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.

Proposals for Israeli political reform–again

One thing I like about following Israeli politics is that there is no lack of willingness to propose institutional reforms to deal with (real or perceived) problems of governance. They are not always good ideas (see the term limit proposal proposed by a party in the outgoing coalition), but it is good that there is a willingness to debate ideas for political reform.

A news update from the TOI today mentions a couple that are in play during the current election campaign. The National Unity Party, led by Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar, is proposing to (1) require more than an absolute majority for the Knesset to dissolve1 itself, and (2) not make the failure to pass a budget a cause for automatic dissolution.

The second of these is an excellent idea, and I have thought for some time this should be changed. The problem with the current provision was on display in 2020 when then-PM Benjamin Netanyahu prevented the alternation of the premiership to which he had agreed from going ahead by withholding votes for the budget, thereby forcing an early election and breakup of the “unity” government. That the planned alternation would have been to Gantz is surely why the latter now wants to change this provision. Regardless of motive and experience of the proposer, the idea is sound. While it may seem straightforward that the inability to pass a budget is evidence of a lack of parliamentary confidence, it need not be so. I believe there are other parliamentary systems that can run on an automatic “continuing resolution” (borrowing a term from US politics), at least for a set period of time, if no new budget has been agreed. It is sensible as a way to prevent coalition partners from forcing an early election “passively” as opposed to actively attaining a majority for dissolution or government replacement.

As for the supermajority–specifically 70 members (58.3%)–to dissolve, the idea goes well with the proposal on the budget, and more importantly with the existing constructive vote of no confidence. Under the latter rule, in place since around 2015, the Knesset majority is not able to vote to dismiss the government unless there are 61 votes for a specific alternative. The new provisions proposed by National Unity would cement the notion that the government remains until the Knesset votes in an alternative (or the regular term ends).

Provisions for a parliament to dissolve itself are not the norm. Israel is an unusual case in this respect as far as I know.2 It is probably permitted elsewhere (see the Early Parliamentary General Election Act passed in the UK in 2019) if not specifically prohibited, but I am not sure I could name another case where a common path to an early election is the parliamentary majority passing a law to set a new election. Regarding having a super-majority vote to set an election, it is reminiscent of the debates leading up to the Fixed Term Parliament Act passed by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK in 2011.3

The TOI update also notes another proposal, this one from the Yisrael Beiteinu party (Avigdor Liberman). It would require at least 90 members of the Knesset to bring down a government within two years of its formation. That’s a 75% majority requirement! The TOI says the first proposal of National Unity mentioned above is “similar” to this one from YB. But it is not similar! A super-majority for dissolution of the Knesset is consistent with the parliamentary form of government. A super-majority for dismissal of a cabinet is contrary to the very core of the parliamentary principle. I do not know where else such provisions can be found, other than Papua New Guinea4–not normally a shining model of effective governance that others seek to emulate.

The constructive vote of no confidence already introduces some potential for separation of powers (more to the point, of separation of purpose) in that a government potentially can face majority opposition yet remain in office. Yet it preserves the core of the parliamentary principle by ensuring that if a majority of the voters’ elected representatives prefers a different coalition be in power, it can proceed immediately to enforce its preference. Shielding a government from such majority preference, and allowing it to govern for up to two years unless a very substantial super-majority votes it out, is a recipe not for stability but for deadlock.

Gantz’s two reform ideas are promising. Liberman’s is very bad.

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Notes

  1. As I have probably said before, technically the Knesset is never dissolved. It continues to hold legislative authority, albeit normally remains out of session, between the calling of an early (or regular) election and the installation of the new Knesset after the election. Lacking a good alternative term, I will go on calling it “dissolution.”
  2. Papua New Guinea has such a provision, I learned as I was drafting this. See Article 105.1.c: an absolute majority of parliament may vote to dissolve.
  3. The Johnson government repealed it with the passage of The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022.
  4. See the PNG constitution, Article 145.4: “A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or in the Ministry may not be moved during the period of eighteen months commencing on the date of the appointment of the Prime Minister.” PNG also has a constructive provision that applies for most, but not all, of the term (145.2.a: “A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or the Ministry… moved during the first four years of the life of Parliament shall not be allowed unless it nominates the next Prime Minister”.)

