Bilateral bargaining in multiparty coalitions

This is just a follow up to the previous planting. As I noted there, the incoming Israeli PM’s party (Likud) will sign separate coalition agreements with each of five partner parties (three of whom ran on a joint list in the election but maintain their separate “faction” status in the Knesset).

I believe this is typical of multiparty coalitions in parliamentary democracies: that when there are multiple partners, each one signs its own bilateral deal with the incoming cabinet head. I know it is the way it has been done in Israel for as long as I have been paying attention. It is also how it has been done in recent bargaining in New Zealand. I actually do not know if other counties with coalitions uniformly do this, or if there are cases where coalition agreements are joint among all the parties entering government. (There are some cases with no public agreements; that seems to be rare nowadays.)

Maybe someone knows of a case.*

The bilateral deals raise the specter for a party that a deal with another partner contradicts something in their own deal. Presumably the government-leading party seeks to avoid contradictions that will only cause headaches later. But some contradictions can’t be avoided, presumably, and some may even be strategic. This is precisely why parties also care about who gets junior ministers and committee chairs–the stacking vs. checking I talked about in the earlier entry. The agreements often contain a clause that they cover only the areas explicitly mentioned in the text, and do not preclude the PM’s party from striking agreements with other parties (presumably on different policy topics, but each party cares about more issues than those it gets in its own agreement). This is also why most coalitions create additional mechanisms, like coalition coordinating committees or inner cabinets, to work out inevitable disagreements.

The alternative agreement strategy would be to do a grand multilateral bargain. But that would be extremely complex and unwieldy to hammer out! But I wonder if there are countries, or specific governments, where that approach is taken.

A humorous (to me, anyway) aside is there was a report during the past weeks that Benjamin Netanyahu proposed having a single agreement with all parties. This was quickly shot down by his proto-partners, and presumably for good reason, from their perspective. He also went so far as to ask them to simply agree to form a right-wing government and delegate to him the personnel decisions for awarding each partner with posts. Naturally, that went over like a lead balloon. Nice try, though.

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* I since have been told that in Belgium and the Netherlands, they do multilateral coalition bargaining and agreements.

Stacking vs. checking: Otzma Yehudit in the emerging Israeli coalition

In a recent publication (details below), Reut Itzkovitch-Malka and I investigate when parties “check” partners in coalition governments and when they “stack” via the committee overseeing a ministry. Here’s a clear case of stacking in the incoming Israeli coalition: Otzma Yehudit reportedly will get both the ministry it most wanted as well as the chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing that ministry as part of the new Israeli government.

Broadly put, when coalitions are bargained, the parties forming the government have a choice of “stacking” whereby they agree to give one party full control over certain policy portfolios, or “checking” whereby two parties are given organizational bases from which to check one another in a given portfolio. There is considerable literature in political science on questions such as these, mostly focused on the degree of authority delegated to cabinet ministers. For instance, Laver and Shepsle (1996) famously developed a model to predict which cabinet deals would form, based on the policy preferences of the parties to the deal, and with the theoretical claim that the holder of a portfolio was a “policy dictator” in that policy domain. Within the cabinet coalitions literature, this has been challenged by the observation that often junior ministers are appointed from a different coalition party than the one that gets the (senior) minister in order for one party to “keep tabs” on the other (see Thies 2001). These views of the process are in direct tension with one another. The first assumes that what makes a coalition “work” is that all parties understand they get to do whatever they want in their portfolios and thus the bargain is credible (everyone knows this up front, so they won’t intervene in each others’ domains over the life of the coalition). The second assumes that what makes it work is the parties can have agents monitoring other parties to be sure they stick to compromises reached at formation of the coalition (the junior observes some “ministerial drift” and reports back to his or her own party).

