Coordination failure under nationwide PR: Manufactured majority in Israel 2022

The votes are not yet final from the 1 November 2022 Israeli general election, but the outcome is quite clear. The right-wing bloc of parties supporting current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu will have won a manufactured majority. Media are calculating the bloc’s combined seats at 65 out of 120. Yet the bloc currently has just 48.1% of the votes.* That is actually lower than the clear majority of the vote they got in April, 2019, yet at that election the result was deadlock while this one will produce a majority coalition government. What explains the difference? Coordination.

The reason for the manufactured majority in this election, despite a nationwide proportional representation electoral system, is coordination failure. The strategic choices of political leaders and voters in both the left and the Arab political camps have made Netanyahu’s impending return to government possible. On the left, Labor has barely cleared the 3.25% legal threshold, with 3.56% as of now (around 20:30 Israel time), while Meretz is below, at 3.19% (and its percentage has declined in recent hours as more votes are counted*). Even if–as appears unlikely–Meretz ultimately clears, and thus wins 4 seats instead of zero, it would not drop the right below 61 seats. For that to happen, it would also be necessary that all three Arab lists in this election cleared the threshold. But Balad is sitting on only 3.03%, so that looks at least as unlikely.

Had Balad stayed in alliance with the remnant Joint List (i.e., Hadash-Tal, which won 3.93%) and had Meretz either won just enough to clear the threshold or formed an alliance list with Labor, as Interim PM Yair Lapid openly encouraged, the additional seats won by these camps surely would have blocked Netanyahu from winning. Then there either would have been some unexpected coalition possibilities emerging, or another election next spring, with Lapid of the Yesh Atid party remaining Prime Minister during that time (and until a new government eventually formed). Thus it is hard to exaggerate just how much the left and Arab political camps blew it–assuming blocking the return of Netanyahu was important to them. (Frankly, I doubt Balad’s leaders care, although many of their voters must, and leftist leaders and voters alike surely do.)

I should add here that the third piece of the former Joint List, Ra’am, which backed the outgoing government, cleared the threshold easily with the highest vote percentage of any of the three Arab lists (4.34%). This appears to be vindication for leader Mansour Abbas’s consistent message over the last two years of normalizing Arab participation in national governance; in 2021 Ra’am had 3.79%. I will count this as one piece of good news from the election.

In some respects, this year’s outcome is a mirror image of the first of this recent run of frequent elections, in April 2019. In that first of two elections in 2019, the right suffered a coordination failure when New Right fell just below the threshold, with 3.22% of the vote. In that election, the combined right-wing vote was 55.4% if we include Yisrael Beiteinu or 51.44% if we do not. But the non-Likud, non-Haredi right was splintered: Union of Right-Wing Parties (3.70), Kulanu (3.54), New Right (3.22), and Zehut (2.74). Thus the right bloc had only 60 seats, or with Yisrael Beiteinu (4.01% of the vote) included, 65. Had New Right cleared the threshold, the combination without YB would have been 61 or 62, depriving YB leader Avigdor Lieberman of the pivotal position. (It was only after the election that he earnestly said no to the coalitions with Haredi parties that he had willingly been part of up to a few months before.) Thus coordination failure on the right probably prevented a right-Haredi government from forming in 2019, and kicked off the four-election cycle of deadlock and attempted “unity” governments.

In this year’s election, coordination on the right returned in a big way. The non-Likud, non-Haredi right was almost entirely consolidated on one list, that of Religious Zionism, which won 10.31% of the vote and probably 14 seats. There will be much consternation and condemnation over the prominent role that RZ leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir will play in the likely new government. Much of it will be deserved. They are genuine extremists. However, it will be portrayed as a far-right surge when it really only is the non-Likud, non-Haredi electorate converging on its only viable option. Consider that in the 2021 election, RZ won 6 seats (5.12% of the vote) and Yamina won 7 seats (6.21% of the vote). That is 13 seats and just over 11% of the vote. This time the remaining option will have actually lost vote share while picking up (apparently) one seat. It is not a far-right surge, it is a right-wing coordination success. To these votes we could also add Jewish Home, now led by Ayalet Shaked, which won 1.16% of the votes–far below the threshold, but suggesting the combined vote share for this more-rightwing-than-Likud flavor of politics basically did not change.

