Bibi was right to be worried: So now what?

Update: Three Joint List MKs (the Balad faction) have written to the President to say they withdraw their recommendation of Gantz, contravening the leader’s earlier claim to be speaking for all 13. This puts Gants one behind Netanyahu. I don’t think it changes the bigger picture, as described below, however.


Over the summer, I noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was, by his actions, showing he was worried that he would not retain his post after the elections of 17 September. He was right to be worried. The election results were very bad for him. His party, Likud, came in second place, two seats behind the Blue & White alliance, led by Benny Gantz. The 31 seats for Likud represent a loss of 8 seats, based on the combined strength in the April election of the Likud list and Kulanu (which merged into Likud before this election). That is a stinging rebuke from the voters.

The combined right-wing/Haredi bloc had 60 seats in April; it seemed like 65 as the results came in, because it was assumed that Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Liberman, should be counted in the bloc. However, it was already evident before the April election that Liberman’s support could not be guaranteed. It was his decision to leave the government in December, 2018, that led Netanyahu to go for the early election in the first place; an election was not required earlier than November, 2019. (Liberman also had taken his time joining the government after the 2015 election, having initially remained outside and thus leaving the Likud-led bloc with 61, the narrowest of majorities.)

Liberman refused, after the April election, to rejoin a Netanyahu-led government, which is the main reason a new election was called for September. Based on the results, the bloc that was Bibi’s government on the eve of the April election has lost five seats, and now has only 55.The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) have grown from 16 to 17 seats (Shas, the Sephardi Haredi party, picked up a seat). The ultranationalists, reunited on the Yamina list after the disaster of April when New Right barely missed clearing the 3.25% threshold, wound up with 8 seats. Superficially, this is gain, as the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) had only 5 seats in April. But their potential might have been greater, given that their reunion should have also added on the 4 potential seats they just missed out on in April. However, they again lost votes to division, as the racist Otzma Yehudit (which was part of URWP and also had a candidate on the Likud list) ran separately but still earned 1.9% of the vote in this most recent election–about 2 seats worth, but well below the threshold.

However, there is a really important point that casual observers of Israeli politics often overlook: There is not even a semblance of a unified center-left bloc that could form an alternative government now that the “Bibi bloc” (minus Liberman) has been decisively defeated. While Blue and White has 33 seats, and thus a plurality, the only plausible center-left coalition partners (the realigned Labor + Gesher but minus Stav Shaffir, who joined the Greens and Barak + Meretz) bring in only 11 more seats (6 for Labor-Gesher, 5 for Democratic Union). So that’s 55 for the right-Haredi bloc and 44 for what might be loosely called a center-left bloc. Very loosely, as there is little about B&W that actually leans left. It ran about as pure a “valence” campaign as you will ever see, meaning it focused on how they could be tougher on Hamas in Gaza than Bibi has been, and would be competent, but otherwise not much on issues.

One issue B&W did emphasize was secularism, which is also one of the issues that propelled Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, to a strong debut showing in 2013. Lapid is the #2 on the B&W list. This was also the issue that Liberman emphasized in refusing to rejoin Netanyahu’s bloc after the April election. It certainly worked, as he increased his seats from 5 (his party was below the threshold in many pre-election polls earlier this year) to 8. He has said he will only recommend to the President that the government to be formed now be a “unity” government of B&W, Likud, and his party.

This leaves us with the Joint List, consisting of Arab parties. (One component is Hadash, basically the Communist Party, which always has one Jewish MK.) Reunited for this election, after running in two separate lists in April, the Arab parties got back to their 2015 debut performance as a single list, winning 13 seats. This makes them the third largest bloc in the Knesset. During the campaign, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh tried to set some conditions under which they would join a government. However, he immediately had to walk them back as other leaders of the parties in the list clearly were not on board with the idea.

