During the 2015 Knesset elections, Benjamin Netanyahu committed to reform Israel’s voting system so as to free the prime minister from the permanent blackmail of his coalition partners. More than one year after the swearing in of the current government, this commitment seems to have been forgotten even though the blackmail of junior coalition partners is far from having abated, as we were just reminded by the threats of the ultra-orthodox parties over railway constructions during the Sabbath. Whether or not Netanyahu intends to honor his campaign pledge, he would be well-advised to accurately assess the actual ills of Israel’s political system and to avoid counter-productive reforms.
When he presented his government to the Knesset in May 2015 Netanyahu claimed Israel needs electoral reform because its governments are chronically unstable. He mentioned that in the past 66 years (since 1949), Israel has had 33 governments. An average two-year lifespan for a government is indeed a clear sign of instability. Yet this two-year average is misleading because, in most cases, the tenure of Israeli government was shortened not because of motions of no confidence or coalition crises, but because of extraneous circumstances.
Only once in Israel’s history has a government been toppled by a motion of no confidence (in 1990). Nine governments were shortened because of the prime minister’s resignation (in 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1963, 1964, 1974, and 1993), and two because of the prime minister’s death (Levy Eshkol died of a heart attack in 1969, and Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995). Between 1984 and 1988 there were two governments because this is what had been agreed in the “rotation agreement” between Labor and Likud. In 2001, a new government was formed after Ehud Barak called a snap election.
As in other parliamentary democracies, there are every so often early elections in Israel, but not within unreasonably short intervals: the average lifespan of the Knesset has been three-and-a-half years since 1949 (i.e. six months short of the four years mandated by law). So Israel suffers neither from chronic early elections, nor from serial motions of no confidence (which characterized the Third and Fourth French Republics, as well as Italy before 1994). And yet Israelis have been eager to reform their political system since the 1990 political crisis, when the ultra-Orthodox parties extorted both Labor and Likud for the formation of a new government.
Because the 1990 political crisis exposed the excessive powers of mid-sized parties, the public mood wanted to take away from them the ability to determine the prime minister’s identity. In 1992, a new law was passed for the direct election of the prime minister. This reform created an awkward system with no parallel or precedent. In parliamentary democracies, the prime minister and his government are appointed by parliament, while in presidential systems the government is appointed by the president who is himself directly elected by the people. In the new and hybrid Israeli system, voters had to cast two ballots: one for the prime minister, and one for the party of their choice. The new system, therefore, eliminated the incentive to vote for Labor or Likud in order to improve the chance of either party’s leader to become prime minister. As a result, both Labor and Likud decreased in size, thus making it harder to form and maintain coalitions (the 1992 law was subsequently repealed in 2001).
The short-lived law on the direct election of the prime minister was not the only counter-productive reform of Israel’s political system. Since small and middle-sized parties were widely thought to have overplayed their leveraging power in 1990, some thought of simply barring them from parliament by raising the electoral threshold, which stood at 1% until 1992. The electoral threshold was raised to 1.5% in 1992, to 2% in 2003, and to 3.25% in 2014.
Yet, as predicted by political theory and as confirmed by political practice, high electoral thresholds make it actually harder to form and to manage coalitions. The larger the amount of small parties, the wider the coalition options of a designated prime minister, and the wider the coalition alternatives of an acting prime minster blackmailed by his partners. Once small parties are eliminated, those options evaporate and the extortion power of middle-sized parties increases. And, indeed, after the 2015 elections (which took place with a 3.25% threshold), the prime minister had no other choice but to give in to the last-minute demands of the Jewish Home Party, because no coalition alternatives existed.
High electoral thresholds have proven counter-productive in other countries as well. In Germany, for example, the electoral threshold for the lower house (Bundestag) is of 5%. In the 2013 elections, the Liberal Party (the natural ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel) was unable to enter parliament because of the high electoral threshold (and a poor showing), and as a result Merkel was compelled to form a bizarre and unnatural coalition between her conservative party and the Social Democrats. The reason why Germany no longer suffers from the endemic political instability of the Weimar Republic is not because of this 5% threshold but, among other things, because the 1949 constitution introduced the principle of “constructive no confidence” (parliament can topple the government only if it can propose an alternative government backed by a new coalition). Israel also adopted the principle of “constructive no confidence” in 2014. So far, this has been the only positive reform of Israel’s political system. Yet Israel needs an additional reform.
Israel’s political system suffers less from instability than from a lack of accountability. Members of Knesset (MKs) are not answerable to voters. In parties where candidates are selected by the chairman (such as Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” or Avigdor Lieberman’s “Israel Beitenu”), MKs are only answerable to their boss. In parties that hold primaries (such as Likud and Labor), MKs are answerable to interest groups and to shady deal-makers who determine the results of primary elections. On election day, voters select a party but not their representatives.
In countries where voters chose their parliament representatives via electoral districts, such accountability exists. Yet this accountability is, in fact, a trompe l’œil. In the Anglo-Saxon “first past the post” system, voters have a representative whom they can reward or penalize on election day. But since penalizing your representative means voting for his political rival, you need to cross political lines in order to express your discontent. Most polls show that, in district elections, only a small minority of voters (less than 10%) hold their representative accountable to the point of jumping ship politically (in the United States, for example, less than 10% of Democratic voters will vote for a Republican House or Senate candidate because they are dissatisfied with the Democratic incumbent, and vice-versa). So accountability in district elections is theoretical at best. Besides, district elections are not a realistic option in Israel: most MKs oppose them, and Israel is probably too complicated geographically, demographically and politically to design electoral districts.
There is another way, however, to make MKs answerable to their voters: by enabling voters to influence the composition of the list they vote for on election day. Instead of just voting for a party, voters can select the candidates they want to promote on the party’s list before casting their ballot. This system, which exists in some twenty democracies around the world, would partially free candidates from the corruption and Byzantine deal-making that characterize Israel’s pre-Knesset primaries. Admittedly, this “open primaries” system tends to give an advantage to famous candidates, but the Internet and social media offer affordable and effective self-promotion tools.
Such reform would require legislation. The new electoral law should make “open primaries” optional so as not to antagonize political parties that may not want to adopt them, but whose vote will be needed to pass the reform. Even if “open primaries” are optional, parties will have an incentive to adopt them because voters will likely prefer to vote for lists whose composition they can influence. In addition, the electoral threshold should be lowered in order to widen the range of coalition options and alternatives, thus limiting the extortion power of middle-sized parties.
Netanyahu should promote this reform not only to honor his pre-election commitment, but also because it would introduce a long-overdue accountability in Knesset elections and because it might even encourage honest and achieved Israelis to enter politics.