Politicians love to blame the plethora of small parties for the electoral mess we’re in, and their solution for the past few decades has always been to raise the electoral threshold required for a party to get into the Knesset.
But what if they’re wrong? (And they are.)
The Misconception Two legislative revolutions happened that radically changed the Knesset’s makeup and voter habits, which brought us this mess we’re currently in.
But first, let’s clear up a common misconception — that there are suddenly too many parties in the Knesset.
Historically, the number of parties in the Knesset has ranged from 10 to 15 parties. The average since 1949 has been 12.5, and the last 3 governments have only had 12 parties in the Knesset. That’s less than the historical average.
So blaming the problem on the number of parties is incorrect.
But there is something significantly different about all the parties currently in the Knesset, it’s just not about how many parties there are.
The History Before 1992, the Knesset consisted of a big party, generally a second medium party or two, and a lot of small one to four man parties.
In fact, between 30% to 50% of voters voted for small parties – presumably because Israelis want a closer and more responsive relationship with their elected officials.
So what changed?
Before the 1992 elections, Israel had a low electoral threshold (1%). One man parties were common.
That threshold was raised to 1.5%, then to 2% in 2003, and now to 3.25% in 2014.
The big parties keep trying to kill the small parties, thinking it will help both the big parties and the coalition’s stability.
The Unintended Consequence
Voters got cheated in the 1992 election, after the small one-man parties failed to pass the threshold. This resulted in the Right losing control of the coalition and Rabin getting in, even though more citizens voted Right than Left.
But there was a more significant unintended side effect.
It was also the first time since 1977 that the Knesset had more than two parties with more than 10 seats.
Before 1977, it was common, but back then, the leading party always had a very significant lead over the next largest parties.
Since 1992, with more than one medium-sized party, as well as larger “small” parties with 6 to 8 seats, we begin to see that these medium-sized parties having more influence and power than their size should allow.
Individual parties begin to become key to coalition building, and political extortion became the name of the game.
In 1996, there was second change — in the right direction, but not radical enough.
Instead of both direct elections for Knesset members and the Prime Minister, Israel only voted directly for the Prime Minister.
The Second Unintended Consequence
Direct Elections allowed voters the freedom to choose the party they wanted, separate from the Prime Minister – which they eagerly did — but for the first time ever in history, no party had more than 40 seats.
And ever since 1996, no ruling party has even came close to approaching the 40 seat minimum, except Sharon in 2003, who had 38.
This one-time experiment was enough to influence voting behavior ever since.
Voters Fight Back
Legislators had hoped to game the system against the will of the voters, but the voters realized that with proper voting strategies, they could game the system in return and perhaps get the government they wanted.
Voters learned that even without direct elections, they could get the Prime Minister and policies they desired by voting for the medium sized coalition partners they wanted – a wise choice for voters looking for more influence in the political process.
Thus leaving us with lots of small-medium to medium sized parties, and without any large ones.
The lesson is incontrovertible, the higher the electoral threshold, which removes alternatives to choose from, the “smaller” parties become more and more indispensable to any coalition, and the more desirable it becomes to vote for a medium sized party — and not for a large one.
Understanding the Voter
What can be done to fix the situation, to create a more stable government?
First of all, it needs to be recognized that Israelis want to vote directly for their politicians, and not for parties. This is why small one to four man parties were so popular until the big politicians banned them.
Lots of small parties may be unruly, but they don’t result in the exaggerated influence of the midsized parties to disrupt or control the government.
But, even if the threshold laws were canceled, which they should be, I don’t see voting patterns rushing back to their pre-1992 formats, though to a limited extent it will, just not enough to be useful.
After all, voters now understand the power of medium-sized parties.
Increasing the threshold won’t work either, as we’ve seen, each increase just gives more power to the third-tier parties.
And finally, forcing a two party system down the voter’s throats with (for argument’s sake) 45% thresholds, would just leave the voters feeling very cheated.
An Initial Proposal
One solution is to disconnect the executive and legislative branches.
Separate votes, separate powers, real check and balances – basically the American system.
That, tied with direct elections for Knesset members would be the optimal solution.
Only, I don’t see anyone implementing it in the foreseeable future.
A Solution Within the Existing Framework
So what can be done now with what we have? (Not that this is the best solution).
If Israel wants to stay with the parliamentary system, the solution is not as as complex as you might think. It requires two steps.
First of all, remove the minimum electoral threshold. Let people vote for whom they want.
The second is, let the head of the largest elected party become the Prime Minister, automatically, with no requirement at all to assemble a coalition to form the government.
The Intended Consequences
What do I foresee happening?
Only the die-hards will vote for the small parties. Most everyone else will want to make sure the Prime Minister comes from the biggest party that represents them the closest.
We would see a lot of parties consolidating automatically.
There will be a natural push to make sure the Likud or Labor becomes the biggest party.
If the Prime Minister wants to appoint ministers from other parties, he (or she) is welcome to (for instance, if he thinks it will help pass votes in the Knesset), but it won’t be needed.
It could even result in Israel getting professional and not political ministers.
Would It Work?
Would this system be governable?
I believe so.
It would probably require better delineation and definition of powers, and it admittedly could result in a Likud Prime Minister facing off against a large Labor + Arab ad hoc coalition in the Knesset, but if each branch had checks and balances against the other, it would either force them to work together, or create an absolute stalemate.
Resolving the stalemate issue could be done through direct elections of at least some of the Knesset members.
Creating direct electoral accountability means that at least some of the MKs would vote across party lines.
There is a valid concern that one party could win 61 seats. And even though that could happen now, it would be more likely under this system.
A possible solution for that is requiring mid-term elections for half the Knesset in such a case – without affecting the sitting Prime Minister’s government.
Another issue it that Israel is a mosaic of very different sectors.
Having such wide and disparate representation in the Knesset is a good thing. This idea might hurt that, as it’s not clear how well the two big parties would represent the smaller sectors – though I suspect they would court them very nicely.
And of course, its unlikely the MKs would vote for a system that would minimize the size of their own parties. But with all the party talking consolidation right now, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
This isn’t the only solution and not the best solution, but it does accurately explain the problem we’re in and how we got there.
I’m throwing this idea out there to hear what you think.
So — what do you think?