Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and while Israelis of all stripes are celebrating, it is pretty clear that Israeli politics is badly dysfunctional. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but it appears to have gotten worse over the last decade. Amir Mizroch had a fantastic post yesterday outlining some of the problems, and almost all of them stem from the legislative gridlock and political hostage-taking that characterize the Knesset and government by coalition. As Mizroch puts it,
It is crystal clear that we need to change the system of government, to make government more accountable to the voters, to break the power of small sectoral parties, and to stabilize our governments so that they can rule for at least 4 years and carry out long-term projects of national importance. We cannot continue to swap governments every 2 to 3 years. Nothing of consequence gets done.
The problem, of course, is that the party that gets the most seats in elections (or in the current Knesset, the second most seats) never has even close to a majority and so has to rely on an increasingly disparate set of smaller parties to form a coalition. Each of these parties has different interests and demands which conflict with those of its coalition partners, and the prime minister’s party ends up making concessions to the most extreme coalition members, who know that they can hold the government hostage by threatening to leave if their demands are not met. In addition, little is actually passed or implemented since only legislation that appeals to every party in the coalition will get through the Knesset, except for certain situations when the opposition parties agree with a measure that the ruling party introduces. Knesset coalitions are inherently unstable because of this constant tension between conflicting interests, and thus governments fall with alarming regularity. The problem has only worsened over the past twenty years, as the share of the leading party has shrunk from 44 seats in 1992 to 28 seats today (and Likud, which formed the government, only has 27). This means that Israel is likely to see politics pulled even more to the extremes as smaller parties gain even more leverage to advance their particular issue.
Take the example of the current Netanyahu government, which has appeared to buck the trend and has been remarkably stable. In the past two weeks alone there have been numerous threats from Likud partners that they will pull out of the coalition if the government complies with a High Court order to demolish the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El, while at the same time Ehud Barak has insisted that the neighborhood must go (although he has since appeared to back down). The Tal Law, which exempts Haredim from military service, was ruled unconstitutional in February, prompting Shas and UTJ to threaten to leave if a legislative workaround was not passed, and Yisrael Beiteinu to then threaten to leave if it was. All the while, Netanyahu and Likud have no choice but to cater to their partners’ demands as the only way out would be to invite Kadima into the government, which cannot happen since Shaul Mofaz has one more Knesset member than Netanyahu and would therefore never agree to serve in a coalition in which he was not prime minister.
How did Israel arrive at this morass? It has come about through Israel’s system of party list proportional representation voting, meaning that voters cast one vote for a single party and then Knesset seats are allocated in rough proportion to the percentage of votes each party receives. The big advantage to this system is that of proportionality, which allows for many different voices in the Knesset and gives smaller parties that would never have a chance of winning a seat in a multi-district first-past-the post election an opportunity to actively participate in legislative politics and even be part of the government. The disadvantages, which are obvious to anyone who has either taken an introductory comparative politics course or spent a minimal amount of time observing Israeli politics, are that there is less accountability as people don’t know who their direct representative is and parliaments get bogged down and become more susceptible to extremes in order to placate small coalition parties. Sound familiar?
Aside from the practical issues laid out above, there are some genuine philosophical problems with a proportional representation electoral system as well. In a sense, it is extremely anti-democratic because more voters will have voted against the ruling party than for the ruling party. Bibi Netanyahu is prime minister despite his party getting only 21.6% of the votes cast, and the Interior Ministry is controlled by Shas with its 8.5% of the vote, which seems like a fundamental problem when we think about the fact that we associate democracy with majority rule. This is not an issue that is particular to Israel at all, as it plagues all proportional representation systems. In fact, it is not even particular to PR, since it rears its head in winner-take-all voting systems as well, such as the one we use right here in the United States. For instance, in the 2010 House elections, Bill Owens won the election in New York District 23 with 48% of the vote. This means that a majority of the voters in his district voted to send someone else to Congress, yet Congressman Owens won anyway. Similarly, Bill Clinton became president in 1992 with only 43% of the vote, meaning that 57% of voting Americans wanted someone else in the White House.
Furthermore, when Israelis go to vote, they are not able to express their true range of preferences because they only check off the name of one party. Most voters though have strong opinions about the full slate of parties competing, and would jump at the chance to communicate those opinions and have them translate into results. For example, when an Israeli looks at his ballot during the next Knesset elections, he may want Labor to win but want just as much for Likud to lose, or he may want Atid to win if Labor does not, but there is no way of communicating that preference as he only gets to put his first choice on the ballot. This is another way in which party list PR restricts democratic choice, and it also has the unintended consequence of making politicians write off voters who might favor someone else. A voter who is decided in favor of Labor but likes Atid as a second choice is of no value to Yair Lapid, and Lapid has no incentive to appeal to that voter or take his views into account. This in turn encourages a less open-minded approach on the part of parties and politicians, as the incentives are structured to appeal only to those who list you as their first choice and to ignore everyone else, furthering a narrow set of partisan interests and hardening viewpoints.
So what is the solution to this whole mess of a broken Israeli political system? There are undoubtedly others, but mine is a system of voting that encourages parties to appeal to the widest group of people possible, while simultaneously taking into account the full range of voters’ preferences in an effort to make elections even more democratic. Such a system is used in Australia and Ireland, and it is called single-transferable voting. It works by having voters rank the parties on the ballot in order of first preference to last preference, rather than only checking off one, and a party has to meet a quota in order to get a seat (for anyone interested in the math, the quota is generally the number of votes divided by one more than the number of parliamentary seats, plus one). When votes are tallied, these preferences are taken into account so that being listed as a voter’s second or third choice boosts a party’s chances of winning the election, in a manner similar to how Major League Baseball and the NFL vote for their season MVPs.
The advantages to voting this way are manifold. Because voters get to indicate their full range of preferences, outcomes are more representative of voter opinion. More importantly for our purposes, however, parties have to appeal to as many voters as possible, since being listed at the bottom of voters’ ballots makes it extremely difficult to win a seat. This desire to be people’s second and third choice, and not only their first choice, means that parties running in the elections cannot afford to ignore voters who have decided on someone else, as each marginal vote is important for winning. This has the effect of eliminating extreme single issue parties that are only looking for benefits for their constituents, but it also does not mean that single issue voters are ignored entirely since parties are looking to pick up votes wherever they can. In addition, in order to appeal to a wide range of voters, parties must also consider a wide range of viewpoints, making moderation, compromise, and bipartisanship a hallmark of STV voting systems.
Translated to the Knesset, this would mean larger parties representing a wider swath of voters, making unstable coalitions with multiple conflicting interests a thing of the past. It would also make for less extremist positions, as someone like Avigdor Lieberman or Danny Danon would turn off so many people that it would hurt his party’s prospects of winning by garnering so many last place votes. In short, Israel would have more stable governments that were less in thrall to smaller extremist sectoral parties, and far more would be accomplished. I am under no illusions that this system will ever be instituted in Israel since it would threaten far too many entrenched interests, and the Knesset is too dysfunctional to even enact such a change if it wanted to, so it will remain a pipe dream. But for anyone who is at their wit’s end over the state of Israeli politics, it is worth realizing on this Yom Haatzmaut that it does not have to be this way, and that Israel’s political system is a victim of its own structure.