“I have always said, and I do believe, that the winning or losing of an election is less important than the strengthening of our country and ensuring a better life for our people.” Indira Gandhi
The Israeli electoral system encourages tribalism. The system allows narrow interests to take precedence over wider national interests. We all want our elected leaders to take the famous quote above to heart. But what makes a country strong? Israel prides itself on being a democracy in a region where democratic values are not widely cherished or promoted. The nature of Israeli democracy allows narrow groups to promote their own needs and interests. This is where Indira Ghandi’s goal becomes murky. Does each political party believe that their policies on security, economics, education, and settlements represents the best way to strengthen the country as a whole? Or are they only pushing the interests of their supporters? Are they able to distinguish between the two? The narrow interests represented by many of the political parties in Israel often means that the political process is at best weighed down and at worst deadlocked in its efforts to function and to run the country.
Israel uses a system of proportional representation. This system is alien to many people from English-speaking countries. It means that even with a relatively small number of Knesset seats, a party can hold the balance of power in a coalition government. Our experiences over the last year have shown how even within coalition governments, there are likely to be rifts and disagreements between rival parties. Avigdor Lieberman’s frequent clashes with his Haredi coalition partners over issues such as public Shabbat observance and Haredi enlistment eventually led to both the fall of one government and a second round of elections.
As Israelis prepare to return to the polls next week, it is important to reflect on the current system and how to improve it. Israel will only be strong if narrow interest groups have less influence on the government system. While it’s true that asking politicians to change the political system is a little like asking turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving, the people holding the power are the ones who can change the system. Sadly, I am not sure that those same people will be willing to strengthen the country as a whole if it means weakening their own power.
Yet positive change is still possible. The government should make it advantageous for parties to form together to create larger blocs representing wider interests. To a limited extent this election campaign has seen that happen – the Joint List re-formed, and the Democratic Camp, Yamina and Labor-Gesher have all formed blocs around shared common ground rather than only promoting narrow interests. The government must create incentives for parties to continue to merge – this is ultimately the way to improve the electoral system.
One way that the government has done just that in recent years, is by creating a threshold to enter Knesset. Parties currently must get 3.25% of the vote in order to claim seats in the Parliament. That proved to be too high a bar for the New Right in the last election, so this time they joined with URWP to create the stronger and less narrow “Yamina” bloc. The same applies to Labour and Gesher. Gesher did not pass the threshold, so they have joined with the Labour party. Labor had passed the threshold but were disappointed by the election results.
The threshold has proven successful in forcing blocs to become wider and more inclusive. So let’s raise it further. By raising it to 15-20%, we would quickly see broader blocs forming that would be capable of working together to form coalition governments and therefore function more efficiently than we have seen recently. There are examples such as the United States where having a lot fewer parties has not helped to reduce the influence of a few narrow interest groups. However I believe that this plan would significantly help to improve the political culture from where we are currently. By entrenching the idea of political parties working together to represent the best interests of as many of the country’s citizens as possible, we will have a political culture that really does see strengthening the country as being of more importance than who won or lost the election.