The question of party and voter strategy in PR systems with legal thresholds has received less attention from analysts of electoral systems than it deserves. ((See also my entry on the Lower Saxony election for the impact of a threshold on strategy.)) The impact on a party’s fortunes of individual candidates who are too low on a closed list to be elected also receives too little attention.
Here are two examples, which I offer as small correctives to these deficiencies, from the current Israeli campaign. Both are based on interviews I heard on IBA News (broadcast on World Harvest TV).
Kadima, which was the largest party in the 2009 election, but went into opposition rather than make a deal with the ultra-orthodox parties, is fighting for its life in this campaign. In 2012, the party dumped its leader, Tzipi Livni, who then announced her retirement from politics. However, once this election was called, Livni unretired and set up her own party, called Tnua (Movement). My examples come from each of these parties.
Kadima has struggled to stay above the 2% threshold throughout the campaign, meaning it could be left out of the Knesset. Recently, most polls have had it clearing, but barely.
MK Yochanan Plesner, in an interview on 15 January, claimed that internal polls showed that 7-9% of Israeli voters were prepared to vote Kadima, provided that they were confident the party would clear the threshold. Whether or not this is actually true, it is reminiscent of Gil (Pensioners) in 2006, which surprised almost everyone by how well it did on election day (7 seats), for the same strategic reason Plesner cites–only once it was clearly making it into the Knesset at all did many “floating” voters decide to vote for it. ((This might not work as well for an old (and divided and disappointing) party like Kadima as it did for a new force like the Pensioners. But the logic Plesner offers is certainly the same.))
Plesner himself is on the bubble. He has the third rank on the Kadima list, and even (public) polls showing the party winning seats usually show it getting only two. ((However, getting just two seats is unlikely for any party. Consider that 2% would be 2.4 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Assuming some votes wasted for parties that do not make it over 2%, the votes of a threshold-scarping party likely would be closer to 3% of the total above-threshold vote. In such a case, getting just over 2% likely translates into 3 seats.))
The other interview on threshold and low-rank themes was with Alon Tal, the head of the Green Movement. Tal is a candidate on Tzipi Livni’s Tnua (Movement) list. He is ranked thirteenth, and most polls suggest Tnua will get only 7-9 seats. Thus he has little chance of being elected himself. Moreover, Israel’s Greens have never made it into the Knesset. In the 2009 election, they forged a joint list with a moderate religious party, Meimad (which had been represented in the past in affiliation with Labor), but did not even make it to 1%.
Tal, in the IBA interview, made two interesting claims (the veracity of which is not the point of this essay). He claimed that polls showed that up to 75% of voters who would like to vote for a Green party in Israel will not, because they fear it will not clear the threshold. This time, however, Tal said, the Greens will have influence over a party sure to make it into the Knesset. He said that Tnua had delegated the writing of the party’s program on environment, transportation, and other issues to the Green Movement. Of course, Tal claimed to be confident that Tnua would win at least 13 seats and he would sit in the Knesset. However the clear subtext was that even if his rank indeed was too low for him to win a seat, the deal that forged the alliance meant that Tnua was a partner of the Green Movement.
If Tal is right about Greens losing out in the past to strategic voting (and I am not in a position to judge that), there could be 2-4% of Israelis willing to vote for it, provided it were clearly getting the threshold. And if there is such a vote, it could be worth 2-5 seats or so to the Tnua list, which could explain Livni’s willingness to strike a programmatic deal with Tal; if his movement could actually deliver the votes, he himself could have an outside chance of winning a seat. Thus we can see that there is at least the potential even for candidates with a rank too low to have a solid chance of winning nonetheless to have an impact on the campaign and party program.
Other notes on the interviews with Plesner and Tal.
Plesner also said in the interview that Kadima’s campaign was emphasizing the quality of its personnel and its core policies of “security” and “burden sharing”. Its leader, Shaul Mofaz, is a former IDF Chief of Staff. The reference to burden sharing refers to the party’s involvement, during its brief membership in Netanyahu’s cabinet, in failed attempts to create a law to lift the current exemption on conscription of Haredim (ultra-orthodox). Plesner was the chair of the committee that was drafting the bill.
Tal, in his interview, spoke forcefully in favor of eliminating the orthodox monopoly on religious matters in Israel, and raising the status of women. He specifically called for granting more space to the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform streams of organized Jewish life in Israel. He noted that he is the gabbi of his Masorti synagogue, ((The gabbi is responsible for organizing the Torah reading during a service, and assisting the reader.)) and that Livni identifies herself as neither “secular” nor “orthodox” and has sent her children to Masorti institutions in Israel.
With his statements about Jewish religious pluralism, I almost felt like Tal was campaigning for my vote! (In the hypothetical world in which I had a vote in this election.) I should also note that Plesner was one of the MKs I met during my consultancy on political reform in 2010, and he impressed me. Given that he is on the bubble, according to polls, I’d almost be tempted to vote for Kadima if I had a vote. I must say, it would be strange to be a voter deciding between Kadima and the party led by the leader it expelled! That would also put me on the fence between casting a “sectoral” vote (for Tnua’s supposed commitment to organized progressive Judaism) and a “personal vote” (to boost the marginal candidacy of Plesner). Ah, cross-pressures!