Israel: The potential impact of electoral reform

In a comment in the previous thread on potential political reform in Israel, Ed raised the point that the country’s party-system fragmentation is at least as much a product of Israel’s social diversity as it is of the electoral system. It is a sensible argument, inasmuch as the party system has grown steadily more fragmented over time, while the most important features of the Knesset electoral system have been unchanged. (The 1996-2001 period of direct election, also discussed in the comments to the previous thread, was quite likely a contributor to fragmentation in the 1990s, but fragmentation has not declined since the return to a pure parliamentary system.)

In the past two decades, Israeli society has become more plural than ever, as immigrants from the former Soviet Union have created a new cleavage that has seen the rise of a significant new party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home ((Yes, Israel Is Our Home; I regularly see news stories that translate the party’s name as “Israel Our Home”, which of course makes no sense in English. There is no linking verb in the Hebrew expression.)) ), led by current Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. And while there is no single party that represents the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewish population (those whose disaporic roots are in other Middle Eastern countries), the Shas party, which draws a significant share of this community’s votes, has been growing since the early 1990s. So these developments seem to support the social-origins argument for Israeli party-system fragmentation over the electoral-system argument.

On the other hand, no clear social cleavage precipitated the creation of the Kadima Party, the launch of which by then-PM Ariel Sharon prior to the 2006 election was an even bigger contributor to the recent fragmentation than the growth of either Yisrael Beiteinu or Shas. And no new cleavage is clearly behind the stated intention of TV newsman Yair Lapid to form his own new party. ((He is likely simply to compete for the same basic voting bloc that helped the rise of the new leader of the Labor Party and that which votes for Kadima.))

Lkely none of these parties would have been as viable in the short run without such an extreme proportional system. Yet thanks to the seamlessness with which electoral support guarantees Knesset seats, Yisrael Beiteinu has grown from 2.6% of the vote in 1999 to 11.7% in 2009 and Kadima won 22% in its first election. ((See the Israeli Knesset pages for past election results.)) Polls immediately suggested Lapid’s party could earn 15-20 seats, which would place it among the three largest parties in the country.

An extreme proportional system does not guarantee a proliferation of parties, but it makes proliferation feasible, whether due to new social groups mobilizing behind new parties or to existing public figures creating new electoral vehicles for themselves and their associates.

In fact, we can use a purely institutional theory to account for the degree of fragmentation facilitated by the electoral system. We can then attribute any deviation from the predicted value of fragmentation to other social or political factors. For example, in Predicting Party Sizes (Oxford University Press, 2007), Rein Taagepera derives the following equation:


Where N is the “effective” number of seat-winning parties, which is by now the standard measure of party-system fragmentation in the political science literature, M is the average district magnitude, and S is the assembly size. The product of the latter two indicators is what Taaepera defines as the Seat Product.

The equation is derived deductively. (That is, it is not a “post-dictive” regression equation, but rather is built as a “logical model” from sparse assumptions about how district magnitude and assembly size “should” affect the outcome variable of interest.)

The graph of this equation against the data (on p. 153 of the book) from two dozen long-term democracies shows a very strong fit to this model. However, it is important to note that the value of N that is plotted for any given country is its average value over several decades of elections, and not the snapshot of any one election, or a recent sequence of elections. Because Israel elects the Knesset from a single 120-seat district, M=S=120, and MS=14,400. Raising this to the exponent, 1/6, yields 4.93. The data point for Israel is almost precisely on line representing the equation reproduced above. Slightly below it, in fact. ((Only Papua New Guinea has an effective number of parties far higher than predicted from its Seat Product, while Botswana, the U.K., and Spain are among the countries clearly on the low side (though not by large differences).))

So the Seat Product equation tells us that Israel, known for decades as a diverse polity with numerous parties, has experienced just about the precise degree of party-system fragmentation that we should expect it to have, given its Seat Product. The implication of this finding is that changing the Seat Product, for instance by reducing the district magnitude, could be expected to reduce party-system fragmentation.