It is quite striking how much of the movement from utter coordination failure on the right in 2019 to smashing coordination success in 2022 is the story of Naftali Bennet and Ayalet Shaked and their supporters. Their gambit in 2019 was that there was political space for a strongly right-wing option that is less tied to the old religious Zionist parties, represented at the time by the Jewish Home alliance (in which both were prominent figures and Netanyahu coalition partners). But for a very small number of votes, they could have been vindicated, but instead the last three and a half years turned this on its head, with the list of Religious Zionism commandeering this segment of the vote in 2022. On the way here, Bennet and, more reluctantly, Shaked tried another gambit, teaming up with Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Ra’am, and Yisrael Beiteinu (among others) on the “change” government. Bennet was at the time leader of Yamina, which did not even run in this election. We could say it was hardly a party at all, in terms of the disciplined outfit we’d expect of a party providing the prime minister, as it did for the initial period of the government formed in 2021. It only shed members of Knesset and voters from the moment it announced the coalition. And now its voters have a home and a government, in the form of the most hardline party to have entered any of Netanyahu’s cabinets to date.

As for the left, Labor and Meretz refused to forge an alliance. This is understandable, but also blew up on them in a big way. They had run on an alliance list in the March, 2020, election and won only 7 seats and less than 6% of the votes. Compare that to 11 seats (and over 9% of the vote) in September, 2019, for their separate lists and then in 2021, 13 seats (and combined 10.7% of votes) for their again separate lists. Thus they have reason to believe that together they are worth less than the sum of their parts–conditional on their two separate parts clearing the threshold! In this election they combine for only 6.75% of votes and 4 seats–8 if Meretz ultimately squeaks over the threshold as now seems unlikely. It was a gamble, and it looks to have failed.

There are already recriminations against Lapid for not properly “managing” the center-left bloc (see under “cannibalistic pig“). But he tried to encourage a Labor-Meretz alliance and was rebuffed. I am not in position to say whether he could have done more to prevent center-left voters from choosing him over his threshold-challenged partners. It seems to me that’s not really the bigger party leader’s job, even though it was obviously in his interests that both win seats. Once the Labor and Meretz leaders concluded they could clear the threshold running alone, it was incumbent on them to deliver their votes.

Frankly, it seems that Labor and Meretz are yesterday’s news, and they should either merge or fold. The future of the center-left is Yesh Atid. Over seven elections in just under a decade, Yesh Atid has proven it is not just another centrist flash in the pan, but a serious option with staying power and organization. It is, nonetheless, unlikely ever to be the head of a center-left/Arab government. As the 2021 experience shows, you need a party of the right to cross over and make that a majority (or you’d need Ra’am or some other cooperation-minded Arab party to supplant Hadash-Tal and Balad). It is not clear where another right-wing splinter could come from; it won’t be from the right of Likud, and there just isn’t a “soft right” anymore to its immediate left. Maybe after Netanyahu finally leaves the scene there will be. The future of the center-left is thus probably mainly as a potential coalition partner to a post-Netanyahu Likud, and it would be better for it to be one strong partner than to be fragmented into Yesh Atid and two minnows farther to the left (if they both could clear again in a future contest), plus whatever becomes of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. (The latter is the real “soft right” in the current party system, but is already firmly tied to the center-left as of now.)

Many supporters of proportional representation in the US, Canada, and elsewhere speak as if PR means no need for strategic electoral behavior. The Israeli experience of 2019 through 2022 shows the folly of such belief. Coordination is still important, especially if there are any significant contra-proportional features to the PR system. And usually there are–sometimes in the form of moderate district magnitude, and sometimes–as in Israel–in the form of a moderately high legal threshold, despite nationwide PR. The right had the coordination this time that it lacked in 2019, whereas the left and Arab sectors in this election did not. And thus a bloc will have the parliamentary majority and government despite not having won a majority of the vote.

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Update: With around 99% counted, it is now 64 seats (53.3%) on 48.4% of the vote. Meretz shrank farther from the threshold and is at 3.16%.

13 thoughts on “Coordination failure under nationwide PR: Manufactured majority in Israel 2022

  1. I might add that this election offers another case of an alliance that was less than the sum of its parts. In the 2021 election, Gantz’s Blue & White won 6.6% (8 seats) and Gideon Saar’s New Hope won 4.7% (6) for a combined 11.3% and 14 seats. This time they ran on an alliance list (known in English as National Unity) that got only 8.9% of the vote and probably 12 seats.

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  2. Addendum to the post: I believe it was mostly Labor that rebuffed the idea of a merger, and Meretz was open to the idea–for good reason, as we now know. Labor itself barely made it over the threshold, too, so it could have been an even bigger miscalculation on their part. And it was a big enough one as it turned out.

