So all can have wins for their voters

Yes, this is how coalitions work. Sometimes politicians give you quotes that are just golden, in how they show real-world recognition of the political-science understanding of political processes.

We are in continuous dialogue with everyone — the left-wingers from Meretz and Labor, and the right-wingers from New Hope — so that all can have wins to show their voters.

The quotation is from Idit Silman, the Coalition Chair for the current Israeli government. “So that all can have wins for their voters” is just what I was getting at in explaining why I think the government will be able to pass its budget and accompanying package of policy reforms. Each party has an interest in the government surviving, and for that, each party must have some policy outputs it can credit-claim for. Ensuring this can happen is precisely the job of the chair of the coalition.

The TOI article in which the quote appears also details the misogyny she is putting up with from the opposition. The Netanyahu sycophants in Likud, and its “religious” party allies really show their true values, and how bereft they are of ideas for governance.

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).

Israeli coalition’s first big legislative test

The new Israeli governing coalition had a major stress test in the early morning hours of 6 July. It came through looking really strong! it failed utterly!

On the one hand, the bill in question went down to defeat, 59-59. The bill was to extend and modify an existing law that expires at midnight. So that’s pretty embarrassing, especially when a critical lost vote was a member of the prime minister’s party, Amichai Chikli of Yamina. Chikli had also voted against the government itself in the investiture vote a few weeks ago, when the government was approved, 60-59. In the vote on this bill, instead of one Ra’am MK abstaining, as in the investiture, two did. On the other hand, the compromise that got the 59 votes shows the parties within the coalition are able to strike deals on contentious issues that divide them on some core principles.

Before I go any further, an important disclaimer: I am NOT interested in debate on the substance of the law in question, other than as it pertains to the specific compromises the governing partners made, or might yet make.

The bill would extend (for six months) an existing law that mostly bars family residency status in the case of Israeli citizens who marry a Palestinian. (Administrative exceptions can be made, and have been.) In addition, the bill would have established a ministerial committee to look for a longer-term solution (in other words, a classic case of can-kicking). It also would have led to the immediate regularization of the status of some 1,600 current families (the precise number that would have been affected has been a matter of some dispute). The existing law was originally passed in 2003 and has been extended annually ever since. In other words, Likud and its Haredi allies have regularly approved of the extension, but suddenly finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of opposition, they decided not to offer any votes, despite their substantive support for the law that is about to expire. Thus the coalition was forced to do what coalitions do–seek compromise among its own members.

The Yamina dissenter, Chikli, made a statement following the vote, and it is worth quoting the Times of Israel extensively in reference to his statement:

After the vote, Chikli said his decision to block the extension was due to the compromise deal: “Tonight we received proof of the problematic nature of a government that doesn’t have a distinct Zionist majority — one that starts the night with a law extension for a year and ends it with an extension for half a year, that starts with 1,500 permits and ends with over 3,000.

Israel needs a functioning Zionist government, not a mishmash that depends on Ra’am and Meretz votes,” Chikli said.

He later added that had the original extension motion gone up for a vote — “without capitulating to Meretz and Ra’am” — he would have supported it.

On the one hand, his point is principled. He does not like the compromise, and he is consistent in having opposed the government’s very formation and now opposing its policy. On the other hand, he still is a member of a governing party, and he had said at the time that he would still support the government in the Knesset despite his vote against its formation. 

This morning there are reports of calls from within Yamina to formally punish Chikli for his dissent. If they declare him a deserter, they can prevent his running for reelection with any existing party. However, that is a real dilemma for the party and Prime Minister Bennet. Burning bridges with him (he’d be entitled to remain in the Knesset) would make the coalition even more dependent on Ra’am, as only with three votes from that party could the coalition muster 60 votes to outvote its 59 opponents. So this is quite a test not only of the coalition, but of Yamina as a party that can maintain discipline.

Why do I say this could be a success for the coalition? Because it showed it is capable of threading the needle and arriving at a compromise. Initially, Meretz had said it was completely opposed to an extension of the law. In response, Interior Minister Ayalet Shaked of Yamina had threatened to strike a deal with Likud on a Basic Law on immigration, which surely would result in a “permanent” policy that Meretz would dislike even more. (It is not clear if Likud was sincere in willing to do this.) So then the Arab member of the Meretz delegation, Isawwi Frej, proposed a compromise six-month extension and a committee to consider individual cases on humanitarian grounds. This served as the basis of the deal that went before the Knesset, and all Meretz members voted in favor.

As Ra’am was bargaining over a proposal that could offer relief to some of its own constituents, one of its MKs denounced the law as “racist and anti-democratic” and said he would never vote for it or abstain. This was Wahid Taha, who ended up not being one of the abstainers. He voted for it, saying that the government agreed “to reconsider all requests” for citizenship of Palestinians who are married to Israelis.

In the end, the whole process of striking a deal proved that the members of the government want their coalition to work. They made a difficult compromise. On the other hand, they showed they may not even be able to count on 60 votes, even when they strike such a delicate compromise.

Supposedly, the bill is going to come back before the Knesset again tonight. It is not clear (to me) if there is some further concession or other persuasion that would get one of the Ra’am abstainers to vote for, or if Chikli would succumb to the threat of discipline. 

No confidence vote succeeds against Swedish government

The government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was ousted in a no confidence vote with 181 votes against it in the 349-seat Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, on 21 June. The prime minister has a week to decide whether to go to a snap election or resign to allow the speaker of parliament to facilitate the negotiation of a new government. According to Reuters, this makes Lofven “the first Swedish prime minister to be ousted by a no-confidence motion put forward by the opposition.” If there is a snap election, it would be the first since 1958.

The government is a minority government of the Social Democrats and Greens, with a policy-based agreement to allow it to govern signed with the Centre and Liberal parties. It also has had tacit support from the Left Party, but the agreement with the two center-right parties calls for the Left to have no policy influence. This is where things got delicate, as a policy of easing rent controls prompted the Left to vote against the government. Reuters notes:

“Rental reform is part of a platform agreed between the government and the Centre and Liberal parties and is not a policy the Social Democratic party is keen on.”