As noted above, Israeli fragmentation has been growing recently. In fact, the last three elections–those since the abolition of the brief phase of direct prime-ministerial elections–have had an average N=6.93. That is above the predicted value (which is close to the actual longer-term average, as noted) of 4.93. The recent elections exceed the Seat Product by just over 40%. This suggests that recent factors driving the formation of new parties are accounting for the extra “two parties” that the party system now “effectively” supports. ((The “effective” number tells us how many hypothetical equal-sized parties would fragment the party system as much as the actual unequal-sized parties do. Thus it is incorrect to say, as some do even in the published literature–that it is a measure of how many “effective parties” there are. It is the number, not the parties it counts, that is “effective”.))

What impact might electoral reform have? And here I mean serious electoral reform, but one that remains firmly within the proportional family. Not a small rise in the threshold, but also not a move to (or towards) a majoritarian system. Let’s suppose Israel adopted a system of districts, as a means to cut its Seat Product.

If the average magnitude of the districts were to be 30, which would still mean the average district in Israel would be around the size of the largest district used by some of Europe’s other fragmented party systems ((E.g. Finland and Switzerland.)), the resulting Seat Product would be 3,600. Plug that into the equation and you would have an estimate of 3.91–effectively one party less than Israel’s long-term average. However, if the current three-election average is 40% higher than the Seat Product prediction, we might realistically expect it to remain so even with a change to M=30. If so, then it might be at N=5.48–still a substantial reduction from where it is now. ((This assumes no supra-district allocation; if there were such a compensatory procedure in place even after districting, it would really not be any different from the status quo, as allocation would be “as if” there were still one 120-seat district.))

What if Israel went to an average magnitude of 10, which would result from carving the country into twelve electoral districts? Then we have a Seat Product of 1,440. This yields a prediction of N=3.36, and if Israel’s actual system remained 40% over, it might be around N=4.70.

Could the social divisions of Israel be so great that they would resist even a 90% reduction of the Seat Product, through the adoption of twelve districts? Perhaps, but if the effective number of seat-winning parties remained at its recent 6.93, that would be 106% over the predicted value. Only one country in Taagepera’s graph is anywhere near such an excess relative to prediction: Papua New Guinea. And I submit that PNG is a good deal more fragmented than Israel. ((Plus, PNG’s fragmentation is localized, and hence capable of finding expression through the single-seat districts that PNG uses, and that make its Seat Product equivalent to its assembly size of 109.))

Clearly social and political factors outside of the electoral system are responsible for the recent rise in Israeli party-system fragmentation. Yet the fact that the longer-term average for Israel–which it should be stressed already placed it among the more fragmented systems!–almost perfectly matches what Taagepera’s Seat Product predicts suggests that electoral reform could make an impact. Perhaps Israel has finally outgrown its 120-seat district, and it is time for a more modest proportional system. ((By the way, the same argument could be made for the Netherlands, where N over the long term is likewise almost precisely where its high Seat Product says it “should be”, but where there has been a marked upward trend in N recently.))


27 thoughts on “Israel: The potential impact of electoral reform

  1. “Israel” and “14,400” in one post, MSS. Way to boost your hits from the Dispensationalists out there…

  2. Very interesting indeed. Over the last couple of years, I’ve constructed models of what elections results would have been like in Israel with 17 districts based on the ones they use to tally the votes. I could send the Excel document to you, if you’re interested.

    I think that the electoral system should be like that of Finland, with around 15 districts of between 4 and 12 seats each. In addition to that, we should have a system where each party/coalition of parties proposes a PM candidate, but without a separate PM election (so much like in Guyana). The candidate with most ‘votes’ is be elected, and he and his government can only be removed by a constructive no-confidence vote. The PM and ministers should also not have a seat in the Knesset, so we have a greater number of real and committed legislators

    • JD, that proposal for executive selection/de-selection is very much like what I wrote up during my consultancy in Israel in 2010!

      The districting proposal you mention was formally proposed by a presidential commission some years ago, but has never been acted upon.

      Also, flexible (or “semi-open”) lists seem to be much more likely to gain traction in Israel than fully open. Also discussed is the possibility of continuing to allow a party to present a closed list if it chooses.