Odeh and others have made several statements since the election that they are not interested in sharing collective cabinet responsibility. So do not even ask if there could be a government of B&W, the left parties, and the Arab parties. It is not going to happen, even if Gantz invited them, which he will not. Also note that even if this were a viable option, it still is not a majority–it is 57 seats–unless Yisrael Beiteinu joined. And that is really hard to imagine. Or if the Haredi parties joined, which honestly is easier to imagine, but still highly unlikely.

Nonetheless, the Joint List made an announcement on 22 September that it will recommend to the President that Gantz be given the first attempt to form a government. A fly in the ointment is that Balad, one of the components of the Joint List, says it opposes recommending Gantz; they have three seats, and it is not clear if this means they would vote differently from their colleagues if it came to that. But we are a long way from any vote testing Joint List discipline. Odeh said, in part:

My colleagues and I have made this decision [to recommend Gantz be tasked with forming a government] not as an endorsement of Mr. Gantz and his policy proposals for the country. We are aware that Mr. Gantz has refused to commit to our legitimate political demands for a shared future and because of that we will not join his government…

Our decision to recommend Mr. Gantz as the next prime minister without joining his expected national unity coalition government is a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens.

Selecting a formateur–a member of the Knesset who will attempt for form a government–is one of the President’s few constitutional duties. Usually it is perfunctory. However, with neither the former governing bloc nor any obvious alignment around B&W having 61 Knesset members backing it, this time the President, Reuven Rivlin, actually has some discretion.

It looks like there will be 55 recommendations for Netanyahu and 57 for Gantz. If Liberman also recommends Gantz, then the latter has 65. Even if Liberman does not do so, it is likely that Gantz now will get the first call as formateur. But it is only an opportunity. It does not make him Prime Minister. So, can he pull it off?

A unity government (a grand coalition of some degree of grandness) still would be the most viable, and closest to what both Gantz and Liberman campaigned for. However, the very large obstacle is the continued presence of Netanyahu. Gantz and his allies in B&W have repeatedly said they will not sit in a government with him, and at least for now I assume they will stick by that. So unless Netanyahu sees the writing on the wall and resigns, or somehow Likud tells him it is time to spend more time with his family (while he can before he goes to prison), this option won’t materialize at least for a while.

It is possible that Netanyahu will face his formal indictment some time over the period Gantz gets to form a government. In that case, maybe the odds of the “unity” outcome improve with a new Likud leader as #2 in the cabinet. Till then, it remains difficult to see how it happens.

The other option is a minority government. In many parliamentary democracies, that is exactly what would happen in such a situation. But Israel has no such tradition. The only minority governments the country has had were short-term cases after some parties left a government, not the first government formed after an election.

A minority government is more politically sustainable now than it would have been before the most recent amendment to the Basic Law provisions on government formation and dissolution. There is now a full constructive vote of no confidence, whereby the Knesset majority is unable to vote a government out unless it affirmatively elects, with at least 61 votes, a replacement. Thus it does not take 61 votes to form a government (as always, a plurality of those voting would suffice), but it takes 61 to replace it. This increased viability for minority governments is exactly why I recommended a constructive vote of no confidence be adopted when I was an advisor to the Israel Democracy Institute in 2010. Now it has been adopted; I am not claiming credit, but I sure would like to see it put into use!

Such a formula could be stable, but would require an agreement with outside support parties regarding budgets. That is the one way a government could still be forced out even without 61 votes for a replacement–if it could not pass a budget. Given that the demands the Joint List presented concern enhanced funding for their services and infrastructure, including a new Arab town, there actually is the basis for such a deal. But, again, it would still require either Liberman to go along (whether in government or outside), or the Haredi (who have been known to be buyable with budgetary concessions!).

I do not think such a government will be formed. It is way too sensible! More seriously, it would be fraught with problems, with the risk that the cabinet takes some military measure due to a provocation from Hamas (or someone else), and the Joint List pulls the plug, giving up the budgetary concessions for the feel-good political gains of denouncing the government’s actions.