The Left leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, says that, despite voting with the right against the government, it would never help “a right-wing nationalist government” take power. The mention of “nationalist” refers to the Sweden Democrats, the third largest party, whose gains in the 2018 election greatly complicated building governments and parliamentary support. See the comment thread on the 2018 election for an interesting discussion of Sweden’s fraying ideological blocs and the challenges of building cross-bloc support. It was the Sweden Democrats who proposed the no-confidence motion.

An election would not otherwise be due till September, 2022, and recent opinion polls do not suggest that an early election held in the very near future would produce a result much different from that of 2018. So maybe the parties in the current government, its support parties, and the Left will somehow come to an agreement to reconstitute an arrangement, minus the specific policy measure that ruptured parliament’s fragile tolerance for this government.

Israel government 2021

A new Israeli coalition government is set to be invested with authority by the Knesset this coming Sunday. Once it is sworn in, it will end the consecutive twelve years of tenure by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party. Netanyahu will remain in the Knesset as leader of the opposition.

The government is formed upon the agreement of eight parties, and will have as its parliamentary support the bare majority of 61 Knesset members. It is set up under the rotation provisions that were passed into the constitution (more technically, The Basic Law: Government) on the occasion of the formation of Netanyahu’s government arrangement with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party in 2020.

Under the agreements for this government, the first Prime Minister will be Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party, while Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid serves as Alternate Prime Minister. The rotation will occur in August, 2023. From that point to the scheduled end of the Knesset term in November, 2025, Lapid will be Prime Minister (and Bennet Alternate). As allowed under the constitutional provisions rotation, Yamina and Yesh Atid will each head a “bloc” that is granted equal powers in the cabinet, and in which even when serving as PM, the leader of one bloc can not dismiss a minister who is from the other bloc.

A good overview of the various agreements is available in the Times of Israel. Many of the facts I refer to in this post are from that article; others are from various ToI live blog editions of recent weeks or other media sources. I will comment on some of the specific policy or personnel decisions below, but I first want to emphasize several interesting features about the balance of power among the parties in this set of agreements.

First of all, it probably should be classified as a minority government. One of the parties, Ra’am, will have no ministers although it will have a Deputy Ministerial position (within the Prime Minister’s Office).* If we do not count Ra’am as part of the government, then the parties actually in government have just 57 seats, and Ra’am is an outside support party. Normally I would say this makes it clearly a minority government, because a majority government implies the parties that comprise the parliamentary majority are all represented around the cabinet table. On the other hand, I think most of the time “outside support” parties do not have deputy ministers, either. Moreover, in Israel there have been parties in previous governments that had only deputy ministers and yet were typically counted as majority coalitions. I am referring to the Haredi party, UTJ, often refusing to take senior ministerial positions but having Deputy Ministers. I take those as special cases (due to the UTJ’s arms-length relationship with the state itself, other than when it is subsidizing their organizations and communities.) I think this is a “normal” minority government relationship, at least when compared to the previous UTJ deals. I am open to other interpretations, however, as this is an unusual and innovative arrangement. [* As of Sunday, it is no longer clear that Ra’am will have the deputy ministerial position. Apparently, under the law on rotation governments, this would have to be noted when the government is introduced before the Knesset, and the party holding such a post has to be classified into one of the blocs. It was not mentioned, per my understanding from Israeli Elections Live, a very useful Twitter account I follow, so Ra’am may have declined the deputy ministerial post.]

The equal power for the two blocs is especially striking. Each party is designated as belonging to the Yesh Atid bloc or the Yamina bloc. And right here we have more evidence for the accuracy of counting it as a minority government, because Ra’am is not designated as a member of either bloc. More strikingly, only two parties are in the Yamina bloc: obviously Yamina itself and New Hope. Together, they account for only 12 seats. That is 10% of the Knesset and only 21% of the government parties’ coalition basis (i.e. the 57 seats held by cabinet parties). Yet they get 50% of the coalition power, given various veto provisions granted to each bloc–the previously mentioned ability to prevent even future PM Lapid from firing Yamina or New Hope ministers, and some specific policy vetoes provided for in the coalition agreements.

In term of ministers, Yesh Atid starts with 7, Yamina 3 in addition to PM, New Hope and Blue and White 4 each, and 3 each for Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, and Meretz. That is 28 ministers, and thus Yesh Atid has 25% of the cabinet despite 29.8% of the coalition’s parliamentary basis (17 seats of the 57). So much for formateur’s bonus–it was Lapid who held the mandate to form the government (hence the formateur). Yamina’s share of parliamentary basis is only 10.5%, yet it gets 14.3% as well as, more importantly, veto power. Quite a good deal. [My numbers here are updated; the full list of ministers is in a ToI article from 12 June.]

Bennett was able to achieve such a good deal precisely because he had strong leverage. He had recommended himself as prime minister in the formal process by which each party head meets with the President after the election. He made himself pivotal by repeatedly stating he preferred a right-wing coalition with Likud. Such a government was not possible from the parliamentary arithmetic unless New Hope (made up of the most recent set of Likud defectors) also joined, or else if both the Islamist Ra’am and the ultranationalist Religious Zionist Party were also in the coalition. None of these ever looked likely given repeated statements by those leaders, so we could question whether Bennett was really pivotal in the technical sense. (Need actual options to pivot towards in order to be pivotal.) Bennett’s real alternative was to allow a second election later this year instead of a government. And Netanyahu had dangled promises of high list positions on a merged Likud-Yamina list and ministerial positions in attempt to pull Bennett away from the “change” bloc. It is evident that Lapid and the others took this threat seriously, and prioritized ousting Netanyahu now over going back to the polls (again). 

As already noted in detail in this space by Or Tuttnauer the small size of the prime minister’s party will be extremely unusual. It is a gamble by Bennett, given the usual electoral penalty to governing, and the feeling of betrayal by many of his supporters for joining a government with left-wing parties and backed by an Arab party. But it is a gamble that is probably sensible for him to take, in order to erase the notion that he is just Netanyahu’s subordinate and to exercise actual political power. The post by Tuttnauer also offers evidence that such a small and ideologically extreme party may be more likely to gain votes (perhaps because power makes voters perceive it as more moderate), defying the usual cost of both governing and extremism.