Israel’s stable coalition

Yes, you read the headline correctly. Ever since the current broad-yet-narrow coalition government in Israel was formed, it has been something of a sport for various journalists covering Israeli politics to predict its early demise. I cautioned otherwise at the time. [Note: see UPDATE at very bottom of post, 16 June]

It may be that the coalition really is in its death throes, even as it has only just passed the one-year mark of its planned three-year term. I have lost count of the number of individual members of coalition parties who have announced a “strike” or a “freeze” whereby they stop voting with the coalition for a period of time to try to get some measure they favor passed (or something they oppose stopped). Most of them have made clear that they would not defect to the opposition or vote to call an early election. But some (I think three dating back to the original investiture vote) have outright defected. The coalition fell to a 60-60 deadlock with the opposition when Idit SIlman (Yamina), coalition whip, went over to the opposition in April. More recently, there was one member from Meretz (the left-most flank of the coalition), Ghana Rinawe Zoabi, who announced she was leaving–bringing it to 59–but then walked it back a few days later after mayors of Arab towns persuaded her to stay. The most recent defector is Nir Orbach from Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s Yamina Party, who has said “I am not part of the coalition,” putting it back, apparently, at 59 active members (where “active” might include, at any given time, one or two on “strike” of some presumably temporary sort ).

The question is whether a government can survive when it has 61 or more announced opponents in the 120-member Knesset. A majority opposed means it is done, right? Well, not necessarily. Israel has a full constructive vote of no confidence. This means a government can’t be voted out by a parliamentary majority unless that majority is simultaneously electing a replacement government. There is almost no prospect of this happening, as it would require the Joint List (of mostly Arab parties) to be willing not just to passively tolerate a Likud-led (and, yes, Bibi Netanyahu) government, but actively vote for its installation. This is almost impossible to imagine, so in this limited sense, the government may actually be stable.

We are talking about Israel, a country whose politics are notably unpredictable, so there are other scenarios that can’t be entirely ruled out. Maybe at least two of Blue & White (Benny Gantz, 8 seats) or New Hope (Gideon Saar, 6) or Yisrael Beteinu (Avigdor Liberman, 7) will surrender their current ministerial posts and vote for a new coalition with Likud as a partner if not leader. Each has as at least as many seats as the Joint List (6), and if the two bigger of these parties defected, they could then form a majority without either the Islamist Ra’am party (4 seats), which backs the current coalition, or the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionist party. All three of the lists I mentioned as hypothetical defectors from the current ministerial team have been burned in the recent past by Netanyahu; it also means Liberman has to join up again with the Haredi parties, which would be a big backtrack from a position he’s held firm on since 2019. So it is hard to see what they gain by enabling his return to power. Never say never, but it seems unlikely. That suggests that indeed, at least as far as no-confidence votes are concerned, the coalition is still stable, and could remain so even if suffered another defector or two.

Stable in terms of remaining in power. Of course, it can’t pass legislation if the opposition unites against it. But that is a big “if.” Just this week, the first reading of a tax measure passed against the coalition’s declared position, but it was only 51–50. In other words, while the government may have trouble mustering a majority, it is not a sure thing for the opposition, either–even on a bill sponsored by a member of Likud. Then there is always the possibility of a selective member or two from outside the coalition voting with the government on specific bills. The government may not be able to pursue its most ambitious legislative agenda, but it probably can pass bills here and there (as well as continue executing laws already passed in a way favorable to its agendas to the extent permitted).

The bigger obstacle is the next budget. This is the one way a government can fall without losing a constructive vote of no confidence. The next budget bill must be passed in March, 2023. This vote, however, does not require 61 members of Knesset. More yes than no is sufficient. So that is a somewhat easier obstacle for the government, although by no means an easy one.