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  3. I varied a few parameters to see how that affects things. The choice of D’Hondt seems to have almost as significant an effect as the threshold.

    So with a 2% threshold (and D’Hondt), I got 62 seats for the Bibi bloc (30 Likud, 14 Religious Zionists, 11 Shas and 7 UTJ) to 51 for the Lapid bloc (22 Yesh Atid, 11 National Unity, 4 Labour, 5 YB, 5 Ra’am, 4 Meretz) and 7 for the Arab/unaligned bloc (4 Chadash-Tal, 3 Balad).

    With no threshold that cuts the Bibi Bloc to 61 (13 for Religious Zionists) and 52 for Lapid (1 for Shaked).

    If I use the Droop Quota instead of D’Hondt (with no threshold), I get 59 for Bibi’s bloc, 52 Lapid, 9 Arab.

    With a 3.25% threshold and Droop I get 63 Bibi, 52 Lapid, 5 Arab.

    With a 2% threshold and Droop I get 59 Bib, 52 Lapid, 9 Arab.

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    • Thanks. Yes, I’d expect D’Hondt to be roughly as consequential as the threshold. Nice to see it in practice.

      I assume you didn’t take surplus vote agreements into effect, right? I have not seen (or attempted yet to calculate) how much impact they had. These are the deals by which two lists that both clear the threshold pool their votes, which can sometimes result in one of them getting an extra seat than if they had not signed the agreement.

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      • I’m surprised by these numbers because I had received the impression that had Balad & Meretz been included in the count, Bibi’s bloc would not have had a majority (of course, with both parties winning more votes, but they weren’t far, so presumably Bibi would still have had at least 61.

        So how much coordination would have been necessary for Bibi to not win outright? Would Labour-Meretz and Arab parties joint lists have been enough, or not?

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        • So ignoring surplus votes agreements again, I get 62 for the Netanyanhu bloc even if Labor-Meretz and Chadash-Tal-Balad pooled their votes.

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        • If that’s the case, I find it hard not to question whether this was in fact a coordination failure, at least one that would have been avoided had the main parties which were at all likely to run a joint list had in fact formed a joint list. Something must have changed from 2021, 2020, and 2019 which has allowed Bibi’s bloc to win an outright majority in 2022 with or without Meretz and Balad topping the threshold. I’m very unsure what it is.

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        • I have this question, too. But I don’t think any of the scenarios Ryan showed can answer this. They all take the actual votes, but vary the rules. We are asking what happens if you hold the rules constant, but vary the votes above the threshold, i.e., aggregating the first two lists that missed out with lists that made it.

          I attempted to determine what the Bibi bloc percentage would be if we simply assumed Balad and Meretz votes all counted (via alliances) towards seats. We still have 128,362 votes cast for other parties below the threshold, including Shaked (Jewish Home). That’s about ten thousand less than Balad’s vote (probably just under 3 seats worth), and of course all these are still “wasted” in our alternative scenarios. I get the Bibi bloc lists at 49.7% of this adjusted above-threshold vote. That smells like 60 seats, except of course that by having the largest party of all, this bloc still might benefit from an extra seat under D’Hondt. So maybe they still would have made it to 61 (that would be an advantage ratio of 1.02). It would have been close, for sure.

          This could be simulated more methodically than what I tried, with various assumptions about what combined votes look like in the event of alliances. And maybe it could be done by downloading the spreadsheets in the link Ryan offered below, and varying numbers through aggregation and other scenarios.

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        • As to what might have changed to allow Bibi to win (potentially) a majority even had the Arabs and left coordinated, maybe it is simply the percentage of votes cast for the truly hopeless lists.

          The figure I cited in an earlier comment in this mini-thread works out to 2.69% in 2022, whereas the corresponding figure for 2021 was only 1.47% (with the largest chunk of that being New Economic Party’s 0.79%).

          Possibly relevant here, but I am not sure, is that the Bibi bloc including Shaked actually had 50.9% of the votes cast for parties with at least 1% of the vote. Obviously her votes are wasted under any of the scenarios we are talking about. So this last point is trivial, but I thought interesting nonetheless.

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    • I am a little surprised that Droop (and, I assume, largest remainder) is that different from D’Hondt, both without a legal threshold. My priors would be that they tend to be about the same. Obviously I need to update my priors!

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  4. Pingback: Stacking vs. checking: Otzma Yehudit in the emerging Israeli coalition | Fruits and Votes

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