the highest number of popular votes a bonus of say 20% or 25% of those votes, at the expense of the other parties, whose votes will be proportionately reduced by much smaller percentages. Vote transfer is not new to the Israeli electoral system, that currently allows for the transfers of votes between parties via the Bader-Ofer formula and pre-election agreements. The proposed transfer of votes will have a softened effect on the minority parties while greatly increasing the essential differential between the leading parties. It is worth noting that in the “winner takes all” systems, the losers lose a full 100% of their votes.
This proposed percentage electoral bonus system has the advantage over current and other proposed systems in that it guards the rights of minorities, removes the argument as to who is the winner, avoids the “winner takes all” system and yet provides the winner of elections with sufficient power to govern in coalition without having to pay too high a price to coalition partners. It also allows the runner-up a major voice in opposition or in coalition and retains the basics of the existing system, which is familiar to the Israeli electorate.
It does not exclude other constructive changes to improve representation or accountability.
The writer is an author and management consultant (retired).