Does Israel Need Electoral Reform?
As Israel heads towards its fifth election in less than four years, a growing number of people are calling for electoral reform. But is the source of the Jewish state’s recent political instability really a product of how the country elects its leaders, or is it something else? Israel has had the same electoral system for all of its 74 years, with the exception of 2001, when separate elections were held for the Knesset and prime minister. The only other aspect of the system that has changed over the years has been the electoral threshold. Israeli law requires that elections be held every four years, and for most of the country’s history, elections have taken place an average of every three to four years.
It’s only been in the last two decades or so that elections in the Jewish state have become more frequent than many Israelis would like. If we take into account Israel’s upcoming elections on November 1st, Israel will have had 11 elections since the beginning of the 21st century, which means that in the last 22 years, elections will have taken place on an average of every 2 years. Since Israel’s electoral system has been the same during both periods of relative stability and periods of instability, it is logical to conclude that the cause of the Jewish state’s political turmoil is not the electoral system, but something else.
That something else is Israeli society. A society characterized by deep divisions among various sectors of the population that are in a constant state of struggle with each other. Jews vs. Arabs, Ashkenazim vs. Mizrahim, religious vs. secular, left wing vs. right wing, and the list goes on and on. Israel’s electoral landscape is a product of these divisions and rivalries. No amount of electoral reform is going to change Israeli society.
Nevertheless, there are changes to Israel’s electoral system that can be implemented in order to encourage greater stability and make it so that Israeli governments complete their full terms. One reform that should never be considered, however, is ditching proportional representation. Critics of Israel’s electoral system often point to proportional representation as the reason Israeli politics is so dysfunctional. Most of these critics prefer a system like the one used in the US, UK, and Canada, often called first-past-the-post, where a country or subnational jurisdiction is divided into different electoral districts and politicians are elected based on who obtains the most votes in each district. But this system is flawed in so many ways. Its biggest flaw is that it inaccurately reflects the will of the voters. One party can control the government without even receiving a majority of votes. If this doesn’t sound like democracy to you, it’s because first-past-the-post is inherently undemocratic. The overwhelming majority of the world’s mature democracies use proportional representation because proportional representation means that almost everyone’s vote counts. Moreover, most countries that use proportional representation have stable governments that live out their full terms. Therefore, proportional representation in and of itself is not the reason for Israel’s political instability.
It is possible to reform Israel’s electoral system while maintaining proportional representation. One change recently suggested by former prime ministerial advisor, Mark Regev, in an article published by The Jerusalem Post, is to automatically give the leader of the largest party the right to form a government. Presently, the President of Israel can choose who will form the next government, but removing this power and automatically assigning the task of forming a government to the leader of the largest party will encourage Israeli voters to vote for the larger parties, as opposed to voting for smaller parties that often represent the narrow interests of certain sectors of Israeli society.
Another possible reform would involve changing the electoral threshold, which determines the minimum percentage of the vote a party must obtain in order to be allocated seats in the Knesset. Israel’s electoral threshold has changed several times. It was 1% until 1988, when it was raised to 1.5%. In 2003, it was raised to 2%, and in 2014, it was set at its current level of 3.25%. Changing this threshold could significantly impact future Israeli elections.
The question is, should the threshold be raised or lowered? Many would suggest raising the threshold so that smaller parties are less likely to gain representation in the Knesset, and so voters are encouraged to vote for larger parties with broader support bases. But does the presence of fewer political parties make forming and maintaining a government easier? Not necessarily. In fact, as Israel’s electoral threshold has increased, so has the frequency of elections. Elections were significantly less frequent in the period between 1949 and 1988, when the threshold was just 1%. Contrast this with the period between 2014 and today, in which Israel is heading towards its sixth election in eight years! Clearly, a higher electoral threshold does not make it easier to form a government, at least not in Israel. Thus, lowering Israel’s electoral threshold would probably make more sense than raising it. A lower threshold may lead to more parties in the Knesset, but that also means that whoever is tasked with forming a government in the future will have more choices of parties to work with.
Now of course, reforming the electoral system by giving the largest party the automatic right to form a government, while at the same time lowering the electoral threshold sounds like a contradiction, because on the one hand, you’re encouraging voters to vote for larger parties, but on the other hand, you’re making it easier for smaller parties to get elected. Inasmuch as this is a contradiction, however, it may be the only way of getting the majority of Israeli politicians to support electoral reform, since changing the way Israel’s elections work will depend on both large and small parties agreeing to implement it. Therefore, any suggested changes to the Jewish state’s electoral system will need to give both large and small parties something that has the potential to improve their fortunes in future elections.
Unfortunately, no electoral reform can be implemented in time for the upcoming vote. Hence, all Israelis can do now is hope that the results of the November 1st vote will yield something the country hasn’t seen in years: a strong, stable government.