An electoral threshold too high

Israel’s electoral system has enabled the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox – to participate in the parliamentary arena. Probably all will agree that this is essential for Israel’s democracy.

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

Those who promote raising the present electoral threshold for parties to be represented in the Knesset are using the name of governability in vain. As compared to other democracies Israel does not lack in governability. Wars have been fought and won, peace agreements have been negotiated and signed, inflation has been subdued and the economy stabilized, waves of immigration have been absorbed − by governments supported by a Knesset which was elected when the threshold was even lower than the present 2%.

Somebody has yet to prove that raising the threshold will improve governability. There is no direct line linking the increase in the threshold from the original 0.8% to 1% in 1951, to 1.5% in 1992, and to the present 2% since 2004, to the ability of Israeli governments to govern. It is mathematically correct that when small parties fail to cross the threshold in elections, parties larger than they who have passed the threshold gain some additional seats in the Knesset. Whether this will make the governing coalition stronger, or possibly weaker, is a matter of chance. As an example, in the last election Kadima just scraped by the 2% threshold; had the threshold been higher and the two seats it received allocated to the parties with the largest vote surplus, it is not at all clear that the present coalition would have been more stable. The intuitive notion that the higher the threshold the more stable the governing coalition is no more than that, an intuitive notion without facts to support it.

Elections to the Knesset are based on proportional representation, a system providing for fair representation of the views held by the voters in the Knesset, unlike the system of district elections which tends to favor large parties and generally produces parliaments that are not fully representative of voters’ views. It is a system which has enabled smaller segments of Israel’s society − like the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox − to participate in the parliamentary arena. Probably all will agree that this is essential for Israel’s democracy.

Nevertheless, the difficulties accompanying coalition negotiations and the leverage sometimes obtained by small parties which are needed for the governing coalition have brought forth a succession of ideas intended to make Israel more “governable.” The best known is the now ill-famed law for the direct election of the prime minister, radically changing Israel’s governance. It turned out to be an utter failure, producing the opposite of the intended result by weakening the larger parties, and had to be revoked. It was initiated by some of those considered among the best and brightest members of the Knesset and was promoted by a vast publicity campaign. One of its key elements was passed by a single-vote majority. The lesson to be learned from this adventure is that changes to the electoral system should be gradual, and legislated only if they enjoy the support of a large majority of Knesset members.

A gradual increase of the present electoral threshold would mean going from 2 to 2.5%. It would keep factions smaller than three MK’s out of the Knesset, and is not likely to do any harm. It is reasonable move if backed by a solid majority of Knesset members. Going beyond 2.5% raises a serious problem.

Most likely to be affected are some or all of the three Arab parties now represented in the Knesset, all hovering near that threshold. It would mean in effect presenting them with an ultimatum − unite or risk disappearing. One should not be surprised that Arab voters, like Jewish voters, are not homogeneous in their views and that the three Arab parties represent different political views. Forcing them to unite is not fair, and is not likely to do anyone any good. On the other hand, a Knesset without Arab representation would be a blow to Israel’s democracy.

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