So, what other options are there?

The following looks implausible as of now, but it is a majority: a center-left-Haredi coalition consisting of B&W (33), Labour-Gesher (6), Democratic Union (5), and the Haredi parties (17). I will assume that Liberman would not join this; he has said he will no longer sit with the Haredi parties, but if a sufficient accommodation were made to appease Lapid and others in B&W, would he sit out? If he did not join, it would be only 61 seats and thus precarious. Perhaps it still could strike some sort of deal with the Joint List to tacitly support it in exchange for some policy concessions, without formally signing up to keep the government in power.

If Gantz gets the nod, which seems likely (whether they want to go first or not), he has at least three paths to forming a government, but none of them will be easy. To summarize, they are:

  1. Hold out for Netanyahu to leave the scene, and head a “unity” coalition with Likud (with or without Yisrael Beiteinu, whose votes would not be needed).
  2. A minority government, taking advantage of the stability conferred by the constructive no-confidence vote provision, with agreements from the Joint List, the Haredi parties, and Yisrael Beiteinu (at least two of those three, although the Haredi would be sufficient) to support it on budgetary and other key policy votes.
  3. A majority coalition with the Haredi parties.

For each of these, it is easy to name the reasons why it won’t happen. But one of them needs to happen, or else the country will go to a third election. Actually, that could be more likely than any of the above! But that is a topic for another day.

Follow up: The statistical indicators of the two elections of 2019, compared.

Israel 2019 result

[Updated with final results]

The election results are final, after a couple of days of doubt about just who had cleared, or not cleared, the 3.25% threshold, and a few more days of final scrutiny (which cut Likud’s total by one seat and boosted the UTJ). The New Right, the party formed by Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked when they bolted from Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi), came up just short of winning any seats. With 3.22% of the vote, the party now joins the list of contenders for nearest miss of all time in any country with a nationwide threshold.

Meanwhile, one of the two Arab lists in this election, Ra’am-Balad, which many polls showed falling below the threshold, just made it, with 3.34%. Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (build the Third Temple now and smoke dope!), which was the sensation of the latter part of the campaign with most polls showing it well above the threshold, came in at only 2.73%. I don’t usually ascribe great impact to specific campaign stunts, but his appearance on a comic show just before the election was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen a politician do. Could it have cost him votes of wavering voters who had mistakenly thought he was a serious politician?

The contest between Likud and the opposition alliance, Blue & White, would have been exciting if only there had actually been more at stake. Two of the three exit polls showed B&W ahead, but there was not much doubt that Likud would be in a better position to form a coalition than B&W, even before the two parties pulled even. Then, in the final results, Likud pulled ahead.

The votes for the top two were 26.45% for Likud and 26.12% for B&W. In seats, Likud has the edge, 36-35.

Taking all the parties in the government at the time the election was called, we have results for the new Knesset (which has 120 seats total) as follows:

Party/alliance 2019 2015
Likud 35 30
Shas 8 7
UTJ 8 6
URWP 5 8
Kulanu 4 10
total 60 61

The table compares the results with 2015; the number for URWP (Union of Right Wing Parties) for 2015 refers to Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi), which, minus New Right, is the main component in the new Union.

At first glance, this looks like potentially bad news for current PM and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. However, if he comes to agreement with Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), the total rises to 65. YB won 6 seats in 2015 and will have 5 in the new Knesset.

Bargaining with YB leader Avigdor Liberman is never easy. He joined the government some time after it was formed following the 2015 election. (One of those elected in 2015, Orly Levy, defected when the party joined the government.) He also left the government about a year before the term was up, in November, resigning as Defense Minister and bashing Netanyahu for being too soft on Hamas. That move left the coalition with just a bare majority of 61 seats and was one of the things that precipitated the election being held early. Shortly after the polls closed, Liberman stated that he would not recommend anyone for prime minister when the various faction heads meet with the president, who then is obliged to assess who has the best chance of forming a government.