Another unusual feature of the coalition is that the (initial) Prime Minister’s party will have no signed agreements with any of the parties in his cabinet, except that of the Alternate Prime Minister. This must be quite unusual, comparatively! The reason for this is that it is formally Lapid who is presenting the government, even though he will not initially be PM. So his party has a series of bilateral agreements with the other six parties, but Yamina does not.

Several of the policy commitments are of special interest. This government will be one of the few not to include Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties. As such, it promises to make several changes to religion-state issues, including passing a long-delayed law on drafting more Haredim into the military, reforming the process of selecting the state’s chief rabbis, placing Yamina and New Hope members in positions influencing the selection of judges of the Jewish religious courts, and expanding the opening of stores and running of public transportation on Shabbat (issues demanded by Yisrael Beytenu). The deal with Yisrael Beytenu also states that the government will develop the previously promised but then cancelled egalitarian prayer platform at the Western Wall. In other aspects of religion-state issues, the coalition guidelines call for maintaining the status quo and giving the Yamina party a veto.

The government will split the positions of state prosecutor and attorney general. It will seek to pass a Basic Law amendment imposing a two-term limit on the Prime Minister (as discussed in an earlier post). It will seek to enact a Basic Law for legislation (on which I have seen no more details).

Additional parties can be added to the government, but both the PM and his Alternate have to agree. The deal with Yisrael Beytenu states that this party also has a veto on additional parties joining. At issue here is the desire of at least Bennett to bring the Haredi parties on board, to sever their relationship with Likud and stabilize the coalition, reducing its dependence on Ra’am. Given that Yisrael Beytenu is the most secular party in terms of its policy positions on religion and state, it is obvious why it wants to be able to determine the terms on which ultra-orthodox parties might join later.

The deals with Labor and Meretz mention advancing rights of the LGBT community. This is particularly significant because the coalition’s support party is Islamist and very vocally opposes gay rights. But it apparently put this aside to advance its other priorities.

Those priorities for the Ra’am have been addressed in what could be a highly significant set of policies. There will be substantial spending aimed at curbing the very high crime rates in the Arab cities and towns, advancing public works projects for the Arab sector, recognizing three specific Bedouin villages in the Negev desert, temporarily freezing housing demolitions in unrecognized villages, and freezing an existing law that seeks to prevent illegal building. Being pivotal—Ra’am was publicly negotiating with Netanyahu over similar concessions before the formateur role passed to Lapid—again has payoffs. In this case, not mostly in personnel, but in policies the Arab sector needs addressed. Ra’am also gets some personnel benefits. I already mentioned the Deputy Minister in the PMO. It also gets to chair the Knesset Interior Committee and the Arab Affairs Committee.

On issues of relations with Palestinians, there are a few points of note. The agreement with Meretz—the most leftist of the Zionist parties—states that there will be no unilateral moves with respect to the Palestinians. (Notably, there is no related clause in the deal with Ra’am.) Otherwise, the government has some guidelines that would be consistent with the right’s preferences: Ensuring that in Area C (the part of the West Bank that the Oslo Accords assign to full Israeli civil and military control) there will be funds for the Defense Ministry to carry out enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction; and increasing budget allocation to Ariel University (in a city deep within Samaria/West Bank).

The question on everyone’s mind is whether the government will last. And, of course, I should make the obligatory note that it is not even a government yet, as it still must not face even one defector in the Knesset investiture vote on Sunday. (It has been reported that two MKs from the other Arab parties in the Joint List might abstain, which would give it a cushion, but not one Lapid or especially Bennett would want to rely on; most of the Joint List members will vote against, thus siding with Likud, Religious Zionism and the Haredi parties in opposition.)

Objectively, an 8-party, 61-seat coalition (counting the support party) in a 120-member parliament, spanning nearly the entire ideological range of Israeli party system should be considered inherently unstable. Nonetheless, I would not assume it will be hobbled from the start. The emerging government has already weathered the biggest stress one could imagine for a potential cooperation between right-wing parties and an Arab party in the form of the 11-day war with Hamas and the horrific inter-communal violence within Israel during that time. If such events had happened after the government was up and running, they might well have forced its breakup. That they happened while it was being negotiated allowed the coalition to pass a stress test at a time when it could still be called off easily.

The other major stress the coalition has seemingly already come through is the risk of defections. Netanyahu has been very openly trying to entice members of New Hope and Yamina to defect from the emerging government. One has done so; that is why I counted above Yamina as having six seats when it won seven in the election. Others engaged in some public agony over what they would do, even delaying the formal investiture of the government by not being willing to join a vote to replace the Knesset speaker before the date the incumbent speaker, of Likud, set it. At this late date, it is unlikely there will be surprise defectors on the day of the vote. There just is not much Likud can offer an individual member, given the overall parliamentary arithmetic. The bargaining process has been a test of Bennett’s ability as a party leader and of Yamina as a party in any meaningful sense–we typically assume parties in parliamentary democracies are unitary actors at least in the questions of entering or leaving governments (a strict and simplifying assumption that normally holds). Yamina and Bennett probably are passing that test, the one already announced defector notwithstanding. 

Most of all, the coalition is likely to be stabilized by the basic threat of a return of Netanyahu and the likelihood that many of its component parties—most of all Bennett’s—would suffer significant electoral punishment if they had to face the electorate before significant policy gains could be realized. Sometimes very narrow parliamentary majorities are actually more stable than oversized ones. Ultimately, unless a party has an expectation of gaining by an election or defecting to Likud’s side, the government can last. In the meantime, it will matter what Likud does in opposition. If it cleaves to Netanyahu, as currently seems likely, these parties will not want to go back to partnership with it. Were Likud to replace its leader, then calculations in New Hope and Yamina could change.

The other thing to watch in the coming week or so will be what further amendments to Basic Laws the coalition passes to help ensure its stability. There are several in the works, but details remain sketchy.

While the is a highly unusual government, it really just might work!