In recent years, more attention has been turned to how parties might use parliamentary committees and their chair positions as part of the overall coalition bargain (e.g., Martin and Vanbgerg 2004, 2011). The notion of stacking vs. checking can also be applied here. For instance, the coalition agreement could see the party that gets a given ministerial portfolio also get the chair of the parliamentary committee that is charged with overseeing the ministry. That would be stacking. Alternatively, the committee chair could be from a coalition partner, creating an opportunity for checking within the coalition. (A third possibility is that the chair is from an opposition party. Most parliaments in coalition-based systems parcel out the chairs proportionally to all parties, so some committees will be allocated in a way that facilitates “monitoring” by the opposition.) All of these combination assume chairs have some authority. That is generally true–they have agenda power within the committee. Even though a majority of the committee typically can override decisions of the chair, everyone’s time and attention is limited, and thus chairs should be in a privileged position in terms of hearings to schedule, witnesses to call, etc. And, at least among coalition partners, they may prefer to resolve things quietly rather than let conflicts erupt in the open. The ability of the chairs to acquire information on behalf of their parties serves to keep partners in line, or so the argument goes for checking. For stacking, it’s the opposite: the chair may be able to bury information that would raise the ire of a coalition partner or the opposition.

The deal first reported last week between Likud, the party of incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben Gvir, offers a clear-cut case of stacking. Ben Gvir will be named Minister of National Security, in charge of the national police and various other functions. It is a newly expanded ministry and portfolio, and thus a plum position for the far-right party leader. In addition, a member of his party is expected to be named chair of the Knesset Public Security Committee. Thus Otzma Yehudit gets both the policing ministry and the parliamentary committee chair responsible for domestic security policy and related matters.

The stacking, and evident cession of considerable autonomy to Otzma, in the area of public security grants Ben Gvir one of the aims he most regularly called for during the campaign leading up the recent election. He said repeatedly that he would demand the policing portfolio. And he got it. While this might not quite make him a literal “policy dictator” it surely limits the risk that he gets stymied by Likud or other partners.

In addition some reports had said he, or a member of the party, could obtain the agriculture ministry. I never would have imagined a far-right ultra-nationalist (and, frankly, racist) party being the defender of Israeli famers, but I’ve been informed that this is also related to his public-security interests. Theft of animals and equipment has become a serious issue in parts of rural Israel, and the politics around the problem is often tinged with racism. I wonder if his emphasis on this issue during the campaign actually earned him votes in the farm sector. The agreement does not grant Otzma the agriculture ministry, but it does transfer from that ministry to the new super-ministry Ben Gvir will head certain agencies responsible for the sector.

Ben Gvir is notorious for a history of racist comments and convictions for incitement against Arabs, along with admiration for the late Meir Kahane. In this election, his Otzma faction was part of a joint list with Religious Zionism. Together the RZ alliance list won 14 seats out of 120. Six of those elected from the list were Otzma candidates. The parties had declared their alliance a “technical bloc” and, as planned, formally split shortly after the election. Thus the two parties (plus a third, Noam, with just one of the electoral alliance’s seats) have been bargaining separately with Likud. This has made Shas (the Sephardi Haredi party), with 11 seats, technically the second largest party in the emerging coalition. It also means there will likely be five separate coalition agreements between Likud and a partner (Otzma, RZ, Noam, Shas, and the other Haredi party, UTJ) . It will be interesting to see which of the major ministries each partner gets will be “checked” by a coalition partner and in which portfolios the party will be granted “stacked” control via the committee chairs allocation.

The question of stacking and checking is a major theme of my paper with Itzkovitch-Malka. We find that stacking is quite common in Israel. We suggest that this may be due to the need of parties under conditions of high party fragmentation to make credible commitments that a partner, having been given a privileged position over the portfolio (via the minister) will be more able to deliver by also having the committee chair (given agenda control over proceedings, which Israeli committee chairs definitely have).

An interrelated theme of the paper is the expertise of the Knesset Members who obtain committee seats and chairs (expanding the party personnel research). Expertise is a subordinate, but still important, consideration that Israeli parties use. We do the first–to our knowledge–statistical analysis of any parliamentary system’s committee assignments to combine data on individual member attributes with an indicator of the partisan relation of chairs and ministers. Parties are somewhat more likely to appoint someone with pre-legislative experience to chair a committee when the party also has the associated minister, especially, we show, in “public goods” policy areas (like health and education). We suggest this is a further form of stacking–ensuring that the chair overseeing a co-partisan minister also has expertise in related policies. I am not sure yet which Otzma legislator is getting the Public Security committee chair in the new Knesset; I will take note of whether it is someone with any expertise in the policy area.