Even if Liberman were to remain in opposition–and he may simply be playing hard to get–it would not necessarily prevent Netanyahu from forming a government. There is no requirement for 61 affirmative votes. And there is no way that Liberman is going to vote with the left and Arab parties for an alternative. However, with or without Yisrael Beitenu, it may be another relatively unstable government.

The other possibility, of course, is a coalition of the top two parties–a so-called “unity” (or dare I say “grand coalition“?) government. An “unsourced report” says this is under consideration. I say we consider this spin until proven otherwise. On the other hand, we should also take with a grain of salt the statement by Yair Lapid (no. 2 in Blue & White) that he is “personally opposed to sitting in a government with Netanyahu.” At this point, most of what is said, either by leaders in public or by various unnamed sources, is just part of the bargaining process.

A Likud-BW coalition would be quite a letdown to voters who voted for B&W because Gantz told them over and over again how the most important thing was to kick out Netanyahu. Still, I do not think we should assume it is completely ruled out till we see how the bargaining among the right-wing parties unfolds.

As far as specific candidates elected, there are some interesting developments. Israeli lists are, of course, closed. So when a party or alliance list performs at the outer limits of what is expected, some candidates may be elected whose personal attributes or social-group ties were part of the reason for their being given a marginal rank in the first place. Both Likud and Blue & White outperformed the pre-election polls. With 35 seats, B&W elects a candidate who was the country’s first openly gay mayor (Eitan Ginzburg, of Ra’anana), who was #32 on the list. In fact, the number of LGBT members hits a record high, with five, who also include Idan Roll and Yorai Lahav Hertzano, #34 and 35 on the B&W list. In addition, B&W elects Gadi Yevarkan (#33), an Ethiopian immigrant.

Likud’s over-performance elects two additional women from a party list that had only two in its top ten and just a few more in the top 30: May Golan (#32 and an anti-immigrant activist) and Osnat Mark (#35, already in the Knesset since last year). (One of the most interesting will be Keren Barak, who had a safe slot at #24. Click the link to see what I mean.)

With only four seats, Meretz failed to elect its first-ever Druze candidate, Ali Salalha, who was ranked #5. I have not checked city-level results to see if Meretz dominated the vote in his home town of Beit Jann, as was expected due to his candidacy. But it was not enough for an extra seat. Meretz’s vote share was 3.63%; the next largest list was able to win five seats, with 3.70%. So Salalha may not have missed by much. (Meretz also had an Ethiopian immigrant, Mehereta Baruch Ron, a deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, at #6.)

The party formed by Orly Levy Abekassis (the YB defector mentioned above), Gesher, was a big flop. It won only 1.73%. Her social policy emphasis had looked like it could win 5 or as many as 8 seats according to polls through much of last year, but it faded rapidly once the campaign really got underway. She should have struck a deal with B&W. It might have netted them a couple more seats, although even then, a B&W-led government would have remained out of reach, most likely.

I’ll be back with more later about the aggregate outcome.

Bavaria 2018

As most readers of this blog probably already know, the German state of Bavaria held its state assembly election on 14 October. The result was a huge rebuke to the long-governing Christian Social Union, which is the regional alliance partner of federal Chancellor Angle Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

The CSU normally wins a majority of seats on its own, but will be far short this time. (I read somewhere that this is only the third time the party has been below 50% of seats in the postwar period, but I did not confirm whether that is correct.)

The CSU has won 37.2% of the votes, a loss of over ten percentage points compared to the previous state election. The biggest gain was for the Greens, who will now be the second largest party in the state assembly, having won 17.5% of the votes. The Free Voters are next, with 11.6%. Then comes the SPD; their 9.7% is a loss of over half their vote percentage since last election. The FDP barely cleared the 5% threshold (5.1%), and the extreme-right AfD easily entered the assembly for the firs time, with 10.2%. The Left Party was below the threshold (3.2%).

