The dangers of cosmetic electoral surgery

When Israel last tried its hand at electoral reform, it came up with what political scientist Giovanni Sartori later dubbed “the most incredibly stupid electoral system ever designed“. The reform gave each voter two ballots: one for prime minister and one for the Knesset. This was meant to increase the stability of governing coalitions by taking away the ability of small parties to be kingmakers, blackmailing the largest party. Instead, it led to split-ticketing: people voted for a PM for defence policy and a different party for domestic policy. This vastly inflated the size of the smallest parties, thereby increasing their power within coalitions. The system was soon scrapped.

One would hope that Israel’s decision-makers would have learnt their lesson: don’t issue knee-jerk responses to public demands to “do something” about political polarisation. Think through the political science instead.

The reform that the Knesset will return to in the winter – an increase in the electoral threshold from 2% to 4%, below which parties will receive no representation – is a minor cosmetic change to the present system. Cosmetic surgery may make things look prettier, but it also fails to address underlying pathologies – and bears with it the risk of botching the patient’s body.

Yesh Atid hopes that raising the threshold will “induce smaller parties to join forces with the larger parties thereby minimizing the number of parties in the Knesset”. Yisrael Beiteinu, the co-sponsoring party, agrees.

The mechanism is meant to work by leaving the smaller parties no choice but merging with larger parties in order to survive; there should also be a multiplier effect, given the public’s unwillingness to vote for parties that look set to get wiped out anyway.

That sounds reasonable enough, until one remembers that even with the current 2% threshold, 7% of votes in the 2013 election were cast for parties that failed, and which voters could be virtually certain would fail, to enter the Knesset. The 2% threshold didn’t stop Otzma LeYisrael from running apart from the Jewish Home, nor Chaim Amsalem from going rogue. Nor did the threshold stop voters supporting them, despite understanding they were basically putting their voting slips in the bin.

So if party leaders think they stand a shot of passing even a raised threshold, and know that voters are stubborn enough to vote for them despite the risk of a wasted vote, they could well take their chances. Livni’s party fell just short of 5% of the vote: personally, I am sceptical that the risk of failing to cross the threshold would have induced her to play second fiddle to anyone.

But suppose the reforms do reduce the number of parties. Then what?  Zehava Gal-On will sit with Labour, Livni will crawl to Yesh Atid and Mofaz will ping-pong back to Likud. Nu, ma nishtana? If the same people remain, representing the same diverse interests and opinions in the Knesset, then there will be fewer parties – but they will be more internally divided and fragmented. The Knesset will remain every bit as polarised. Reform would just artificially suppress diversity. Fewer parties comes at the expense of more incoherency within parties.

Every large party in the Western world has internal factions: just because they run on the same label, they don’t always vote the same way. The same spread of votes can co-exist with fewer official parties. The change is cosmetic.

Moreover, reform would not reduce the number of parties in government: the bill’s stated aim. In the last election, Hatnua was the only party that made the coalition with less than 5% of the vote share. The parties that face extinction – Meretz and the Arab parties – are not the ones that blackmail the the largest party in coalition negotiations, because they are never involved in these negotiations. The reform addresses a misidentified problem!

Electoral reform can have side-effects. If the threshold rises, the only hope for the Arab parties to survive (short of increasing their turnout relative to the Jewish vote) is to unite into one, big United Arab Party. Mr Netanyahu would do well to consider whether he wants a large and disaffected national minority to be represented by a single party leader, who can claim to speak on behalf of them all. He should also do well to consider the nightmare scenario in which the Arab parties fail to unite, leaving the next Knesset with no Arab representation.

There is an added danger: the higher the threshold, the more volatile the swings in seat shares that even small changes in voter preferences can have. Lieberman wanted a 10% threshold. Behold what happened in Turkey in 2002: none of the parties in the previous parliament crossed the 10% threshold, leaving the AKP to win 2/3 of the seats on 1/3 of the vote. 

Israel’s problem is not the electoral system: it is the fact that its society is deeply fragmented and polarised. No change to the rules is going to be able to change that fact: permissive electoral systems reflect diversity within society. Even if the reform successfully reduces the number of parties, the surviving parties will have to find ways to accommodate and represent the interests of the smaller parties, unless their voters are to be denied electoral representation altogether. If they fail, the result could be rather ugly. Botched cosmetic surgery indeed. 

About the Author
Eylon A. Levy is a news anchor and correspondent at i24NEWS. He is a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge. Get in touch: