Four days to election, Likud still looks hard to beat

A poll by Smith/Resget Blue on 13 March is one of the most favorable polls yet for the main center-left list, Zionist Camp (Labor + Livni + Greens). And even so, I still can’t see how you get to the necessary 61 to form a majority coalition without combining parties that are quite unlikely to agree to sit together.

That is, even with a 4-seat deficit, Likud retains the easier path to successful completion of coalition bargaining.

This does not stop reporters from writing things like this:

Israel’s center-left opposition is poised for an upset victory in next week’s parliamentary election, with the last opinion polls before Tuesday’s vote giving it a solid lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party. (Reuters)

The election is Tuesday. There could still be an upset center-left victory, but it would require some surprising coalition choices over the next month or so, not merely a lead for Zionist Camp on election night.

22 thoughts on “Four days to election, Likud still looks hard to beat

  1. I will add, however, that a Likud-led government is precarious unless it also takes Yachad (ultra-Orthodox plus really extreme nationalists). Bibi may not be willing to do that.

    In this poll, Likud + Bayit Yehudi + Kulanu + Shas + UTJ + Yisrael Beiteinu = 62

    In other words, a “unity” government does look more and more likely. Still not the most likely, and such a government would (by definition) have Likud in it. But probably not leading it. If that means Likud is “beaten” in an “upset”, then, yes, it is increasing in probability.

  2. If the Center Left wins, would the United List (Israeli Arabs) join a Center Left coalition? Could the increase of the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% cause the United List to hold the balance of power? It will be an interesting election and even more interesting to see which coalition of strange bedfellows are formed. Will there be a grand coalition of Zionist Union and Likud?

    Was the increase in the electoral threshold worth it? It doesn’t seem to decrease the amount of parties in the Israeli Knesset, so it must be that Israeli society is deeply divided and fragmented and not blaming the electoral system for it.

    Odd that the media seems to think that the largest party gets to form the government, that is not always the case in a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation and this may even be the case with the upcoming UK election with FPTP and it is going to destroy the notion that FPTP produces stability, majority governments, and that the party with the most seats will form the government. There may even be a reverse plurality, but thankfully no party will win a majority. No matter what electoral system a country uses, it could sometimes leads to unclear results and instability.

    • The Arab parties, whether on a common list or separate ones, can never be said to ‘hold the balance of power’. What they do instead (whether by their own choice or that of the other parties, I will leave aside for now) is effectively make it harder to form a government, as the Zionist parties have to get to at least 61 seats out of their own numbers (currently 107) – I suspect this is why the religious parties seem to have had a disproportionate influence on policy over the years – their bargaining power is greatly enhanced by the exclusion of the Arab parties. For whatever reason, the Arab parties usually rank as the least favoured coalition partners – now of course, that does not apply equally to all of them: a coalition with Balad would probably be quite a bit more problematic than Hadash. Which is why I think the only way an Arab party will take party in or support a coalition is if the united list falls apart after the election.

      Has the threshold achieved its goal? Of course, we’ll only know after the election, but mostly the answer seems to be negative. The number of parties probably won’t fall, but I don’t see that as the least bit surprising considering how small the increase was. But it has definitely changed things, as can be seen by the increased number of pre-electoral coalitions, all of which were occasioned in order to enable at least one of the partners to pass the threshold: the United List, the Zionist Camp, and Yachad. At the same time, at least three parties are very much on the edge and at risk of losing all their seats: Meretz, Yachad, and Israel Beitenu. I don’t quite know if this is unprecedented, but it might be.

      Was it worth it? Personally I don’t see any of the aforementioned effects as negative, to the contrary even. But it clearly isn’t working to seriously decrease the number of parties or to strengthen the larger ones. Which again is unsurprising considering that whatever seats the smaller parties lose out on as a result of a higher threshold are distributed proportionally among the rest. The kind of reform that *would* achieve such a goal – introducing (multi-member) districts – never really reaches the table, if it is even proposed by anyone. I cannot but attribute that to a certain stubbornness and ignorance of the kind that led to the failed institution of direct prime ministerial elections two decades ago.

  3. One interesting thing to look at is where the new center right Kulanu’s support (8 seats roughly) appears to coming from. Setting aside all of the usual caveats about panels, the party appears to benefit from the decline of Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu (each down about 8 seats). The further right parties appear to suffer more as they (Zionist Union/Joint List/Meretz/Yesh Atid) are down a net of 3 seats while the Right/Religious are down a net of 5 seats. But this could nonetheless help the right if it expands their overall space in the Knesset. Ah, Israeli politics. . .

