Is the current Israeli coalition “consensus” or “majoritarian”?

The title above must seem like a trick question. The current Israeli coalition government consists of eight parties–or perhaps more accurately, seven parties that have cabinet ministers plus a formally committed support party. It bridges left and right, and includes a party of the Arab minority (the support party, without which the parties around the cabinet table lack a majority). So that would seem to fit the definition of a “consensus” government pretty well, per definitions like that of Lijphart.

On the other hand, it has just about the narrowest majority possible (61 seats, or on a good day 62, out of 120). The concept of consensus democracy, per Lijphart, is that governance encompass as wide a range of representatives of social and political groups as possible. This new Israeli government is thus both “broad” and “narrow” at the same time!

We might expect a government that has such a diverse mix of parties and a narrow parliamentary basis to be very cautious. Any bold move could cause it to break apart; in fact, in its first big legislative test it failed to pass anything and allowed a policy reversion point surely not preferred by any member party to stand. It has had other policy failures as well. Yet, as it develops the most important measure it will deal with in its first year, the state budget, it is so far looking surprisingly bold. The headline of an article by Haviv Rettig Gur from 28 July makes the point succinctly: “New budget bill shows coalition launching sweeping reforms despite fragility.” Another from 8 August states the government “aims to transform Israel.”

The measures being incorporated into the budget include reforms to the state’s relationship with it Arab citizens, competition in the kosher-supervision process, a reduction in trade protection, liberalization of the agricultural sector, easing rules concerning electric vehicles, making the banking system more competitive, and a “regulatory revolution.” As Gur explains in the 28 July article, these measures are in the so-called Arrangements Bill, a required companion to the spending bill that delineates structural and policy reforms needed to make the numbers in the more narrowly defined budget bill work.

The idea of sweeping reforms and transformative policy seems more in keeping with majoritarian models of government, which typically are on the classic Westminster model. In such a system, a bare parliamentary majority–albeit one normally not based on a popular vote majority– is able to push through its perceived “mandate” for policy change against an opposition that can complain but not block. Of course, this model assumes–by common definition–a single party controlling the parliamentary majority. How can a fragile multiparty coalition, which does not even include the largest single party, be bold like this?

The answer is certainly not because there is not resistance. Interest groups that benefit from the status quo have ramped up a campaign against reforms, and surely some of the reforms will be phased in, watered down, or dropped before the budget finally passes. Indeed, Gur notes:

These reforms share one characteristic: All have been advocated for many years, but could not advance due to resistance from industry groups, government agencies or various political factions. Haredi parties stood in the way of taxing sugary drinks and plasticware, while farmers’ and manufacturers’ lobbies resisted the agriculture and import reforms.

He further suggests that the unwillingness to advance reforms under previous Likud-led governments was grounded in a basic feature of those governments: they were built around a single relatively dominant party with a dominant leader.

The past 12 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule were marked by tight control over the cabinet and the coalition. New initiatives and controversial reforms were reined in; fewer initiatives meant fewer destabilizing fights. Stability was paramount, so nothing that could cause dissension within the coalition was allowed to advance. No one even contemplated reforms to the state religious bureaucracies as long as Haredi parties were in the coalition. Wherever possible, domestic policy was farmed out to relevant interest groups.

I agree with this interpretation, and it is indeed probably what we would expect from coalitions comprised of one “large” party that is actually so small as to have held, on several occasions, only around half of the needed 61 seats, plus a smattering of small and often sectoral parties. But shouldn’t a government with no big party at all, like the current one, be even more fragile and stymied by the need to avoid defections?

Maybe not. As Gur says, “It’s a government keenly aware that any of its member factions could topple it at any moment. It is in that sense a more egalitarian cabinet than any in Israel’s history.” I think this is accurate, but I’d go a step farther. It is a government that consists of several parties that have not been in a governing majority for many years (like Meretz, or ever, like Ra’am), or were formed explicitly to get Netanyahu out of power (New Hope), or who currently exercise senior ministerial positions such as they they previously were able to hold only in a subordinate position to Netanyahu (thinking here of Yisrael Beiteinu, recent past incarnations of Labor, as well as the government’s two core power-sharing/alternating partners, Yesh Atid and Yamina). Benny Gantz’s Blue & White probably straddles a couple of those categories–formed initially to get Netanyahu out of power, and then accepting a decidedly subordinate role to him in the previous “alternating” government.

That is, this government came together around a new cleavage–opposition to the previous Prime Minister, not a specific policy or ideological cleavage. Each party in the government has reasons to prefer making this work to the alternative, which might very well be a new Netanyahu-led coalition that some of these parties would have to join for it to have a majority. No one in the new majority wants that–at least for now. And most of these governing parties might lose seats if there were a new election before the government they were in could show any progress on which to run.

The situation just described is strikingly like a majoritarian pattern of government. For at least the current moment, these parties need a record of joint achievement to run on (albeit still as separate parties) in the next election. They are thus collectively accountable in a way that more resembles a single-party majority than it resembles many past Israeli governments of one relatively large party buttressed by a bunch of small ones.

