The chronic instability of the proportional system must convince those who care about the country that our failed electoral method doesn’t need fixing, rather changing – to a more regional-majoritorian system, which will stabilize the center of Israel’s political map.
The early election thrust upon us at the height of a pandemic is another crossroads for our broken electoral system. The system creates a fragmented parliament that fails to accomplish its two primary tasks: representing the people and providing stable governance. The disintegration of the Labor party and its various successors, along with severe partisanship and a crisis of leadership on the Right, produces a party system with no center of gravity – or in other words, two large parties capable of forming a functioning coalition. Our electoral system manufactures this fragmentation and it is going to hurt the Likud, either during Netanyahu’s tenure or after it.
Our system is an amalgam of a countrywide system, where the entire country serves as one electoral zone in terms of allocation of Knesset seats, and a proportional system, whereby all lists which pass the electoral threshold are represented in the Knesset by a number of members which is proportional to the lists’ electoral strength. This is quite extreme, as only a few countries worthy of being labeled “democratic” use this combination. Most democracies combine “majoritarian” systems, where receiving over 50% in a district or province determines the winner, with electoral lists for both the national and regional levels. In English-speaking countries, the accepted norm tends to be “purely” regional-majoritorian. This is what Israel should adopt, or at least a combination of regional-majoritorian and electoral list-based systems.
During the first time period, Mapai and Labor’s enormous clout compensated for the instability of the proportional system, which gives considerable power to small and medium-sized parties. Their power was so great that the question wasn’t over who will form the coalition, rather who its junior partners would be. It was a bad system regardless, namely because it does not suitably reflect the public’s views. At least there was stability, though.
The second period was less stable but more competitive, and therefore granted the voters a sense of influence. When a clear winner between Likud and Labor couldn’t be decided, they formed unity governments. These were exceedingly stable but eroded the voters’ sense of influence. This structure crumbled with the collapse of one of those unity governments in 1990, in the wake of Shimon Peres’ “dirty trick” against Yitzhak Shamir. Since then, we have suffered incessant outbreaks of crises due to our failed electoral system.
The problem that has repeated itself throughout the years is that a Knesset elected via the proportional system tends to cling to it, to put it mildly. The parties preferred to “tinker” instead. That is to say, preserve the proportional system and add “stabilizing” elements, supposedly. This didn’t prevent political disintegration. Our only “natural” ruling party, whose rivals fade away after one or two elections, can only garner around 32 mandates, which is the same amount the Labor party won in 1977 when it was defeated!
Netanyahu “won” in 2009 with less; 27 mandates to 28 for the Kadima party. When weak ruling parties of this sort endeavor to form a coalition with medium-sized parties that aren’t much smaller than them, instability is assured. The next Netanyahu government fell apart in 2014, for example, not just because of the “Israel Hayom” law, but mainly because the ruling party was too weak. The situation didn’t improve much in 2015, thus inflating the power of Avigdor Lieberman, for instance. And this situation won’t improve in the upcoming election.
Many people don’t understand why the principle of “winner takes all” also improves the public’s representation. In short: It creates coalitions between various interests and principles within two large parties, prior to elections. The chronic instability of the proportional system, however, must convince those who care about the country that this failed electoral method doesn’t need fixing, rather changing – to a more regional-majoritorian system, which will stabilize the center of Israel’s political map.
Prof. Avi Bareli is a historian and researcher at Ben-Gurion Univesity of the Negev.