  4. An update from Israel:
    1 – Polls status: two poll-analysis projects I have been following are giving quite different results due to different approaches. A facebook publication by the name of ‘Project 61′ is rating polls by sample size, recentness and past successes or failures. It further compensates for past errors or bias towards specific parties or genre of parties by specific polling companies. Its results are mostly, and unsurprisingly, similar to the projected results of the polls themselves. Most recent projection was – Zionist Camp (formerly Labor and Hatnua) 24, Likud 20, Joint List (Hadash and Arab parties) 14, Habayit Hayehudi (Likud allies) 12, Yesh Atid (Lapid) 12, Kulanu (Kahlon) 8, Shas (Sepharadic religious party) 8, Yahadut Hatora (Ultra Orthodox) 7, Israel Beytenu (Liberman, formerly co-listing with Likud) 6, Meretz (left party) 5, Yahad (ultra nationalist and religious) 5. Another internet publication, named “Batel Beshishim” (impossible to translate, I won’t even bother to try…) is using what they call a “Bayesian approach”, where they insert certain assumption on the deviation of the actual result from that predicted by the polls analyzed. Mainly, they focus on trend and momentum as a determining factor, and claim their model has better chances of avoiding the major surprises that went undetected by the polls over previous campaigns (such as the unprecedented rise of Yesh Atid in 2013, or the Pensioners party gaining 7 seats in 2006) . Their projection is therefore more encouraging from Mr. Herzog’s point of view: Zionist Camp 25, Likud 20, Joint List 14, Habayit Hayehudi 11, Yesh Atid 13, Kulanu 11, Shas 8, Yahadut Hatora 6, Israel Beytenu 4, Meretz 4, Yahad 4.
    2 – What’s the latest: Israeli law from 2009 prohibits publication of polls in the last 3 days of the campaign, so no new data is about to come out from now till election night. However last night there was a sort of an improvised 3 minute debate between Herzog and (a larger than life projection of) Netanyahu. A very unscientific hunch – it doesn’t seem Mr. Herzog did all that well. I also have a feeling that because of the latest polls showing Likud trailing the Zionist Camp, there might be a trend back towards Likud form voters who until now thought to abstain or give their vote to more fringe parties.
    3 – Coalition Possibilities: If anyone has had any hopes or fears that the Joint List might be a partner to a Herzog coalition, at least as an outside backing for a minority government, they can lay them to rest. Joint List leaders expressly stated they would not back a Herzog government and Kahlon also expressly stated he would not sit in a government dependant on the Joint List’s votes. On the other hand, I wouldn’t rule out the option of Shas joining a Herzog led coalition, even with Yesh Atid. Yahadut Hatora may be a different story, as they have explicitly said sitting in coalition with Yesh Atid is out of the question (though not so about sitting with Herzog himself). So, for Herzog to have a coalition without Likud he needs Zionist Movement-Meretz-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Shas to gain at least 61 seats. From the other side, and as mentioned here by MSS, Yahad has a very extreme nationalistic element and I think at least 2 of the projected 4-5 MK’s of that party cannot be relied on as part of a coalition. So, for Netanyahu to have a coalition without the Zionist Movement it would need Likud-Habayit Hayehudi-Israel Beytenu-Shas-Yahadut Hatora-Yahad to gain at least 63 seats. But the question remains – what if both theoretical coalitions become possible? Netanyahu’s path towards a government certainly seems easier and therefore unless Likud suffers a humiliating defeat and a trail the Zionist Movement by a large margin, he will probably get the first go from the president. But being able to form a “narrow” coalition does not mean necessarily wanting to form one. There is a big chance that whoever gets to be appointed formateur would abandon those who got him that position for a “grand” coalition.
    4 – What else to notice on election night: It has been noted here before that 3 parties are hovering above the electoral threshold – Meretz, Israel Beytenu and Yahad. This year’s relatively high threshold (3.25% – the highest in Israel’s history) plus the relative close race between the “blocks” means election night can turn dramatic. Actually, if any of these lists is going to be close to the elimination line, from either side of it, we may need to wait till Thursday, when the soldiers’ and diplomats’ votes are all counted. Meretz is campaigning Zionist Camp voters to convince them to help Meretz pass the threshold so that the Meretz’s votes don’t get discounted and so make a Likud victory a certainty. Israel Beytenu and Yahad use the opposite tactic – they claim they are far above the threshold and that the polls are wrong about them, so as not to scare voters away from them for fear of wasting their vote.
    5 – What else to notice after elections – Rarely has any president of Israel have so much say over the formation of the government. The fact that the “big” parties are actually very small and no cohesive blocks exists, give the president some room to maneuver. Netanyahu may rue the fall out he has had with Mr. Rivlin and his efforts to deny him – his own party man! – the presidency.