Israel government update and the likelihood of a 2021b election

It has been some time since I did an update on the election and government-formation process in Israel, 2021 (or, as I called it, 2021a, giving away my expectation that a 2021b was likely). The election was on 23 March, and as all readers likely know, it was the fourth election since an early call of elections was legislated at the end of 2018.

Since the March election, the government-formation process has been playing out in its usual manner. President Reuven Rivlin received recommendations from party leaders about who should be tasked to form a government. As expected, no candidate had recommendations from parties totaling 61 or more seats, but incumbent PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) had more than opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), so he got the first nod. As everyone pretty much understood would happen, Netanyahu failed to cobble together a government. Arguably he did not even try very hard, “negotiating” mainly through press statements trying to shame leaders of small right-wing parties to rejoin his bloc. So, again as expected, Lapid received the mandate to try. And he most certainly has been trying hard. But as I write this he has one week remaining before his time expires.* If Lapid’s mandate expires with no government to present to the Knesset, there is a period in which any Knesset member can be nominated to be the PM via 61 signatures from members of the Knesset. However, with two blocs (using the term loosely) having both failed to win 61 seats, such a path to a government is highly unlikely to work.

The attempt to strike an agreement with Yamina, whose head Naftali Bennett would have gone first as PM, with Lapid taking over after a year (based on the same Basic Law amendments that the aborted Netanyahu–Gantz rotation was to follow), seemed close to fruition as the second week of May began. It would have been a strange government, given Bennett’s party won only 7 seats to Lapid’s 17, and because it would span nearly the entire Israeli political spectrum, including one Arab party (most likely as an outside supporter to a minority government, not as a full cabinet partner). Then once Hamas decided to escalate ongoing tensions in Jerusalem (including over things such as those I was writing about a decade ago) by firing their terrorist rockets directly at the capital city on Jerusalem Day, the ensuing war led Bennett to get cold feet and abandon a plan that apparently was all but final. On the other hand, he apparently also never quite ruled out returning to the plan. For instance, he never said in front of cameras that the deal was off, and there was a letter on 20 May from major activists in Yamina calling for the party to avoid another election and back an anti-Bibi government. Just today Bennett has supposedly told Likud he will return to talking with Lapid about forming a government if Netanyahu can’t form one (which he can’t).

So the “change” government remains a possibility even now (given the cessation of hostilities after 11 days) and may remain so right up until Lapid’s mandate expires. Frankly, it was always uphill to to form this proposed government, and would be a challenge for it to last if it did form. Yet it is the only current option, aside from another election later this year. Bennett has claimed numerous times that he will do everything he can to prevent another election. He has claimed a lot of things, so no one really can claim to know what he will do. (This is sometimes a good negotiating tactic, although it seems to have failed badly for Bennett, and in any case it is a terrible trait in a governing partner.) Although it is easy to mock Bennett for his flip-flops, we should acknowledge that he is in a genuinely difficult place. He has spent the last several years carving out a niche for his party to the right of Likud on security matters, so he can’t appear too eager to form a government with left-wing parties and reliant on Arab support. Thus even if he has intended all along to back such a government–and who knows–he and his no. 2, Ayalet Shaked, would need to make a good show of “leaving no stone unturned to form a nationalist government” before signing up to a deal with Lapid and Labor, Meretz, and Ra’am.

The bottom line is that the election produced a genuine stalemate. Even if Yamina sides with Netanyahu, that is not a majority without Ra’am, the Islamist party that broke off from the Joint List and has a pragmatic leader, Mansour Abbas, who seeks to be relevant in Israeli politics (unlike the Joint List itself). Such a government would also need the Religious Zionist list, which has said repeatedly it opposes any cooperation with Ra’am. The parties we are talking about here for a potential right-wing government are Likud (30 seats), the Haredi parties–Shas (9) and UTJ (7)–Yamina (7), plus Religious Zionist (6). These reach only 59 seats, hence the need for Ra’am (4) to back it; and, yes, Ra’am is certainly a right wing party within Arab Israeli politics, particularly on matters of social/religious policy. There is also New Hope (6), the party formed by Gideon Sa’ar and other Likud defectors. Obviously, if they joined, it would obviate the need to have the backing of Ra’am. However, Sa’ar has said over and over that he will not back Netanyahu. The entire reason his party formed was to offer an option for Likud without Bibi. While one should never rule anything out, and reports occasionally circulate that he is talking with Bibi, he looks like he just might mean it when he says no.

The “change” government would be Lapid (17), Blue and White (8), Labor (7), Yisrael Beiteinu (7), Meretz (6) New Hope (6), plus 6** from Yamina. Together, that “bloc” of left and right parties would have 58 seats, hence the inability to form a government without backing of Ra’am (who remains “brave” in evidently being willing to do a deal despite the violence of recent weeks). If Yamina is really out of this group, then that leaves it on only 51 seats, ten seats short. Yes, the two Arab lists just happen to combine for 10 seats, but it is highly unlikely that the Joint List is going to be part of such a government. And it is just as unlikely that the either or both Haredi parties are going to defect from the Bibi bloc to lend Lapid a hand.

I concluded my preview of the last election by saying, ” I don’t see a government being formed from this mess… the safe call is continuing deadlock and a 2021b election being necessary.” While that almost proved too pessimistic as of early May, and maybe yet will be shown to be the wrong call, it still could end up that way.

Finally, because this is Fruits and Votes, I want to highlight just how crazy the fragmentation was in the 2021(a) election. Throughout the three elections of 2019-20 the party system had reached a period of being almost exactly as fragmented as expected for its electoral system, as emphasized in my chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society. In my post-election blog post, I even called the 2019a election “a totally normal election” based on the effective number of seat-winning parties being just over five and the largest party having 29% of the seats. These are almost precisely what we expect from the Seat Product Model (SPM) for such a high seat product (120-seat assembly elected in a single district). The indicators stayed in that general range for the next two elections. But check out the disruption of that trend in 2021! This graph is an updated version of the plots in the Handbook chapter (also a version of this was shown in the just-linked earlier post following 2019a).