As for Ben Gvir himself, I suppose having been arrested and convicted on security matters counts as “expertise” of a sort in policing and public security, although not quite in the way I normally would code it.

The paper mentioned above is:

Committee assignment patterns in fragmented multiparty settings: Party personnel practices and coalition management, by Reut Itzkovitch-Malka and Matthew S. Shugart, Party Politics, 2022. Abstract:

This paper addresses the way parties assign members to parliamentary committees in fragmented multiparty settings. Thus, it analyzes how the two most central institutions of parliamentary politics––political parties and parliamentary committees––interact with one another. To the best of our knowledge, no research into this subject has systematically explored the intersection of considerations based on individual legislator characteristics and coalition management in committee assignment. Using Israel as our case study, we show that legislators’ expertise modestly shapes committee assignment patterns. However, parties in coalition often have another set of considerations to take into account when assigning members to committees. We show that parties in coalition do not only bargain on ministerial positions or committee chairs––they also bargain on their members’ assignment to committees and use this resource to allow (or hinder) each other to augment influence and control in a given policy area, or to perform affective monitoring.

Works cited in this entry:

Laver M and Shepsle KA (1996) Making and Braking Govern- ments: Cabinets and Legislatures in Parliamentary De- mocracies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin LW and Vanberg G (2004) Policing the bargain: coalition government and parliamentary scrutiny. American Journal of Political Science 48(1): 13–27.

Martin LW and Vanberg G (2011) Parliaments and Coalitions: The Role of Legislative Institutions in Multiparty Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thies M (2001) Keeping tabs on partners: The logic of delegation in coalition governments. American Journal of Political Science 45(3): 580–598.

This is a short list of important works in the topic. Many more are cited in the article.

Denmark 2022

In addition to Israel, there is also a general election today in Denmark. I don’t really know much about Danish politics, but I hope readers who are more informed might have comments as results become known.

One particularly interesting feature of the campaign that I will note is that former PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen is leading a Moderate (with a capital M) Party in this election that is campaigning outside the left and right blocs. If neither bloc wins a combined majority of seats, and his party does particularly well, it might attempt to lure the relatively more moderate (with a small m) parties from each bloc to split and form a center-spanning coalition. Otherwise, he could just be the “kingmaker“–a term I dislike, but which fits better than usual in a case of a party that has campaigned with indifference towards left or right and could strike a coalition deal with either. (That second link is actually about the first scenario I mentioned, and not the real “kingmaker” scenario.)

The incumbent government is a single-party minority cabinet of the Social Democrats, reliant on outside support from the Red–Green alliance.

Also, that second link notes the same point I made with respect to Israel: “Exit polls in Denmark can differ significantly from the final results.”

Israel 2022

Ah, yes, we are doing this again: Another Israeli general election. I am not going to pretend to know what will happen. As I type this, ILTV is making it seem as if the right-wing bloc has a majority with 61 or 62 seats. That would be a government of Likud, the two Haredi parties (Shas and UTJ), and the Religious Zionist list, returning Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime ministership.

HOWEVER, this is based on exit polls. These have been off before. It is downright misleading of media to treat these as if they are indicative of real results. On the other hand, it would be in no way a surprise if the final results were to confirm these exit polls. We just don’t know yet.

I won’t get into other possible coalition scenarios till we have actual results, other than to note that there are interesting possibilities, BUT none of them look much like the outgoing government. The bottom line on that broad yet narrow coalition is that voters who voted for the right-wing parties that joined the government did not like it. So much so that Yamina, the party formerly led by ex-PM Naftali Bennet, kept losing its affiliated Knesset members and did not even contest this election and the no. 2 on that list in 2021 (Ayelet Shaked) is leading a different list that is not expected to clear the 3.25% threshold. (The other right-wing splinter that enabled the “change” coalition, New Hope, led by ex-Likud member Gideon Saar, merged with Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White for this election.)

Yamina in 2021 gave us a rare and interesting case of what might happen to voter perceptions of a relatively extreme and quite small party heading government. Alas, it won’t be around in the next wave of voter surveys for us to know.

So, for the results and coalition scenarios, we wait and see.

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.