  3. Definitely some good ideas in that. What I’m proposing though is that the head of the largest party automatically becomes PM, rather than having to form a government. I also think that applying a district system is an absolute necessity to reviving the link between voter and MK. I think the type of list used is less important – some type of semi-open would be fine, but even closed is not too bad if used with districts. Finally, I agree that the size of the Knesset is a bit of a problem, but should be remedied by removing ministers from it, like in the Netherlands, another parliamentary system.

    • We discussed that idea, JD: having the leader of the largest party automatically become PM. We (the committee) rejected it, after very extensive deliberation, on the grounds that it was too much like direct election, which had failed badly. Obviously, it would differ in the crucial sense of having a single vote, rather than separate executive and party-list votes. That was not clearly an advantage, as we saw things.

      As for Knesset, my view is that they should both district and open up the lists (partially), but I agree that districting and closed lists would be a very large improvement over the status quo.

      I also advocate increasing the size of the Knesset. I am not fond of requiring MKs who become ministers to give up their legislative seat, but I have never studied what difference in the operation of government and legislature that makes in the Netherlands.

  4. Small question on the largest party proposal. In most Australian parliaments the ALP is almost always the largest party, because the conservatives are divided into 2 (or perhaps 3 parties). The effect in Australia would be that after a Coalition victory the Labor leader would become the prime minister until the parliament could meet and pass a constructive vote of no confidence. Can I suggest the leader of the largest party or pre-electoral coalition?

  5. Alan, yes, that is exactly the issue. In the last Israeli election, Kadima won more seats than Likud. Having a law that Livni would be automatically PM would not have changed the fact that the only plausible majority coalition that could be stable was one headed by the Likud leader, Netanyahu. (And it has indeed been a stable government.) It would simply have meant an early no-confidence vote and change of government right after the election. In fact, the outgoing parliament was more favorable to Kadima, but Livni refused the high demands of some parties, who preferred a new election–which indeed confirmed the greater strength of the right wing bloc.

    As for our committee’s proposal, giving the leader of the largest party the right of first move (but not making her automatically PM) is, I think, useful. It should tend to provide a clear public declaration from smaller parties as to which larger party they favor, and why it is not the one that has just won the most seats. Even if there would be few cases in which it would change the outcome of government-formation, it may provide more transparency to the post-election negotiations.

    I also favor not requiring a formal vote of investiture, which could further strengthen the hand of the formateur in negotiations.

    As for largest pre-electoral coalition, yes, agreed in principle. But the problem with such a provision in Israel is that several parties (and their voters) do not have a clear preference between the top two parties, and I am skeptical of institutional devices that try to force a two-bloc system where one does not “naturally” exist.

  6. The French seem to have found a successful constitutional solution to the party squabbling and weak governments of the Fourth Republic. Why haven’t more countries imitated them?

  7. Ed, probably because few countries have had as dysfunctional an experience with PR and parliamentarism as France had. And, no, not even Israel. Or Italy.

    Getting there also took something resembling a military coup, followed by a probably illegal referendum. It helped to have a de Gaulle. Not every country has a de Gaulle to call on, for better or worse.

  8. The real solution in the Fifth Republic was not the de Gaulle constitution but the collapse in support for parties of the extreme right and left which had bedevilled the Third and Fourth Republics. It is kind of a challenge to find 51% of the deputies when up to 25% of them are unacceptable partners. Of course the presidentialisation of electoral competition contributed greatly to the evaporation of the extremist vote.

    Some European countries are doing this in reverse. In the Netherlands, for instance, a government of the right or centre right now requires at least the tacit support of Geert Wilder’s VVV, which is why they have an unprecedented minority government that relies on a confidence and supply arrangement with the VVV.

  9. OK, but doesn’t Alan’s point apply to Israel? My original point is that the Israeli political system was fractured to a point where tinkering with the electoral system couldn’t help.

    Though something big, like extending the franchise to Arabs living in the West Bank, or removing the franchise from Jews living on the West Bank, would change things. But this is thinking in terms of changing the electorate, not in terms of changing how the existing electorates selects their government. And I suspect the “solution” to the problem will wind up involving making the electorate alot bigger, or even alot smaller.