The plots, for four party-system indicators, show lines for observed values over time with the expected values from the SPM marked by the horizontal solid line in each plot. The dashed line marks the mean for the entire period, through 2021a. Vertical lines mark changes in electoral-system features other than the district magnitude and assembly size–specifically formula changes or threshold increases.

Look at those spikes in the plots of the top row! The number of seat-winning lists (not parties, per se, given that many lists actually are alliances of two or more parties) jumped to 13, and the effective number to 8.52, almost as high as in 1999 (8.69). In 1999, a key reason for the spike was the directly elected PM, which freed voters to vote sincerely rather than for their preferred PM party in Knesset elections. In 2021, it is a product of the breakup of Blue and White (which happened as soon as the “unity” government was formed), the breakaway New Hope, the split of the Labor-Meretz list that contested the 2020 election, and Ra’am splitting from the (Dis)Joint List.

In the bottom row at left we see the corresponding collapse in the size of the largest party, although not quite to the depths reached a few times previously. In the lower right, we see a new record for lowest deviation from proportionality, thanks to no parties just missing the threshold (as happened in 2019a spectacularly and to a lesser degree in the subsequent election).

If there is a 2021b, will the fragmentation again be this high? The number of seat-winning lists could very well turn downward again as some parties re-enter pre-election pacts. On the other hand, as long as the Bibi-or-no cleavage continues to cross-cut all the others, it is entirely possible that fragmentation will remain “unnaturally” high. Barring Bennett and Lapid getting back together in the next week, we will find out later this year. And if that happens, then in the meantime, Bibi would continue benefitting from the stalemate.

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* By coincidence, Rivlin’s successor as president will be elected by the Knesset the same day Lapid’s current mandate to form a government expires.

** Yamina won 7 seats but one of the party’s MKs has said he will not support the government that was being negotiated with Lapid. Today he said his position has not changed.

NZ 2020: Strategic coalition voting?

Earlier, I noted that in the New Zealand 2020 election, the Labour Party flipped several seats in mostly rural single-seat districts that are normally strongholds of the National Party.

Commenting on those swings, North Canterbury Federated Farmers president Cameron Henderson said:

There were definitely “strategic farmers” voting Labour in an effort to avoid a Labour-Greens government.

He added a caveat, that most of the vote swings in these seats came from urban voters within predominantly rural electorates. Nonetheless, his confidence that there were strategic farmers is a nice anecdote regarding what some political scientists have regarded as strategic voting motivated not by who can win locally but by which parties may form government.

As I noted in my election preview in late July, there were only two likely outcomes of this election: A Labour–Green coalition or a Labour single-party majority. There were no occasions over the last several months when a National-led government was likely based on any publicly available evidence. For most farmers, a government in which the center-left Labour Party has a parliamentary majority is a much more palatable outcome than one in which that party needs the Greens for its majority.

New Zealand 2020 preview [and discussion of results]

The following originally appeared here on 27 July. I am re-upping it because the election is 17 October–right now. I think most of what I wrote back in July still applies–other than the election date itself (and NZF appearing even deader now than it did at the time). The main question of the election remains what it was then: Will Labour win a majority on its own, or will it need a coalition or other agreement with the Greens? More recent polling suggests the answer might be the latter, but it looks like a close call.

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New Zealand’s general election will be 19 September (grrr, they are holding it on Rosh HaShanah). Given the generally good record of the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in handling COVID-19, at this point the question seems to be, how big will her win be? And how much will her two coalition partners suffer as Ardern’s party gets most of the credit?

Through today, there have been seven recent polls that have put Ardern’s Labour Party over 50% in votes. If this were to happen on election day, it would make for the first time since the mixed-member proportional system was first used (1996) that a single party won a majority of seats or votes.

The last poll showing the main opposition National Party ahead was conducted in February. The party has changed leaders not once, but twice, since then.

Obviously, with a majority, Labour would not need to take on coalition or support partners. However, it likely would want to retain its relationship with the Green Party and thus retain the latter in some decidedly junior position. That is, assuming the party clears the threshold. Even the polls that show Labour as far up as 60% (!) still show the Greens over 5%. So, it may be a close call, but they should at least remain in parliament. There seems to be only one poll in several months that has them below the party-vote threshold (mid-May, at 4.7%).

The other partner in the incumbent government, New Zealand First, is languishing far below the threshold in all polls. Its only faint hope for survival would be if it can take back the electorate (single-seat district) of Northland. The party’s leader, Winston Peters, won this seat in a by-election five years ago. The National Party won the seat back in the general election of 2017. Its candidate for the seat in this election, Shane Jones, is making his pitch for the seat.

For far too long we have tolerated substandard National Party representation for our Northland area. No power or influence. No bite and, in fact, not even a decent bark.

The just-linked NZ Herald article remarks that the by-election showed that “the government [then led by the National Party] knew so little about the North that it thought bridges were what everyone wanted.” Jones has said that most of the promised bridges were never built. (So, evidently they do want bridges, even if that’s not all they want.)

The episode is a nice reminder of how distributive politics can come into play in the MMP system. Despite effectively nationwide proportional representation, the district races are an opportunity for local factors to enter into the campaign. Nonetheless, it would seem a very tall order for New Zealand First to repeat in a general election what it pulled off in the by-election. With National crashing so badly nationwide, however, perhaps it is not out of the question that local National supporters could vote for Jones. The latter has emphasized that he could be in cabinet, while the National member would be an “obscure backbench MP,” continuing the alleged neglect of the region by both Labour and National. (Never mind that NZF is unlikely to be back in cabinet no matter what, if their votes are not needed, as they were after the 2017 election.)

Meanwhile, Peters has launched his party’s campaign with the rather odd slogan, “Back your future.” He is really pushing the idea that he is the only thing standing between New Zealanders and a radical government pulled further left by the Greens. It is about the best case he can make for a vote for his party. Given the overall competence Ardern has exhibited and the fact that the Greens would have hardly any leverage if Labour wins a majority on its own (or even if it is merely close to a majority), it is not a claim with much reality behind it. Still, the always colorful Peters has said that being in government has allowed him and his allies to block “woke pixie dust.”

