The current Israeli election system is a failure. This seems inarguable. And I am not just talking about the existing stalemate that has withstood two elections and, barring some seismic event, is likely to persist through the next one. I am talking about the consistent overvaluing of the power of smaller, factional parties. I am not just referring to the small religious parties. Right now, one man whose party controls less than 10% of the parliament’s votes and received less than 6% of the national vote, Avigdor Lieberman, has turned out to have the veto over national elections.
Multi-party parliaments may have some strengths in giving a voice to different viewpoints that might otherwise be drowned out. But this works best when there are two dominant parties, or three if the third party can freely line up with one of the other two. As soon as political power diffuses among a larger number of parties – particularly ones that have a locked-in base – one of three things happens.
First, and least harmful, one or two small parties can squeeze some concessions from a dominant party but must otherwise fall in line. This occurs when the dominant party can pick and choose from among a number of partners. While certain policies can become sacred cows (for example, the long-standing exceptions to the Israeli draft laws), such a result does not critically injure the democratic system.
Second, one small party can have a king-maker role. We have seen this recently in the U.K. and Germany. This party then gains an unreasonable amount of leverage and distorts the results of an election. The vast majority of the electorate could be opposed to this small party’s positions, but they could wind up becoming national policy.
The third and worst outcome is if there is no fluid king-maker party, or if that party, such as Lieberman’s, becomes intransigent. Unless the electorate itself changes, then there is a structural breakdown. Here, after two elections that have shown minimal movement in the Israeli citizenry, there is little reason to believe that the third time will be the charm. As a result, Israel will have been governed for over a year by a prime minister who does not have an electoral mandate. That is uncomfortable in relatively safe countries such as Belgium or Denmark nestled in the European Union; it is dangerous and problematic for a country in the threatening Middle East.
The election situation calls for reform. There are many approaches, but mine has two components. First, the threshold for smaller parties should be raised. The current threshold is 3.25% and that is too low. It allows parties that have no real national presence to gain seats. Of course, raising this number will reduce the influence of smaller groups of voters, but in a representative democracy this is a desirable outcome for society as a whole. Functionally, the job of the Israeli parliament is to create laws for the entire nation rather than acting as a trading floor for special interests. There is no magic number, but something between 8% – 10% would create a meaningful screen.
In a parliamentary system with a minimum threshold, however, votes for a small party which does not exceed such threshold turn into wasted votes. Fear of that outcome tends to suppress support for small parties even if they might gain significant support. Individual voters, each worrying that their votes will not count, collectively avoid a party that could cross the threshold. Accordingly, to add credibility to an increased threshold, allowing voters to select a second choice ensures that few votes, if any, are truly wasted. This would allow voters to give support to a small party with a fallback of supporting a larger party.
This is not a panacea. There will still be problems that arise because no system is perfect. But these will be different problems and the current intractable disaster can finally be resolved. It will not be easy to implement, but it will still preserve the essentials of the Israeli parliamentary system while avoiding the defects that have completely frustrated Israelis who want and need a strong government with an mandate from the polls.