One (Wo)man, One Vote? Not Quite – The System Determines the Result
Israel’s 2022 election result seems to indicate a resounding “mandate” to govern for Netanyahu and his future coalition partners. That’s an optical illusion – or rather, a mathematical one. Paraphrasing what a wag once declared: “there are truths, there are lies, and then there are damned statistics…”. The latter are not necessarily falsehoods, but they can be misleading.
Let’s start with some recent American history. Remember Donald Trump’s “election victory” in 2016? I put that in quotation marks because he actually received three million fewer votes than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. But as is well known, the electoral college is built on a state level, with the winner-take-all approach in each of the 50 states. Trump eked out a win in three “battleground” states, and that carried him over the threshold to victory.
What happened last week in Israel? As with most everything else in the country, the Israeli election system is “complicated.” This might surprise any US citizen living in America who has to slog through innumerable election offices (even local “dog catcher” could be on the ballot). However, once they become an Israeli citizen, the American expat will be pleasantly surprised: there’s only one decision to make – for which single political party to vote. However, the complication arises in the subsequent tallying of the national vote.
Each party receives a percentage of the country’s overall vote that determines the number of its party list members that it will send to the Knesset (out of 120). But in order to be considered for Knesset inclusion, a party has to pass the minimal threshold of 3.25 percent of the overall vote. This is why many smaller Israeli parties will “unite” for the election campaign – to guarantee their passing the threshold. This “threshold” issue might seem to be a minor part of the election, but as we will now see it is critical.
When one adds up all the parties from the Right-wing camp that will form the next government, they received in total a bit over 48.3% of the national vote. Add to that 1.2% of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party and we arrive at 49.5%. Then we add up all the parties from the “anti-Bibi” camp who made it into the Knesset: 42.9%. A clear victory, right? Yes and no. According to the rules of the game, certainly (and thus let there be no doubt: its victory is legitimate). However, the margin is really much, much closer than that because two “anti-Bibi” parties just missed passing the voting threshold: Meretz, garnered 3.19% percent – a mere 0.06% under the threshold! The anti-Zionist, Arab Balad party was also very close to the threshold with 2.9%. Thus, if one adds these two parties’ vote to the anti-Bibi camp, we arrive at 49.0% – a mere half a percent less than Netanyahu’s bloc! (The other 1.5% went to all the “exotic” parties put together, each very far from the threshold and almost all without any ideological position regarding Netanyahu.)
In short, as with Trump’s victory in 2016, this election could easily have ended up in a dead heat – not only in the national vote, but in the apportionment of members of Knesset i.e., 60 for Netanyahu’s bloc, and 60 for the current anti-Bibi, ruling “Change Government.”
What’s the bottom-line message? First, there is no “perfect” voting system. After all, if the voting threshold would have returned to its original 1% (what it had when Israel came into being), it might have resulted in a different political constellation today – by adding a few more parties to the Knesset (several of today’s “joint” parties would certainly run independently). However, that would have made any coalition virtually ungovernable with many parties in the government (this new one will have four – two of which are themselves “joint”).
Second, democracy involves “rules of the game,” and each party has to strategize based on those rules. In this election, the Right-wing bloc did that far better than the Center-Left. Bibi pushed strongly to have Ben-Gvir and Smotrich merge their respective parties. He also found a way to resolve a serious split within the United Torah Judaism party, a split that would have probably led to one of its sub-parties missing the voting threshold. Conversely on the Left, Michaeli from Labor refused to merge with Meretz despite Lapid’s pleas – and as noted above, Meretz is no longer in the Knesset. Balad, too, split from the United Arab Party – and we know how that turned out.
Third and finally: yes, the new governing coalition will have 64 seats, but the national vote hardly suggests a strong “mandate” for its leader Netanyahu. The Israeli people have spoken at the ballot box, but the election “system” has produced an outcome significantly removed from that numerical one (wo)man, one vote result.