The Greens are also looking for ways to differentiate themselves from both of their partners. Co-leader James Shaw remarked,

We’ve known for a long time, that the closer we got to election, the more likely it was that NZ First would start misbehaving.

…If you look at some of the difficulties that the Government has had over the last three years, a lot of them have come down to NZ First ankle-tapping them and blaming them for saying they can’t get anything done.

I know they like to say they are a force for moderation; it’s more like an agent of chaos.

Green MP Jan Logie has also called attention to New Zealand First’s opposition to the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill, which she is championing.

The Greens are also at work differentiating themselves from their senior partner, albeit with less divisive words, and a policy focus. For instance, they oppose Labour’s policy on charges to New Zealanders returning from abroad and needing to quarantine. (National supports Labour’s plan, so the latter can pass it without the Greens’ support in the current parliament.)

Peters and David Seymour, the leader of another small party, Act, have done their part to keep the campaign especially classy.

Act is enjoying a bit of a surge lately, from polling oblivion a few months ago to 5% in one recent poll and over 4% in several. It just might clear and win multiple seats. Seymour currently holds an electorate seat. Because New Zealand’s MMP has an alternate threshold–five percent of the party-list vote or a single district win–there is a chance the party could elect more than one member for the first time since 2008 even if it remains below 5%. I’d think their odds are reasonably good, as some more ideological right-wing voters may see National as hopeless to form a government and instead vote Act.

The current government was a somewhat strange one when formed. Labour’s 2017 result was ten seats behind the then-governing National. Even with Green support the left-leaning post-electoral combine was two seats seats short of National (54-56). They needed New Zealand First (9 seats) to choose them over National, which of course it did. Now the government looks to be one more case for the common political-science finding that governing as a junior partner is perilous for a party’s electoral support. New Zealand First may be shut out of parliament altogether, and the Greens may be down a seat or two from their 8 in 2017 and facing a partner that possibly has a majority on its own.

PM rotation in Ireland?

In the earlier planting on Israel’s new government, I asked if examples of rotating the position of prime minister existed outside of Israel. There is evidently a good chance we might be seeing one in Ireland!

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is expected to be taoiseach in the first half of a coalition government with Fine Gael and the Greens, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar going second. (Source: Irish Times; h/t to Steven Verbank.)

There was even some discussion of the Greens’ leader also being part of a possible rotation deal.

Senior Green sources had previously floated the idea of Mr [Eamon] Ryan also getting a year as taoiseach, although Mr Ryan ruled this out…

What a shame. I am pretty sure it would have been the first case of leaders of three different parties taking turns as prime minister under a coalition agreement!

(Taoiseach is the Irish term for the prime minister.)

The 35th Israeli government and Basic-Law revisions

Last week, Israel finally got a new government, after three elections in under a year, the most recent of which was March of this year.

And what a government it is! Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud will remain prime minister, with a planned rotation of the premiership to Benny Gantz in 18 months.

It is being referred to as a “unity government” but that is a strange term for a government, the formation of which led to the break-up of three of the multi-party alliances that contested the most recent election, most especially Gantz’s Blue and White list. Maybe just like with “grand coalition” in Germany and Austria, it is time to dispense with the term, “unity government,” for Israel.

The most recent Israeli governments to which the term applied were following the Knesset elections of 1984 and 1988. In these elections the two main parties (Likud and Labor) each had won around 40 or more seats and formed governments in which the two parties governed together. Unlike the European examples, the parties in the earlier Israeli examples also agreed to rotate the premiership (two years one party, two years the other), although this plan broke down during the second term of planned “unity”.

This new government has the rotation plan again, but in other respects, it is quite novel. For one thing, as alluded to already, one of the two main components of the agreement, Blue and White, split. The part headed by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi has joined the government with Likud, but the part consisting of Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid) and Telem (led by Moshe Ya’alon) will go to opposition. Likud won 36 seats in the most recent elections and Blue and White 33. However, with the split, the governing portion of the latter brings only 18 seats to support the cabinet. Thus, unlike the previous “unity” governments, in this one the two main lists that are forming the cabinet and rotating the premiership do not have a majority of Knesset seats between them (they have 54, where a majority is 61.)

(Yesh Atid and Telem, who will be in opposition, have 16 seats; there were also two from B&W who split off and joined the government as a separate party and two from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who joined the new rump B&W, while another effectively joined the Likud’s bloc… it gets complicated!)

Despite the imbalance now of the two main components, Likud and (rump) B&W, each has rough parity in the government. This is a sense in which it is still sort of a “unity” government. B&W currently has 13 ministers, while Likud has 14, even though the Likud caucus is twice the size of B&W’s. In addition, the B&W splinter joining the government, the 2-seat Derech Eretz, gets one minister. So does Gesher, which is just Orly Levi-Abekasis, who split from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join the government. And Labor has two. In addition, there is Rafael Peretz, who split from the nationalist Yemina (the rest of which is going into opposition), plus one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and one from Shas. (The latter two, both haredi–or ultra-orthodox–parties, combine for 16 Knesset seats.)

Thus, strictly in portfolios, the remnant of Blue and White made off really well, getting 37% of the cabinet despite contributing only around 22% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. Likud gets 40% of the cabinet, with about 44% of the parliamentary basis.

Plus, of course, there is the rotation. Gantz gets a turn at the premiership after 18 months, if the agreement lasts. So, while critics on the leftish side of the political spectrum are calling Gantz a sell out for going into government with Netanyahu, he actually got a pretty good deal, in terms of the portfolios:legislators ratio. (I will not go into policy in this post, but my sense is he did decently well there, given the bargaining situation.)

In the end, both blocs failed to win three straight elections–even the first of which was called several months earlier than required. And so compromise was the only option. Well, no, actually it was not. A fourth election in just over a year’s time could have been called. In fact, under Israeli law, it would have happened automatically had a deal not been struck to form a government. Polling strongly suggested a new election would finally give the Nethanyahu-led bloc (Likud, Yemina, UTJ, and Shas) more than 61 seats.

