Lisa Liel

The electoral threshold

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

I’m walking down the street when I see a guy banging a stick against the wall.

“Why are you banging a stick against the wall?” I ask him.

“To keep the tigers away.”

“Hmm,” I say. “But I don’t see any tigers here.”

“See?” he says. “It’s working.”

And then the tiger behind me, which was wandering by and had grown curious about the loud banging sound, leaps over me and tears the guy’s throat out.

The moral of the story? A dumb solution to a problem that doesn’t exist can actually cause the problem you were trying to prevent.

Had the electoral threshold been one seat in the April elections, three parties would have gotten in that didn’t. The New Right, Zehut, and Gesher. Netanyahu would easily have been able to make a coalition that included the New Right and Zehut. This may seem like a result that only benefits the right. But in fact, it’s the democratic result of the elections, based on the actual vote, without votes being thrown away due to the electoral threshold.

In effect, the very problem that the threshold was created to fix – difficulty in making and keeping a stable government – was made much worse by it. The parallel to having our throats ripped out by a tiger was having to pay well over a billion shekels to have another round of elections. That’s aside from the mental and emotional wear and tear on everyone who had to live with another election cycle.

Oddly, the most powerful reaction to the disaster of the April elections wasn’t a demand to lower the threshold. It was a popular demand that parties unite into larger entities. Technical blocs that would get around the threshold. As technical blocs, these would likely break up once elected and thereby circumvent the whole concept of the electoral threshold anyway. But why just circumvent a bad policy when you can simply eliminate it? Furthermore, by pushing small parties into uniting with parties that differ from them significantly, voters are forced to vote for a party they oppose in order to get the party that they support. Again, a highly undemocratic outcome.

Now let’s ask another question. Is having small parties in the Knesset good or bad? Clearly, it’s democratic, because it reflects the desires of the voters. Some would say that this, alone, makes it good. Equally clearly, it means that there are more parties to take into account during coalition negotiations. Some would say that this, alone, makes it bad.

But consider the question: Why are there small parties? After all, if small parties exist, they must serve a need of some sort. In America, for example, there’s a two party system. It’s not exactly enshrined in law (though it’s not exactly not), but as a practical matter, third-party candidates for President never win. That’s because when parties have existed for too long, they become self-perpetuating, and act to exclude new players. But at the same time, they grow stale. They lose their fire. They lose the desire to change things, because the status quo is the air that they breathe and the water that they drink.

It’s natural and positive for new parties to arise in order to challenge the status quo from the outside. The alternative is for a nation to fall into a rut, and for its citizens to grow more and more discontented. We see this now in the United States. The anger and discontent threatening to rip America apart is the inevitable result of two parties that have essentially controlled the entirety of American politics for over a century.

Israel is a young country that’s far from settled. We have a wide array of issues, with a wide variety of views on how to handle them. From economics and security, to culture and education, to the very method by which we elect our government, we have a diversity of views.

Looking at things in that light, we can see why the right wing lost 6-7 seats in April due to the electoral threshold, while the left wing lost only 1-2 seats. The Likud has been in power for decades, and as such, right wing voters are more likely to be discontented with its leadership than a left wing that is represented by Blue & White, a party half of which didn’t even exist until earlier this year. When Labor was always at the helm of the government, in the first few decades of Israel’s existence, most new parties were created on the left. Now, it’s on the right. Labor has been relegated to the status of a minor party on the left, and that’s healthy. There will come a time when the same thing happens to the Likud. A healthy political environment doesn’t remain static, particularly in a quickly changing world.

What can we conclude from all of this? At the moment, it’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll have an essentially undemocratic unity government, or spend another billion shekels on a third round of elections. Neither result is particularly good. But whichever one happens, there needs to be enormous pressure from the electorate to drop the threshold down to a single seat.

Trust me. It’ll keep the tigers away.

About the Author
Lisa Liel lives in Karmiel with her family. She works as a programmer/developer, reads a lot, watches too much TV, does research in Bronze/Iron Age archaeology of the Middle East, and argues a lot on Facebook.