Monday, March 16, 2009

Raising the Bar on Electoral Reform

Canadian Parliament has all of the ingredients for a long term stable government. Elections campaigns are short with the new government sworn in a short time later. Politicians are held directly responsible for their actions. Individuals not affiliated to main stream parties can be elected to represent their constituents. Governments have enough political power to direct their government according to the mandate they were given. When the writ is dropped Parliament is dissolved limiting the power of the outgoing government. The major parties tend to cater to the same group of voters. This allows for consistant expectaions from the government, even when there is change in government. It is not perfect but it works really well.

The Israeli system is quite the opposite. There is no individual accountability. Even if a party is punished by the electorate the key decision makers are high enough up the list to keep their jobs. Government changes can take a long time. Ehud Olmert has been on his way out for quite some time. First his party had to run a leadership race to replace him. Once he was replaced as party leader he refused to step down. This left his succesor Tzipi Livn with 6 weeks to form a government with the possibility of a two week extension. When that failed elections were called for 3 months later. In the after math of the election Netanyahu was given 6 weeks to form a government. With the deadline looming he also has the oppurtunity to request a two week extension.

While all this was going on, the Knesset failed to pass a budget by the December 31st budget. The government has to work on a formula based on previous budgets, that do not account for the economic down turn. Olmert has taken Israel to war without much to show for it in terms of tangible results. He is desperatly trying to engineer a prisoner swap to bring Gilad Shalit home after almost 1000 days of captivity. His major bargaining chip is that his deal will be better than anything the new government will offer. Olmert doesn't have a clue about the fact he lost his moral authority to make major government policy decisions after elections were called.

As election results were coming in their was a feeling that major electoral change needs to be brought in. Unfortunatly, as with all electoral reform it needs to be brought in by the parties that will likely lose the most from the change. Small cosmetic changes are likly to be approved than the changes that are required.

One idea is that Israel should join the rest of the world and increase their minimum vote threshold from 2% to 5%. This would encourage smaller parties to merge with bigger parties and form a more central approach to government. Right now parties with 3 or 4 mandates have the same clout as parties with 11 mandates. This forces the ruling party to give away most of their principles in order to keep the smaller parties happy.

Here is a look at how the government would have looked if these changes had been applied to the recent elections.

First column is with the current 2% threshold, second column is 3%, third column net change.

Likud 27 29 (+2)
Yisrael Betaynu 15 16 (+1)
Shas 11 11 (no change)
UTJ 5 6 (+1)
Bayit Yehudi 3 0 (-3)
Ichud Leumi 4 5 (+1)
Kadimah 28 30 (+2)
Labour 13 13 (no change)
Chaddash 4 5 (+1)
National Arab Party 4 5 (+1)
Balad 3 0 (-3)
Meretz 3 0 (-3)

The way things stand it looks like the government will consist of Likud, Yisrael Betaynu, Shas, UTJ, Bayit Yehudi, with a total of 61 seats. Ichud Leumi is similar enough to Bayit Yehudi that the considered going into negotiations as one party and decided not to.

Increasing the threshold to 3% would eliminate Balad, Meretz and and Ichud Leumi. The government could simply replace Ichud Leumi and add an extra mandate to their coalition. Ichud Leumi and Bayit Yehudi could merge to maintain a strong voter base. Meretz is a far left party that needs to regroup as they has seemed to lost thier purpose. Balad is the party who's leader went to Lebanon to help with strategy during the 2006 Lebanon war. Although he is wanted in Israel, he is still collecting his Israeli pension.

First Column 3% threshold, Second Column 4% threshold, Third Column net change.

Likud 29 33 (+4)
Yisrael Betaynu 16 18 (+2)
Shas 11 13 (+2)
UTJ 6 7 (+1)
Ichud Leumi 5 0 (-5)
Kadimah 30 34 (+4)
Labour 13 15 (+2)
Chaddash 0 (-5)
National Arab Party 0 (-5)

In this scenario National Arab Party, Chadash (Arab/Jewish) and Ichud Leumi would be eliminated. It is not a desirable result for the Arab parties not to have representation in Knesset. To be fair they do have representation from some of the main stream parties. A merger leaning towards a more tolerant position towards Israel could keep the parties in the Knesset. As stated above Ichud Leumi merging with Bayit Yehudi could keep their political clout. Likud and Yisrael Betaynu alread have a coaltion agreement in place. With the exception of UTJ they would be able to form a government with one other party. Netanyahu would not be in the position he is today selling out his party just for a couple of more mandates to stay in power.


First Column 4% threshold, Second Column 5% threshold, Third Column net change.

Likud 33 35(+2)
Yisrael Betaynu 18 19(+1)
Shas 13 (+2)
UTJ 7 0 (-7)
Kadimah 34 36 (+2)
Labour 16 (+1)

UTJ is a merger of the 3 Haredi parties. Their core support is from people who take orders from their Rabbi's how to vote. In order to stay relevant they would need to be able to cater to the electorate outside of their close knit community. Shas is also a Haredi party that also appeals to the Sephardic community at large. This is how they have been able to be so succuessful in the world of politics. In this scenario, forming a stable government with 3 parties would be fairly simple. The coaliton would probably be able to hold itself together to fulfill an entire mandate before going to the polls.

Raising the minimum voting threshold is a bandaid solution to the problems in Israeli politics. It would create stable governments, which could be an important first step to needed electoral reforms down the road.

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