The bargaining over government formation, when there is a looming return to elections, always takes place against the backdrop of what each side expects in the event of a new election. This only enhances the significance of the portfolio balance and rotation Gantz was able to extract. Likud and its allies certainly had no reason to fear the outcome of an election, and could have just run out the clock and let it happen, while blaming Gantz (and Lapid) for dragging voters to the polls yet again.

So Netanyahu and his allies struck a deal either because the ongoing coronavirus crisis made going back to the polls seem unappealing, or because Nethanyahu really preferred a coalition containing at least one party to his left over one formed around a narrow right-wing (nationalist-haredi) bloc. The reason need not be one or the other. Both factors probably matter.

But bear in mind that Nethanyahu has always had coalitions in which he had partners from the center-left as well as to his right, with the partial exception of the one formed after the 2015 election–the one that was ended early to kick off what would turn out to be a sequence of three elections. In that coalition, Kulanu (10 seats) was to Likud’s left, although firmly part of the “nationalist camp” in its self-definition (and merged with Likud after the first of the three 2019-20 elections). Thus it is entirely plausible that Nethanyahu preferred some sort of deal with Gantz, and could not get Gantz to back down from demands that his bloc get a large share of the cabinet even if he failed to bring his whole list with him. With the ulranationalist Yemina (6 seats) going into opposition, and the two haredi parties not really fitting on the left-right dimension (which, in Israel, is mostly about doves vs. hawks), Likud for the first time in the Netanyahu era will anchor the farthest right position in the cabinet. Had they gone back to elections that resulted in a majority for the right-haredi bloc, Likud would have anchored the farthest left position in the likely government.

(As an aside, I wonder how Lapid could possibly have been willing to go to another election, given polling suggesting only around 10% or so for his list. Or maybe he just really decided that being opposition leader was the least unattractive of all his options.)

On the question of whether the agreement can last, the coalition deal includes some creative constitution re-drafting. Before it was voted in as the government, the proto-coalition amended Basic Laws in order to attempt to secure its position, and thus not be vulnerable to a potential Nethanyahu decision to break it up early and precipitate elections. Here are the main points (thanks to JD Mussel for these):

  • There is now a new legal category of government called an “Alternation Government”. The following apply to such a government:
  • PM can’t fire ministers from other bloc without alternate PM’s consent.
  • If an election is called by the Knesset, with at least 12 members of the right bloc voting for it, Gantz automatically becomes PM (and vice versa after PM alternation).
  • The PM’s existing power to call an election (which is not exactly that, since a new government can be formed within 21 days) now requires the consent of the alternate PM.
  • Neither a sitting PM nor alternate PM can serve in a government installed as result of a constructive no-confidence vote (whereby 61 members of Knesset must elect a new government in order to oust the incumbent).
  • The Basic Law change contains an entrenchment clause: “This Basic Law [probably meaning specifically these amended clauses] may only be changed with the votes of 75 MKs,”

A strange beast Netanyahu and Gantz have created! But a political (and public-health) crisis required some creative bargaining and constitutional innovation.

A couple of final small thoughts:

  • Is this the first time in the annals of parliamentary government that a formateur (the one designated to attempt to form a government) had himself installed as Speaker to preserve his leverage while bargaining to install someone else as (initial) Prime Minister?
  • Is this the first case known to constitutional history of a 62.5% majority to amend?

Thuringia: Leader of smallest party in state parliament elected premier, with AfD support

This is a strange development, and one to keep a concerned eye on. The German state of Thuringia, which held an election October, 2019, will now have a premier from the Free Democrats (FDP), who barely cleared the 5% threshold in the election. The FDP candidate for state premier, Thomas Kemmerich, was elected by one vote over the incumbent, Bodo Ramelow, of the Left Party. With the help of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an extreme right party, Kemmerich defeated Ramelow in a third round of voting, 45-44.

The two largest parties in the state parliament since the 2019 election are the two most extreme parties in the German party system–The Left with 29 seats, and the AfD with 22. The Christian Democrats (CDU) came third with 21, then 8 for the Social Democrats (8), and 5 each for Greens and FDP (who really did just scrape over with 5.0%). The outgoing government was Linke-SPD-Green. But they fell to 42 seats out of the 90, compared to 46 in 2014. The 2014 outcome was also a little unusual–a three-party coalition excluding the largest party (CDU, which had 34, with Left second on 28). But not as unusual as whatever government Kemmerich will put together now.

I don’t know how common a government led by the sixth largest party in parliament is, but I am guessing pretty uncommon. (Answer in comments!) Kemmerich says he will not bring the AfD into a coalition, but he now owes his position to them. What does this mean for the cordon sanitaire the establishment parties (and the Left, which really can’t be called “establishment”) have been maintaining against the far right?

UPDATE: The premier-elect has resigned, and early elections will be proposed. A decision on early elections requires a vote in the state parliament. In fact, it requires a two-thirds majority, and at this point the state’s CDU leadership has been opposed to returning to the electorate.

Spain coalition agreement and possible electoral reform

The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) have publicized an agreement on a program of coalition government. It is an ambitious “Progressive Coalition.” It is a minority coalition: out of the 350 seats, the PSOE won 120 and the UP 26, so together they have 41.7% of the seats, 30 seats short of a majority. Other agreements with regional parties for parliamentary support may be forthcoming; in fact an accord with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV, with 7 seats) has already been published.

The PSOE-UP agreement has one provision of special interest to F&V: Section 5.7 concerns electoral reform, and states the parties will work to find “a consensus that would permit reforming the electoral formula to improve the proportionality of the system.”

Electoral reform is, of course, generally difficult. That the current system is relatively disproportional for an electoral system we would clearly classify as “proportional representation” (PR) is well established. The modest level of proportionality is due to the use of many districts, resulting in a mean magnitude around 7, and the D’Hondt formula. There is also substantial malapportionment. Consider the following advantage ratios (%seats/%votes) for several key parties; a value greater than one indicates the party is over-represented. These are from the most recent (“2019b“) election.