    • Thank you. Very valuable.

      Some shifting of votes back towards Likud from elsewhere on the right is something I sort of expect, although I wonder if it could make up the 4-5 seat gap that has apparently opened up.

      In the earlier post, I had mentioned that I expected Herzog would lose Kahlon’s support if he made a deal in which he needed the Arab parties to get to 61 Knesset votes. I did not know Kahlon had now said that explicitly. Good to know.

      It still seems like an extremely difficult path to 61 for a non-Likud coalition. But will voters perceive a government led by a party that finished 3-5 seats behind (if it turns out that way) as “illegitimate”? And if they do, is there any way they can punish the parties next time for making such a government anyway? It would seem like the answers are probably, “maybe” and “not so much”, respectively.

  5. Kachlon, even if not quite kingmaker, will be in any government that is formed. But will he pull off taking Finance with as few as 9-10 seats?

    It also looks like Shas, and perhaps also Israel Beitenu – arguably Israel’s two most corrupt parties – will be part of any government.

    • Agreed, JD. I said at the time he announced he was running that Kahlon surely did not get back into politics to sit in the opposition. However, his intent at being Finance Minister looks a bit fanciful. If he is pivotal, though, who knows?

      And, yes, on Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu being corrupt, and also likely essential to either ZU or Likud. It is hard to imagine ZU and YB teaming up (and Meretz said it would not sit with YB). But it could be that there will be no choice (if there is a viable ZU-ld coalition at all).

      • Bibi has already promised Kachlon Finance, and the maths seems to indicate that if he goes with the Zionist Union, they will hardly be in a position to refuse it. But it would certainly be unusual for a party of that size.

  6. Is the selection of Prime Minister the problem? I don’t mean the disastrous experiment of electing the Prime Minister by direct vote. Would Israelis be more incline to vote for the larger parties if there is a rule that which ever list wins the most seats, the party leader by default becomes Prime Minister? It seems as if the selection of Prime Minister in every parliamentary democracy seems to vary from country to country. There are some countries with explicit rules and other with implicit informal rules. Most of the times, the Chief of State either the Monarch or Ceremonial President whether elected by the people or the legislature is part of the process of forming a government.

  7. “It seems as if the selection of Prime Minister in every parliamentary democracy seems to vary from country to country.” Really? In any parliamentary system I know of there is only one rule: to maintain the confidence of the lower house. Whatever the practice details (does the incumbent have the right to meet the new House? How fast must the new House meet?) the ultimate selection is in the hands of the House. Where is it any different?

    • Wilf, that is true: the confidence mechanism is the defining core of parliamentarism. But, yes, the rules for selection of the prime minister vary a lot across parliamentary systems, and in complex bargaining contexts, these rules can matter.

      At the end of the day, however, if there is a majority for one bloc over another, of course, it can prevail. Rob’s question is one I and the team I was attached to spent a lot of time on in 2010 in Jerusalem. A guaranteed right for the first party could matter under some circumstances in Israel, but most of the time I do not suspect that it would change outcomes. This election actually could be one of those times in which it would matter–if there is not a clear 61-vote bloc for the right on election night. (I take it as given that there will be no such clear bloc for a center-left.)

