Fine-Tune the Electoral System

Since the resulting effects of major changes to the electoral system cannot be predicted with certainty, it is best to act with caution, and proceed gradually.

Moshe_Arens_cropped

By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 2, 2013)

After every election the cry arises: Change the electoral system!

But beware. We have already been burned by an attempt to legislate a change that failed at the first test. Remember the much touted law for the direct election of the prime minister, promoted by well-educated legal experts who had the best of intentions, but caused indelible harm to the Israeli political system? So much for good intentions. Better not try any major changes, but rather a few small modifications − some fine-tuning.

There are two aspects of our current system that are troublesome: Our coalition governments tend to collapse before their nominal four-year term is over, and small parties which are part of the coalition tend to have inordinate influence on government policy. Both of these troublesome phenomena would probably be tempered if large political parties ‏(preferably two‏) were to dominate the political scene. This is likely but not certain, and since future election results and their consequences are not foreseeable, it is best to look at the issue from a probabilistic standpoint. Thus, for example, the last Netanyahu government formed by Likud, which had only 27 seats in the Knesset, lasted a four-year term, while previous governments based on more solid Knesset representation of the party forming the coalition collapsed earlier. Nevertheless, the larger the party forming the coalition, the better the chances of its stability. Similarly, the smaller the weight of small parties in the Knesset, the less likely that one or some of them will be needed for the coalition, and be able to exert an inordinate leverage on government policy.

Since the electorate cannot and should not be told how to vote, all that the electoral system can do is provide incentives for those voters who might prefer to vote for the large parties. It is those changes in the system that provide such incentives that should be carefully considered.

One such change is raising the threshold for attaining representation in the Knesset. The present two percent threshold makes it likely that the smallest faction represented in the Knesset will have at least three MKs, although Kadima did manage to squeeze into the Knesset in the last elections with two MKs.

Raising the threshold is likely to reduce the number of small parties represented in the Knesset and thus also increase the strength of the large parties. Since the resulting effects of such changes cannot be predicted with certainty it is best to act with caution, and proceed gradually. A change to two and a half percent could be considered.

Nothing will have been accomplished if artificial blocs of small parties will be formed with the aim of overcoming the new threshold, with the intention of splitting again after the elections. The fragmentation of Knesset factions is a well known phenomenon in Israel. It is far from hygienic and is, in effect, a betrayal of the voters who voted for the slate as it presented itself during the election. Raising the threshold should therefore be accompanied by a law that would prohibit such fragmentation. A party should function in the Knesset in the form that it presented itself to the voter at election time. MKs who change their minds during the Knesset’s tenure, or decide to leave the party on whose ticket they appeared for the elections, should be forced to resign from the Knesset and let the next candidate on the slate take his or her place.

A law providing that the head of the largest faction elected to the Knesset be the first to be asked to form a coalition might also channel votes to the larger parties. Should he not succeed, the president could then ask others to attempt to form a coalition. Here too, this law needs to be accompanied by a law against fragmentation of factions after the elections, in order to forestall the manipulative creation of electoral blocs prior to the elections. All these changes should require more than a simple majority for passage.

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