    But the current system seems to provide the country with a coherent government and a lively political debate, even with a fragmented electorate and issues of national identity, and we are probably in a situation where alot of well-meaning reforms would make things worse.

  10. Really, the simplest solution is the Cape Town model. The National Assembly must elect the President of the Republic from among its members within 30 days. The ballot is exhaustive and the chief justice presides. If no-one is elected the assembly must be dissolved. The assembly can dismiss the president by destructive vote of no confidence.

  11. I have of course not shifted my position that a democracy needs a dual executive, if only to prevent the chief of government exploiting their ceremonial functions as the chief of state.

  12. Having a separate chief of state (president or monarch) and a head of government (prime minister) is not what South Africa and Botswana has which is a Presidential Parliamentary system, whereas the U.S system is more of a elected group of elders the electoral college elects the President as if he were an elected monarch.

    I would agree with Alan on that point that a Dual Executive is necessary for democracy, but it seems to me that what are the ceremonial duties that a President does, but a Prime Minister does not?

    Does the U.S system make the President focus too much on ceremonial duties and not enough on policy of the government?

    It seems to me that the Speaker of the Lower House could be a Chief of State, look at how the Swedish speaker has an important role in the formation of the government.

    Could it be possible for France to change it’s Semi-Presidential system to one where if the President that dissolve parliament has to face an election himself at the same time, and parliament has the power to propose a vote of no confidence in the President which the President faces and election at the same time as parliament. I heard Namibia has this setup, but it has never been used.

  13. Alan: Simply having the biggest party’s leader become PM might indeed be a problem (even though the goal is to reduce the number of parties). That’s why I left the coalition option open in my proposal: each party nominates a PM candidate, & multiple parties may propose the same one. In order to reduce small parties ability to abuse this system by simply nominating the more palatable big-party candidate, a PM candidate will have to approve his candidacy separately for each party. But most importantly of all is that this is no alternative for real reform of the electoral system (districts & higher threshold) which is far more important.

    About the ‘Cape Town’ system, I think it has some merits but if implemented in Israel must be as follows: a PM is elected by exhaustive ballot, and doesn’t need Knesset majority to be elected. He can only be removed by constructive no-confidence vote.

    Finally, I do agree that parliamentary terms should be rather flexible, I think that in most places where it is (and in Israel in particular) it is rather too flexible (or too dependent on the head of gov’t). I think the only way the Knesset should dissolve before the end of its term is through majority MK vote, subject to presidential veto which can be overriden by a 3/5 majority.

  14. As prime minister of Australia, John Howard moved into areas, particularly to do with the defence forces, that had always been the province of the governor-general. There was a running joke that there was a soldier somewhere who had not yet personally been photographed smiling at the prime minister, but they would certainly be located and photographed in the near future. Howard then used this ‘personal’ relationship with the troops to deflect criticism of his policies in iraq and Afghanistan.

    One function of a ceremonial leader is to insulate the defence forces from this form of abuse. Another is in time of natural disaster when the victims seem to value a neutral figure who is above regular politics. Lastly there are national occasions, community functions and diplomatic functions.

    I would have a chancellor elected and removed on the Cape Town model (I know Tom is about to say that Cape Town is not the RSA capital but calling it the Pretorian model would be unfortunate) and a president elected by a citizens assembly convened for the purpose. The president would have very limited powers but a large cultural role.

    I do not think vesting the head of state role int he speaker would work. Presiding in parliament is a fulltime job and the ceremonial tasks would make that very difficult.

    I would only have parliament dissolved if it failed to elect a chancellor within a fixed time.

  15. Alan: what would constitute a ‘failure to elect a chancellor’? Would he need a majority of the assembly or a majority of those voting in the last round?

  16. Israel has some Arab parties that, by unofficial convention, never form part of governing coalitions. Are there precedents for requiring constructive no-confidence votes in the presence of a cordon sanitaire? What sort of difference does it make?