The Israeli government change earlier this year shows that accountability–the usual selling point of two-party dominant majoritarian systems–can be achieved even under conditions of party-system fragmentation. The government was made possible only because a new party, Gideon Saar’s New Hope, offered an alternative option for voters on the right that Yamina (the party of new PM Naftali Bennet) was able to go along with, and in fact end up (co-)leading. Only via those mechanisms was it possible to produce alternation in government. And now because the parties all need to work together to deliver for their own distinct interest-group and ideological constituencies it needs to push a bold reform agenda on which to be accountable at the next election. I think the point holds even if we assume that these parties will never seek a renewed collective mandate at election time, to be reelected as a government. I assume they will not do that, unless perhaps if Netanyahu is still leading Likud at the next election and none of these parties prefer working with him again. But in the meantime, they are kind of stuck with one another, and need to show results.

This moment in Israeli politics is thus quite majoritarian, despite all the parties that must forge a consensus to keep their government together. I am using the term, majoritarian, in a way that is more consistent with how some recent literature has used it, which is somewhat different from Lijphart’s sense. For Lijphart, part of the definition of majoritarianism is “single-party, bare majority” governments. However, more recent works suggest that we can conceptualize majoritarianism as parties that collectively reflect a majority of voters and can pass policy with a bare majority of parliament sufficing. Some significant works I am thinking of that have made key contributions to this conception of majoritarianism include McGann, Latner and McGann, Ganghof, and Li. This conception is in contrast to the core notion of the consensus pattern of democracy, which implies super-majorities, either due to institutional requirements (like strong bicameralism or an entrenched constitution that must be amended to carry out significant policy change) or due to oversized coalitions (those that contain more parties than needed to comprise a majority). Basically, what has happened here should become the new textbook definition of how PR-parliamentarism should work: creating the opportunity for one majority to be replaced by another majority, when a new salient cleavage emerges, but for the new majority to consist of multiple parties given that proportional representation normally does not allow for the majority to consist of a single party.

So, yes, the current Israeli government is quite majoritarian, despite the need for a consensus across a diverse range of parties in order to govern. If it pulls off the reforms in its proposed budget, it will have performed quite like a classic case of alternation in power in a Westminster-type system, only with its set of policies actually grounded in the votes of a majority of the electorate and not merely a majority in parliament. The path to such policy success will not be smooth. For instance, a group of 11 members of Knesset, from Blue & White and Labor, are threatening to block the arrangements bill over opposition to the agricultural liberalization. Expect more of this as the process plays out. It does not necessarily undermine my conclusion on the majoritarian nature of this coalition. Even single-party majority governments often have to negotiate with blocks of their own members who object to government policy changes. The difference is that in a multiparty government, these disagreements are more likely to be public, precisely because each party generally needs to claim credit as a separate party at the next election. However, if my core claim about this government is correct–that they have a collective need to hang together to produce anything to run on, given they lack good exit options for now–then they should still pull off a significant part of their transformative policy agenda (see the bill on military draft of Haredim for one other case to watch). And that is a key aspect of the majoritarian pattern of parliamentary governance, whether conceived of single-party, bare-majority cabinet (per Lijphart’s ideal type and the Westminster model) or as bare-majority coalition of parties representing a mix of policy positions in juxtaposition to an alternative majority (per McGann, Latner, Li, and Ganghof).

6 thoughts on “Is the current Israeli coalition “consensus” or “majoritarian”?

  1. Thank you for this understanding of the current political situation. It is almost Talmudic!
    Gordon

  2. Perhaps it is neither, or rather a little of both, Have there not been a few cases across the world where a coalition’s entire reason for existence was to keep the major block out of power? Perhaps in addition to majority governments (coalition or otherwise). minority governments, and grand coalitions, we need another type of governance. An “Everything But” coalition or an “Unsanitary Cordon,” a government composed of everyone and everything who shares in one simple goal: Keeping the party or leader out of power by the simple fact that an absolute majority is not behind him.

    • Sure, multiparty coalitions motivated by ousting a previous governing party have existed before; I am not claiming this is unprecedented globally. For various reasons, I do not think this Israeli government is equivalent to a generic “everything but” coalition. One that comes to mind is the anti-LDP coalition in Japan of 1993. It really existed for little more than passing electoral reform, and then dissolved (with the LDP coming in without an election). I don’t see this as like that at all. Maybe you have some other examples in mind.

      This government has an ambitious policy agenda on multiple dimensions, some of which it just might pull off for reasons of the incentives I allude to in the post.

      But please don’t lose sight of the bigger point I am making: The true definition of majoritarian governance should be a bare majority elected under PR, not a single-party manufactured majority. And the true definition of consensus governance should be an oversized coalition and/or institutional checks or super-majority thresholds.

  3. Pingback: So all can have wins for their voters | Fruits and Votes

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