Explaining Livni's stunner

The big story was the attrition of left-wing votes to Kadima, but this was not a realigning election.

livni sultry head on hands 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
livni sultry head on hands 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
In his classic poem "To a Mouse," the Scottish bard Robert Burns lamented the sheer frailty of human agency: "But Mousie thou art not alone, in proving foresight may be vain: - The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, do often go but ugly," he wrote. Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud party can empathize. Throughout the recent election campaign, the polls predicted that the Likud would win between 26-35 seats, good enough for first place, with Tzipi Livni's Kadima polling second with 22-29 mandates out of the Knesset's 120 spots. How did Kadima wind up winning in a squeaker, 28 to 27? In spite of Kadima's superior seat total, it turns out that the polls, which had the ambiguously defined "Right" winning the election, were accurate: While Kadima won the most Knesset seats, the so-called "right-wing bloc" (Likud, the religious sects and Israel Beiteinu) kept up its strength and captured 50.9 percent of the popular vote and 65 of the Knesset's seats. The "Left" (Kadima, Labor, Meretz and Hadash), which trailed in initial polling, only captured 39.6% of the popular vote and 48 seats in the Knesset. (The remaining seven seats went to the self-described "Arab parties.") The polls were vindicated, and the Right won the election. That said, within their respective left-wing and right-wing blocs, Kadima performed remarkably well, while the Likud moderately underperformed. This year's "February surprise," in which Kadima edged out Likud 28 mandates to 27, is entirely attributable to the performances of the parties within their base constituencies. MUCH IS BEING made of vote splitting on the Right, and the fracturing of the Likud's electorate among the various other right-leaning parties - especially the bleeding of votes to Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu. Now, were I in charge of the Likud party, I would be embarrassed to have lost so many votes to Lieberman, himself a once-understudy of Likud's virtuoso macher/bagman Yisrael Katz during their days in student politics. Unlike the Talmudic voice from beyond, it is hard to imagine Likud's seasoned political operators cheerily intoning, "My progeny have surpassed me." The Likud could have run a better campaign and surfed higher on the wave of right-wing sentiment that rolled over the country during the Gaza war. Blowing a reputed NIS 7 million on an invisible Internet campaign could not have helped, either. Still, in spite of the tactical errors, the final Likud tally was respectable: It won 42% of the right-wing votes - not a great showing, but a passable one, and par for the course in Israel's mixed-up proportional representation system. The Likud seat total of 27 Knesset mandates was within the predicted polling range, and not a bad outcome for the Netanyahu camp. Under normal circumstances, it would have been good enough for a clear win. THE BIGGER STORY, and the cause of Kadima's seeming success, was the attrition of left-wing votes to the Kadima ticket. "Mistakes were made," explained Defense Minister Ehud Barak, orchestrator and conductor of the latest Gaza war. No kidding. His Labor Party plummeted from a respectable 19 Knesset seats to an all-time low of 12. During the campaign, polls had predicted an average Labor net of 18 mandates. Similarly depressed were Nitzan Horwitz and his far-Left party Meretz, which lost 40% of its voters to Kadima, plummeting from five seats down to three. Meretz's base might still be buying Amos Oz's books, but they are not voting according to his rabbincal hechsher anymore. Conventional wisdom has it that the Meretz base "grew up" as requested by Horwitz during his campaign - but instead of voting for him, it voted Livni. In the shuffle, Kadima wound up with roughly 57% of the votes on the Left - a remarkable showing within its own bloc, good enough to propel it to the highest Knesset seat total in the elections. Where were Kadima's gains won? The biggest Labor Party losses to Kadima came in Haifa, whose dock workers and other unionized laborers historically tilted to the party of Ben-Gurion, but which went an astonishing 28.3% for Kadima this year. Ex-Labor party leader and once-union boss Amir Peretz, he of proud mustache and open shirt collar, performed much better in Haifa in 2006 than did Barak, who, true to his kibbutznik roots, lives in a Phillipe Stark-designed tower in Tel Aviv, and seems to have alienated his base. Similarly, the traditional bastions of Laborite support in Tel Aviv's northern suburbs and exurbs were further worn down (they had started shifting to Kadima last election). Livni, a familiar commodity on the coast where she lives, carried her home district. In sum, Kadima carried its base and Labor did not. THE ELECTORAL FALL-OUT would have been very different had Kadima not made these inroads against Labor. If 5-6% of the left-wing voters had stayed in their traditional Labor and Meretz homes, resulting in a tally of 15-20 Labor seats and 4-5 Meretz spots, the left-wing Knesset seat total would have remained the same, but Kadima would have made off with only 20-24 seats. Five seats can make a world of difference. Many Kadima MKs defected from the Likud side of the Knesset along with Ariel Sharon in 2005. Had Kadima in fact been defeated, even narrowly, these rebel MKs might have been tempted to return to their original political tent on the Right. The prime example is Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish ex-IDF chief of staff and Likudnik, who contested the Kadima leadership and almost withdrew from politics when he lost. It is hard to imagine Mofaz (or Israel's Persian business community, which backs his activities) resigned to being an also-ran. Had Kadima been defeated by Likud, he and others like him would have probably crossed the floor. Having in fact won the election, however, it is hard to imagine that Kadima will suffer defections in the coming days. It also seems unlikely that Labor's losses are permanent. No doubt, the Labor Party's largest natural constituencies are shrinking: union members, government workers, kibbutzniks, and residents of cities with large public works programs make up a diminishing piece of Israel's demographic pie chart. In addition, savvy Kadima operators did much to buy off these shrinking constituencies during their years in charge of the Treasury (e.g., I'm told that Kadima reps frequently visited the HQ of Israel Electric). Still, Barak's Labor should have captured these segments of the electorate, which are ultimately Labor's to lose. Aside from Haifa, Labor was edged out in Sderot, Amir Peretz's back-yard, which tilted to Kadima and Israel Beiteinu this time around. The port and union towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod also underperformed for Labor. The list goes on. A candidate more in touch with Labor's natural constituencies would have held tighter to the base and won more votes. That Labor captured 12 total seats - the same tally as the Likud won when it was trounced in 2006 - indicates that it has reached its natural lower limit of popularity, and it can be expected to rebound next time. THE GREAT THEORIST of elections and voting V.O. Kay defined "a category of elections in which the decisive results of the voting reveal a sharp alteration of the preexisting cleavage within the electorate." He called these "realignment elections." This was not a realigning election. Within the left-wing and right-wing camps, the split may have been unexpected, but the basic divide between Left and Right remains what it has been since Menachem Begin built a new Likud coalition in the late 1970s. Gridlock is perhaps the natural state of Israel's volatile and mercurial proportional representation political system, and the result of last week's vote, which no single party clearly won, and which offers almost no flexibility in coalition building, confirms the point. What is the upshot of all of this? The skeptical traditionalist in me prefers not to conclude with a lament about the entire electoral system and a call to reform the only method of nominating national leaders that modern Israel has ever known. Instead, here's a prognostication: Like it or not, get ready for a defense minister named Lieberman. The writer is a fellow at the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.