If there is one thing you can say for certain when it comes to Israeli politics, it is that start-up parties are incredibly popular, with a capacity for quicker exits than Facebook and Google. Why does this happen and is it good for democracy and stable government?
I first voted in Israel in 1999 and since then there have been four elections for the Knesset. At each election, alongside traditional parties from Meretz and Labor on the left to the National Religious Party (and its various incarnations) and Likud on the right, there has always been a ‘start-up’ party that has captured the imagination primarily of what is known as the “white-tribe,” or middle class Ashkenazi Israelis. The very Israelis who belong to the start-up nation.
In 1999, it was the Center Party, in 2003 it was Shinui headed by Tommy Lapid, in 2006 it was the Pensioners Party and Kadima , who in 2009 won the most seats in the Knesset. Of course the latest super shiny start-up party is Yesh Atid, headed by the super shiny TV star Yair Lapid. Will his party’s fate end differently to the other center parties that preceded Yesh Atid?
Every one of these political start-ups, after achieving their quick exit at the polls and playing crucial roles in the government, has disappeared. Gone, vanished, like a puff of smoke. Kadima went from being the largest party in the last Knesset to the smallest in the current Knesset.
Our craving for new and exciting explains this phenomenon only partly. Most of humanity likes new and exciting. But political revolutions, the type where half of all elected officials are booted out, are not a regular event.
The answer lies with the political system itself.
The system in Israel of proportional representation combined with a low entry barrier is just too irresistible for popular figures – be they from politics or television – who want to exert influence on the Knesset. What this means is that if you can get 80,000 people to vote for you, then your party gets elected to the Knesset. If you are Israel’s single most popular television personality – like Oprah – then it is really a no-brainer.
Also for existing politicians, there is no reason to stick it out with an existing party – especially if you are not in cahoots with the current leader or you didn’t do so well in internal primaries. This is why so many Israeli politicians jump ship. Former Labor Leader and Defense Minister Amir Peretz is the latest incarnation of this – but certainly not the last. Remember when Joe Lieberman became an independent in Connecticut? It was an earth shattering event. Prior to an election in Israel, it happens daily.
The result of this is very weak political parties. As it looks now, Netanyahu will form the next government, as head of a party with less than 20 percent of the Knesset members.
And herein lays the problem for Israeli parliamentary democracy.
In a democracy there is only one type of institution that can legitimately stand up and say: “I want to rule here,” and it is not the army, not the settler movement, not the rabbinate, not big business, not the media and not even civil society.
It is the political party. The political party is the only sanctioned, valid organization that can claim the mantle of leadership in a democracy.
So if political parties are weak. Then democracy is weak. There is a direct link. And other forces step in, and even like it.
Want to know why Israelis for so long accepted and suffered (and still do) monopolies – that resulted in astronomical prices for basic goods and service? It is because the business lobby could play the system of weak political parties to their benefit. The list of things like this could fill a number of Ph.D dissertations.
Political parties themselves have played a significant part in their own weakening, as they go for short term point-scoring, over long term bi/multi-partisan support for strengthening the political party system.
There are those who think that civil society provides the answer to bettering society and democracy, thinking they can ignore the ‘dirty’ political system. This is a false premise as well. While civil society can represent population groups, they do not reflect the will of the people as expressed in a general election. The capacity to tax, spend and regulate rests solely with the government and the Knesset and has far greater impact on civilian lives, than any civil society initiative.
As the euphoria of the elections subsides and we go back to our lives, it seems that politics as usual has returned with coalition negotiations at their height. It will be interesting to see what Lapid insists on as he negotiates his way into Netanyahu’s government.
If he reads his history, he will understand that the only way to ensure his and ‘Yesh Atid’s’ future will be to bring about a change the electoral system, to change the rules of the game to block the next ‘Yesh Atid’ from trying their luck. He may have to compromise on almost everything else, including equal service and restarting the peace process to achieve this.
If that leads to a more robust parliamentary democracy, with stronger political parties, it may be of great service.