So, what will the next government of Bavaria be? The CSU has, of course, ruled out working with the AfD. They would have a majority if they joined with the Greens, but that seems unlikely. The CSU+FDP would probably not be a majority (although given below-threshold votes, which total around 8.6%, maybe it will be when the seat allocations are complete). That leaves the Free Voters as the most likely option. They are a center-right party; at least I think that is a fair characterization. Actually, characterizing them as a “party” might be controversial. They claim to be a collection of independents, and they do not require their members of the assembly to vote as a bloc. That may have to change, soon.

Italy 2018: Interim government, early elections

It seemed as if the Lega and Five Star Movement (M5s) were about to form a coalition, and then things turned. The mostly ceremonial President refused the coalition’s proposed finance minister, and now the coalition plan is off.

President Sergio Mattarella has tasked Carlo Cottarelli, a non-politician (till now, that is), to form a government, with elections to be held in early 2019. However, if the government is unable to get a program approved in parliament, which the BBC (second link above) says it probably can’t, elections could be this August.

Further, the BBC reports, “A source from Five Star told Reuters the party could campaign with the League in a fresh vote.”

Recall from the previous F&V discussion that the new electoral system is not proportional–although about 5/8 of the seats are indeed allocated proportionally. The other 3/8 are elected in single-seat districts, and thus it is a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system.

Encouraged by the majoritarian component of the system, several parties had joined together in pre-electoral alliances. However, emphatically, the Lega and M5s were not in such an alliance. Moreover, the Lega was in alliance with other parties, including Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which were not going to be in this proposed post-election coalition. (See summary of how the electoral system affected the results.)

The breaking of a pre-election alliance–in which the parties presented joint candidacies for the single-seat districts–would always tend to be difficult, and troubling from a representative “mandates” perspective. So, from this perspective, it is arguably good that it will not happen, even if it is a bit anomalous how it came about. That is, the president–chosen by parliament, not the people–would not normally be expected to intervene in this manner in a coalition’s choice of a minister. (It is within his powers, but still unusual.)

I do not claim knowledge of the current Italian political moment, but I have to assume that Lega and M5s actually wanted an election and were quite willing to provoke a crisis. Otherwise, surely they could have found another finance minister. The one they proposed was considered too hostile to eurozone rules.

This actually could be a good outcome. If the Lega and M5s really do contest the next election in an alliance, the voters will have a clear opportunity to support a coalition of “populists”. They did not have such an opportunity in the last election, yet one almost emerged via a post-electoral realignment of the party blocs.

A key question is whether the “establishment” parties can coordinate to give voters an alternative. Another is whether the president just handed the populists a glorious opportunity to say, see, the Italian and European establishment is against us.

Unhappy coalition partners make for very quotable politicians

There is a coalition crisis in Israel–or at least a lot of posturing. The immediate issue is a bill that would restructure the state broadcasting authority. But usually these things are about something other than what they are claimed to be about. In any case, the point of this post is not to comment on the substantive issues, but to draw out some very nice quotes by politicians unhappy with something or other in the coalition bargain. These come from an article in Hamodia.

Likud MK Oren Chazan said that smaller parties in the coalition knew how to make demands to fulfill their agenda, but were less amenable to helping the Likud carry out its agenda. “We bend over backwards to help them, but when it comes to helping us carry out our platform they are nowhere to be found. This hurts us with our voters, and small parties have to realize that being in a coalition is a matter not only of taking, but of giving.”

The article goes on to say that PM Netanyahu sees the role of Finance Minister as too “prestigious” for Moshe Kahlon, given how little his party, Kulanu is, and how badly that party is doing in current polling. Then there is this from Transport Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud):

There are no differences of opinion in the coalition on the really important matters. You don’t call new elections over which broadcasting company will remain in business. There is no support in the Likud for this.

Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) offers a somewhat different take on whether there is consensus in the coalition–or even the party–over that very question:

No one in the Likud is afraid of elections. Let the public decide whether or not coalition agreements should be respected. We cannot have a situation where each time the Likud asks that its agreements be enforced we get excuses from our partners as to why they should not be enforced. This is not about the IBC versus the IBA, but about the principle of coalition agreements.

[IBA and IBC are the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and Corporation, respectively.]

Finally, despite his own periodic threats to leave the coalition, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennet says, “I call on everyone to act with responsibility and prevent expensive and unnecessary elections that will harm Israel’s economy and our citizenry.” In other words, don’t take my previous threats seriously.

Coalition bargaining often occurs before an audience. And that audience can be treated to some really nice quotations!

Various recent polls show it could be a close call for largest party between Likud and opposition party Yesh Atid if an election were held now.

 

Australia 2016

Australia will elect all members of the house of representatives and the senate on 2 July. This is an extended campaign by Australian standards. The timing was dictated by a series of interlocking provisions in the constitution relating to double dissolutions.

Australia has a general election on 2 July for all seats in the house of representatives and the senate. The constitutional reasons for this double dissolution are canvassed in the advice tendered to and accepted by the governor-general which has been published. Sidebar: you often read British and Canadian authors who argue that conversations and advice between head of government and head of state must be private but Australian governors have been publishing ministerial advice and their response on major issues since 1975. I am not usually an enthusiast for Sir John Kerr, but in this at least he established a good precedent.

The headline view is that Labor appears to be gaining, but it is by no means clear that they will gain enough seats for a majority government. It is equally unclear who would be best placed to form a minority government in the event of a deliberative, balanced or ‘hung’ parliament. The prime minister’s personal standings have been tanking for some time but that appears to have levelled off. The opposition leader’s standings have been rising significantly. Newspoll, widely regarded as definitive, has a snapshot of how they see the situation here. Historically pollsters have relied on second preferences from the previous election to estimate preference flows because that tends to give a more accurate result than asking poll respondents.

Here is the Gazetted enrolment (30 April 2016) published by the AEC.

NSW 107 323

VIC 105 929

QLD 101 302

WA 97 228

SA 106 398

TAS 74 009

ACT 139 025

NT 65 444

The dramatic gap between the ACT and NT is a rounding error, the NT is just over 1.5 of the uniform quota and the ACT is just under 2.5. The low figure for Tasmania is a consequence of their minimum representation of 5 in the house. In my view a variation from 139 025 to 65 444 is not really acceptable in the 21st century.

The election will probably be decided in New South Wales and Queensland. Labor did quite well in Victoria in 2013, against the national trend, and has probably peaked at 19 out of 37 seats. The nest result for Labor in the snaller states and the territories would be gains of 1 seat each in South Australia, Tasmania and perhaps the Northern Territory. Western Australia is showing a marked swing to Labor and as many as 4 seats could change hands, Labor would be looking at a net gain of 6 outside NSW and Queensland. The Newspoll page has a convenient calculator that lets you estimate seat gains for particular swings.

That takes us to the battleground states with 47 seats in New South Wales and 30 in Queensland.

The magic number to form a majority government is 76. From the Australian Financial Review:

If Labor wins the July 2 election it will become the first opposition in 85 years to regain government after just one term. To do so, it needs to win a net minimum of 19 seats.

The Coalition, to avoid becoming the first government to lose power after one term since the Scullin Labor government lost in 1931, needs to lose fewer than 15 seats.

The situation is complicated by minor party and independents who may (again) be called on to decide who forms the government. I plan to do separate posts for the situations in New South Wales, Queensland and the minor parties and independents. My guess is that there will be a minority government but it is too early to say who will form government.

Labor is making loud noises about never again making a confidence and supply agreement with the Greens. Both major parties seem to think the solution to a deliberative parliament is to call a second election.

They made similar noises in Tasmania in 2010 and were rebuffed by the governor. It is hard to imagine the governor-general granting a second election for the exact some reasons that the governor of Tasmania refused to grant one in 2010.