  8. Israel’s government formation process (similarly I think to the Netherlands), has 2 stages: (1) the president selects a formateur, after consulting the parties represented in the Knesset and determining who has the most chances of forming a government that would gain the confidence of the Knesset; (2) the formateur negotiates with the different parties, forms a coalition and then notifies the president and presents the new government, its agenda and the agreements with the coalition partners to the Knesset for an “investiture” vote of confidence, as a mechanism of appointment (there is no formal appointment by the president).
    I don’t know why this complex system was chosen in the first place (instead of a straight-forward election of a PM by the parliament, as in Germany, for instance) and I can’t remember reading anything about its creation, back in 1949. I can only guess that it was preferred by Mapai (the dominant party at the early years of Israel’s existence and the forefather of today’s Labor party), since it assured that it would not face a surprise vote of all other parties pulling together to oust it from power.
    When there are cohesive “blocks” supporting different candidates and the election results produce a clear choice between them, the first stage is a foregone conclusion and the focus is on the second stage. The main question being what kind of coalition is the formateur going to form? A seat difference between the leading parties is of no relevance on such occasions. Such was the situation on most elections in the past decades (ignoring the direct choice of PM experiment of 1996-2001) – 1988, 1992, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013. In 2009 Likud formed the government easily though Kadima had a seat more.
    When there is an apparent draw between the blocks, the president has some discretion on the choice of formateur. In 1984, Labor led Likud by 3 seats IIRC, but the blocks where perfectly even. Labor leader Peres got appointed formatour but had to form a grand coalition with Likud, including a rotation in the top post with Likud’s leader. In 1990, following the collapse of the then grand coalition led by Likud’s leader Shamir, Peres convinced the president he has an alternative coalition, since some religious parties seemed to switch allegiance – but at the end it turned out he could not get a coalition and the post of formateur moved back to Shamir. This by the way was the first and till now only time in Israel’s history that a government fell in a no confidence bill, instead of the Knesset dissolving itself early. In late 2008, following Olmert’s resignation, Livni was appointed formateor but again the religious parties switched sides, this time to Likud. Likud could not form a government in itself by prevented Kadima’s Livni from doing so, thus forcing early election in 2009, in which Likud won.
    This time around it seems there are no cohesive ‘blocks’ which are destined to support one candidate at least initially (even if possibly joining the other one’s government eventually, if their first choice isn’t able to form one). This is mainly because of Kahlon’s Kulanu reluctance to indicate any preference. Yesh Atid doesn’t declare for Herzog but would clearly prefer him to Netanyah, and the opposite is true for Yahadut Hatora and Shas. So Kahlon is the pivotal figure this time, and might yet be “king-maker”.
    Surely, if Right + Religious parties has more than 60 seats without Kulanu, or Left + Arab party has more than 60 without Kulanu, the choice of formateour is easy – though Herzog might still struggle to form his own coalition. But if, as all indicators predict, neither scenario is true, then the focus would be on the president’s choice of formateur. If Kulanu would signal it support for either candidate at this first stage, it would definitely give it an advantage. If Kahlon remains silent, the president would have some discretion and then the seat difference between the parties might play a factor. It can also be a consideration of Kahlon himself, who might not want to appear ignoring the people’schoice, if the seat difference is indeed 4-5 seats or more.
    It is not a matter of legitimacy I think, but rather of interpreting the election results as indicating who is the preferred candidate of “the people”.

    • This is not the system as used in the Netherlands, which is arguably more complex. Up until just after WWII, the queen would appoint a formateur in the customary method for constitutional monarchies. From 1951, after many failed formations in the 20’s and 30’s, when a number of formateurs resigned, the queen initiated the practice of first appointing an ‘informateur’ to test the waters and investigate the different coalition combinations. Often, a series of informateurs are appointed, until a coalition emerges (with agreement), which is when the formateur is appointed to finalise the process and choose the ministers in conjunction with the other party leaders in the coalition. The ‘formation’ stage only takes a few days and when done the monarch formally appoints the government. There is no investiture vote. In the past, the queen would appoint the informateurs after consultation with her permanent advisers and the leaders of all parties; after the last election in 2012, the lower house took over these tasks and appointed by resolution. The only country I know of which does things in a similar manner is Belgium, where the king’s involvement continues.

  9. Complex as it is, the Dutch system still sounds better than the Israeli one. Both because of the parliament voting for the informateur, and because of the lack of investiture vote, which enables, at least theroticaly, the formation of a minority government. In Israel that is not realy an option – the need for affirmative vote means you annot just ‘let the government’ remain in office while staying out of it – you to support it affirmatively.

    • I think I agree with you on minority governments. Even easier, though, but probably achieving the same end, would be to have an actual competitive election for prime minister by the Knesset by exhaustive vote, as in South Africa. That is, not like Germany where the ‘election’ is a yes-no vote on a nominee, but an actual election between different candidates, with the candidate with least votes being excluded and a new round held until one candidate has a majority of votes cast. In combination with the constructive no-confidence vote, these would be the rules which most curtail the power of the small parties.

      • Are there any cases of PM-selection like the South African, but where there is no majority party (or clear bloc) to command a first-round majority?

        (And, yes in case anyone is wondering, the South African head of government is a prime minister despite being called “President”.)

        On the consulting visit in 2010, I repeatedly proposed abolishing the requirement of an affirmative vote for the government, and making the no-confidence vote genuinely constructive (requiring an affirmative vote for a new government to replace an incumbent once installed after an election). But the fact that this would make minority governments more likely to form, and be stable, was seen by most who heard me as a bug, rather than the feature I took it to be.

      • Not that I know of, and I would be surprised if there is one. All of the prime ministerial ‘elections’ I know of consist of an up-or-down vote on a certain PM candidate.

      • JD, I think the ACT has had competetive elections with more than two candidates for the position of Chief Minister, although most governments are formed before that stage.

    • Although, I believe the minority government formed in the Netherlands in 2010 (backed by Gert Wilders’s PVV) was the first in the country’s history (aside from a caretaker here or there)–or at least in a long time.

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