  17. An empirical question about Israel, to which I do not know the answer: Have Arab parties ever joined a no-confidence vote even though they would not be in the resulting alternative coalition?

    The idea behind a constructive vote of no confidence is to prevent such situations, and thereby make stable a government that lacks a majority, because no alternative has a majority, either. It was designed to prevent purely negative votes, such as Communists and Nazis both voting against a centrist government in the Weimar Republic.

    The Israeli situation with regard to the Arab parties does not seem too dissimilar: the presence of parties that would not work with others in government, but might be willing to join a no-confidence vote.

    The bigger issue in Israel is, of course, the (Jewish) sectarian parties, and the same problem may exist: blackmail potential, but not sincere intention to govern with the opposition.

  18. As far as I know there has only been one successful non-confidence vote in Israel, in 1990. I believe the Arab parties did vote no-confidence, but I don’t know if the prospective Labor-led coalition would have included them.

  19. > “Are there precedents for requiring constructive no-confidence votes in the presence of a cordon sanitaire?”

    The late Prof George Winterton, who did most of the heavy lifting in drafting nitty-gritty details for an Australian Republic constitution, proposed that a no-confidence vote should take effect either (a) right away, if supported by an absolute majority; (b) after 7 days, if supported by a simple majority and not reversed or negatived during that time.

    A rule like this would protect the government from being ambushed with a snap NoCoVo if an Opposition Leader in the Abbott mould tries to get cute with refusing (or withdrawing) pairing agreements. But it would also mean that the presence of Sinn Fein MPs, Arab MKs, etc don’t artificially inflate the number of votes required for a (let’s call it) “clear majority” or “sustainable majority” – that you don’t need effectively 52.5% of participating MPs to turf out an unpopular PM just because 5% of MPs refuse to take their seats.

    [BTW, don’t UK MPs forfeit their seats for non-attendance? Australian MHRs and Senators must vacate if they fail to attend for 3 months.]

  20. @JD

    My preference would be more than half the members of the house. The ballot could be preferential rather than exhaustive. I also think the voting should not be by secret ballot so MPs can be held accountable by the electorate. One the functions of an MP would be ensuring there is a functioning government and parties and MPs could be disciplined for the electorate for not performing that function.

  21. Alan: I agree about the open ballot. But in cases like Israel, to make it easier to form a gov’t, I would advocate a threshold of majority of those voting in an exhaustive ballot, in effect ‘forcing’ an election of one of the candidates, even without a full majority.

    • If by open ballot, you mean that the votes of MPs on votes of (no) confidence are public, yes, as far as I know, it is the norm. One of the (many) reasons for short cabinet duration in Italy over the years has been that there such votes are secret. I am not sure whether this has been changed, but the cabinet literature on the old Italian system refers to “snipers”, members within the governing parties (mainly Christian Democrats) who would vote against their government, secure that they could not be individually identified and punished by party leaders.

  22. I’d introduce the double preference vote system. Allow voters to potentially vote for 2 parties. The average voter would vote for a minor party and a major party.

  23. Derek, that would probably result in similar results as in countries where decoy lists are used in MMP–voters would vote for a major party, and that party’s associated minor party, and proportionality wouldn’t change other than most blocs would be divided into two nominally separate parties.

    Also, the second vote wouldn’t necessarily go to a major party and a minor party even without decoy lists. Most United Torah Judaism voters would probably vote for Shas, and vice-versa. In the previous election, many Labor voters would probably have given their second vote to Kadmia (though some probably to Meretz); Kadima voters probably would have split between Labor and Likud, and Likud supporters split between Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu. Other than Meretz, the parties in that group were 4 of the 5 largest parties, and represented a huge percentage of voters.

    Even if voters truly voted for a major party and used the second vote for a minor party, that would only increase what is the major criticism of Israeli politics: that the minor parties have too many seats. Yes, minor party voters could now vote for a major party as well, but far more major party voters would be casting votes for minor parties, artificially inflating their seat numbers and further stratifying the Knesset.

    It could also have no effect if bullet voting is allowed, as many, if not most, voters would simply vote for one party so as not to lessen that party’s share of the total votes cast.

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