The electoral threshold: Why the rush?

When the electoral threshold was raised in the past, the adjustment was made carefully and gently, with an increase of half a percent at the most.

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)
On Tuesday, the Knesset is expected to approve an increase of the electoral threshold from two percent to 3.25%. This move greatly raises the barrier a political party must overcome to enter the Knesset. There is nothing wrong with raising the electoral threshold, but increasing it dramatically in a single step will cause a great deal of damage.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with a moderate increase of the electoral threshold. The outcry that an increase will deal a fatal blow to democracy and to the principle of representation is exaggerated.
Many democracies place entry barriers to their parliaments, whether by formal electoral thresholds or by other means. Raising the threshold will increase the likelihood of the creation of party alliances and will decrease the number of parties represented in the Knesset. Although views differ on whether fewer parties mean improved governability, reducing the number of parties in the Knesset would stabilize the parliamentary system, simplify the political alternatives presented to the voters, and could even moderate the political discourse.
Some find fault with a high electoral threshold that artificially induces parties to join forces and unite. Thus, for example, voices railed against the increase because it would force the Arab parties to unite, even though they represent very different ideological currents. Perhaps, but Israel’s political history is replete with cases in which parties were forced to band together even if there were essential differences between them. Meretz, in its early days, assembled Socialists and proponents of the free market in a single political framework.
The National Union brought together very different shades of the nationalist Right under its wing, combining members of secular movements with various shades of Religious Zionism.
There are even differences between MK Ahmed Tibi’s Taal party and the United Arab List (Raam); nonetheless, they have run together for several consecutive elections.
Differences in worldviews do not have to be expressed in the establishment of many political parties. There is no democratic theory that holds that every ideological shade must have its own party.
On the contrary, many democracies benefit from the fact that ideological differences are clarified within the party framework rather than through competition between parties, which tends to produce more radical discourse.
Raising the electoral threshold, therefore, should not be labeled anti-democratic or ruled out completely. In the reality of a fragmented Knesset in which the major parties are weak, raising the threshold is even beneficial. However, even if the direction is correct, the dramatic reform that is coming to a vote this week should raise a red flag for two reasons.
First, it is not clear why the coalition is insisting on such a significant increase in one step. Where’s the fire? Why the rush? When the electoral threshold was raised in the past, the adjustment was made carefully and gently, with an increase of half a percent at the most. Increasing the threshold so drastically, from 2% to 3.25%, is an irresponsible step that could lead in the short term to the exclusion of minority parties from the Knesset. The proponents of the initiative should have adopted a gradual approach that would give the parties and the voters time to adjust to the new rules of the game and the ability to respond to them.
Second, it appears that the coalition factions have led an aggressive and intolerant legislative process. Admittedly, it is impossible to say that the move was done in an underhanded, opportunistic manner. Quite the contrary: the Knesset Constitution Committee dedicated many sessions to the matter, during which a variety of views and opinions were heard.
In the end, however, the issue was decided by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who made the final decision.
To a great extent, the lengthy discussions in the Knesset Constitution Committee gave the appearance of joint deliberation of the matter, when in reality the issue was decided outside of the chambers of the committee. The peculiar number that the prime minister and foreign minister came up with – 3.25% – adds to the bitter taste associated with this process. This number, which is completely random, is the result of a meaningless “middle of the road” compromise between a threshold of 4% (which is what is proposed in the original bill) and a threshold of 2.5%, the minimal increase proposed.
When they vote on the bill, the members of the Knesset would do well to adopt one of the reservations appended to the bill, which calls for gradually raising the electoral threshold. First raising the threshold to 2.5%, then in the following elections to 3% would add much needed moderation to the proposal.
Much better to add an element of moderation to a dramatic step forward to improve parliamentary stability, in order to foster inclusiveness and allow voters, political parties and politicians time to adjust.
The author is a researcher in the Political Reform Project at the Israel Democracy Institute.