PP 1.22

PSOE 1.22

UP 0.78

C’s 0.42

Vox 0.98

ERC 1.03

JxCat 1.04

EAJ/PNV 1.10

The last three are among the larger regional parties. It is noteworthy that they are not significantly over-represented, despite the regionalized nature of the PR system.   On the other hand, both “large” parties are quite over-represented, while the new government’s junior partner is quite severely under-represented (not as bad as Ciudadanos, however). Some very small regional parties are significantly over-represented. For instance, Sum Navarre has an advantage ratio of 1.43. (It helps to win all of your votes in one rather low-magnitude (5) district in which you had the local plurality of votes.)

I have no information on what reforms the parties may have in mind. However, some combination of the following might be possible:

1. Readjusting magnitudes (long overdue!);

2. Small compensation tier;

3. Shift to (Modified?) Ste.-Laguë.

An interesting feature of the agreement with the PNV is its sixth provision, which states that the new government will make good on policy deals previously struck with the Partido Popular (PP), when it was in government. A PP minority government was replaced by a PSOE minority in a constructive vote of no confidence in June, 2018, which the PNV supported. This new agreement follows the second general election since that parliamentary vote.

Thanks to Bonnie Field (on Twitter) for the links to the two accords.


UPDATE:  There is now a further agreement, this one with the Republican Left of Catalunya (ERC). It is an agreement to abstain. I am not sure how common inter-party agreements over abstention on government formation are, but here we have one.

Field has a good rundown of where things standas of 3 January, the day before the parliamentary debates being.

What kind of government for Israel, or third election?

(Some questions at the end about comparative context. Help, please!)

This Wednesday night, Benny Gantz’s period as designated formateur expires. His odds of successfully forming a government look bleak. Nothing has changed to make it any easier than when I last wrote on the topic of government-formation options. And at least one thing has changed to make it harder. It is important to understand that a third election (April 2019, Sept. 2019, and potentially March 2020) is the default if no agreement is reached. There is actually a 21-day period after Gantz’s mandate expires before the election becomes automatic, but there’s scant reason to believe the next 21 days would result in an agreement. (During this 21-day period, it requires 61 Knesset members’ signatures to nominate a PM. Fat chance.)

The change that makes forming a government harder than it was in April or even immediately after the September election is that the bloc that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) prefers has held tenaciously together. This is the combine of Likud, the two ultra-orthodox lists, and the nationalists that formed the government up until the April election. This bloc lost seats in April, relative to the 2015 election, and lost quite a few more in September. It was a majority when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was with it, but he pulled out in December, 2018, and has so far adamantly refused to rejoin it from April till now.

However, all the other party leaders in the bloc have steadfastly said that Netanyahu negotiates for all of them. This has foreclosed, so far, any of the rumored defections whereby some party in the bloc would join Gantz and Liberman to help establish a majority coalition without Likud. In fact, one of the member parties of the bloc actually folded itself into Likud, with Naftali Bennet getting the post of Defense Minister in the deal. This move does not change the fact that the bloc has only 55 seats, six short of the minimum needed for a majority government. But it closed off one potential, if unlikely, path that might have led to a breaking of the deadlock.

It seems that the idea of a minority government of Blue and White (the list Gantz heads), which would have to have the support of both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint [Arab] List, is actually being taken semi-seriously. It still seems unlikely, but Gantz just might go for it if late talks with Netanyahu do not produce an agreement. The best evidence that it is being taken seriously is that Netanyahu has gone verbally ballistic–even by his standards–over the possibility. And while the idea has not been endorsed by Gantz, he has not denied it, either. A government needs only a plurality of Knesset votes to be installed. In other words, abstentions do not count against it.

Still, even though the Joint List would not have cabinet positions in such a case (and thus would not be “in government”), the prospect is fraught with difficulty. Not, I would stress, because the parties are Arab, per se. But because they potentially can be classified as anti-system parties, or as a semi-loyal opposition. Parties that do not accept the fundamental character of the state rarely get any kind of formalized role in backing a minority government in any democracy. (I invite examples, but I can’t think of any.) And it would probably need to be formalized–in a “confidence and supply” agreement–because of one of the ways a government can collapse and early elections be mandated: If a government can’t get supply (i.e., pass a budget). If such an arrangement could be agreed, then a minority government can be stable. It takes 61 votes–a majority–in a constructive no-confidence vote electing a replacement government in order to remove an incumbent cabinet. But the problem is getting it installed and with a supply lifeline in place.

As has been the case since April, the most logical outcome is a “unity” government. But Gantz ran on replacing Netanyahu (policy differences are scant) and he and, even more forcefully, his co-leaders have claimed they will not serve under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the incumbent is claiming a right to go first as PM in a rotation deal. It would be a little odd to give the priority to the one who came second in votes, though his bloc is indeed the larger one. That bloc again… Netanyahu also wants all the partners to be included, which implies Blue and White would be just an appendage to a right-wing government. B&W got lots of votes from leftist voters, despite what we would normally call a center-right party positioning. So Gantz’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable.

Of course, Netanyahu wants to go first because he still may be indicted at some point in the near future. His time horizon is a bit short! B&W might need to insist on a legal change that would ensure Netanyahu would step down if indicted, but one can imagine this is going to be a hard pledge to extract.

Another possibility not to be ruled out is Liberman going back to the right-wing bloc. He has dug in hard enough that I actually don’t think this is likely. But if he gets compromises he can sell to his voters, he might do it. He does not exactly have a record of being the most consistent politician.

A third election might not change much. The five polls so far since the last election have not shown much movement of voter support. What movement they have shown has been somewhat downward for the Bibi Bloc in the three most recent polls. It may be relevant here that only the first of these polls showed Liberman’s party losing ground, and the two most recent ones show him gaining one. (The second and fifth polls in the sequence are by the same pollster.)

Will there be a deal? Who knows!

Finally, this all leads me to some questions:

  1. In other parliamentary democracies, how common is it for parties that ran separately in an election to negotiate as a bloc (delegating the largest party thereof as negotiator for them all) after the election?
  2. How common is it for parties that could be classified as “anti-system” or “semi-loyal” to be the outside support parties to a minority cabinet?
  3. Are there any other cases of something that may yet happen here, in which the one designated as formateur agrees to be in a cabinet but not its (first) head?

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.