The final way–and the most likely way–that it could be forced out is if the Knesset votes to set an early election. This requires 61 votes, but it can be a negative coalition (i.e., we don’t want this Knesset and government to continue), rather than the positive vote (here’s a new government we are putting in now) like the constructive vote of no confidence. Orbach, the most recent defector from Yamina, stated in his announcement that, while he was leaving the coalition, he would not vote for early elections. He said instead that he would work to form an alternative government from within the current Knesset. We have already been over why that is not likely. At least as of now, it does not seem that there are 61 votes for an early election.1

Thus, unless the government simply resigns, it may continue on, despite its current difficulties. The constructive vote of no confidence really does enhance the potential for “separation of powers” (or better, separation of purpose) whereby the assembly majority opposes the government but does not have the means to replace it–in this case, because it does not agree on what the replacement should be (and does not favor going to elections).

So it may seem strange to call the Israeli coalition “stable” in its current situation. But if “stable” simply means that it can survive, then it is stable unless there are multiple further individual defections or a surprise change of heart by two or three of the party leaders who made this government possible in the first place. There are certainly other ways we might define whether a government is “stable” but by this criterion, and at this moment, it’s stable.

  1. Another consideration here is that the coalition agreement provisions that were put into Basic Law (i.e., Israeli’s constitution in all but name) have stipulations about the interim period after an “alternating” government like the current one has its term ended early via the setting of elections. If there are at least three defectors from Bennet’s (right-wing) side of the government, Alternate PM Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (center-left) automatically becomes PM. An election would be at least three months from the passage of the bill calling the election, and given that there is no guarantee that the election would result in a Knesset that could have a majority for a government (meaning potentially yet another election or elections, like 2019–21), those on the right voting for this option would be risking a signifiant period of time with PM Lapid. An Israeli government in this position is no mere caretaker. It is a government, period. I put all this in a footnote because I do not take it too seriously. The Knesset does not actually dissolve in the period between passage of a bill calling an election and the time the new Knesset is elected. It can still function. And these measures were passed by… 61 votes. Therefore, if 61 votes exist to call an election, 61 votes probably also exist to repeal the provisions and allow Bennet to remain as PM. Still, there would be some risk to right-wing politicians doing this, as they could not do these acts–call the election and repeal the provisions–simultaneously. So an agreement to do so could fall apart. But I’d think they could pull it off.
  2. UPDATE (intended to be part of the previous footnote but Word Press won’t allow a new paragraph here without putting a number in front of it): I just heard of a twist on all this that I wasn’t aware of, from Haviv Rettig Gur on the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast. The bill regulating legal matters in Judea and Samaria, which expires at the end of June—and which Likud and allies say they won’t vote for (even though expiration would be bad for some of their voters)—would get an automatic 6-month extension if the government falls before 30 June. Thus some members from the right of the coalition may want to pull the plug to save (temporarily) the status quo of the otherwise sunsetting legislation—even if it meant an interim PM Lapid. On the other hand, the polls aren’t great for the opposition and Netanyahu may not want to provoke an election now—“assessments are changing daily.” (This paragraph added 16 June, 6:30 a.m., PDT)

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.

On BBC talking about the new Israeli government

I have never done many media appearances, but I was delighted to be asked by the BBC to talk about the new Israeli government. It was also picked up by several NPR stations. At least for a while, it can be heard at this TVeyes link. There is also a transcript there, but it is automatically generated and hence not the most reliable. But the audio is really me!

The BBC found me via my F&V post about the government and Twitter!

Update: BBC sent me an MP3 file of the interview.

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.

______

* 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.

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?

Attorneys General–institutions matter

Now that indictments have been announced against the (outgoing–dare I say?) Prime Minister of Israel, it is worth reviewing the institutional basis of the office of Attorney General in Israel.

I am seeing some casual takes on Twitter about why the US doesn’t have an Attorney General who takes a tougher line against law-breaking at the top of government. But the offices could hardly be more different. The US Attorney General is a cabinet appointee. The President picks who holds that position, subject only to Senate majority confirmation. Of course, Trump has had a highly compliant Senate majority throughout his presidency.

Trump could not have had occupants of the office that have been as awful for the rule of law as they have been, if the office were structured like Israel’s. So it is worth sketching how the process of appointing the Israeli Attorney General works. My source for this is Aviad Bakshi, Legal Advisers and the Government: Analysis and Recommendations, Kohelet Policy Forum, Policy Paper No. 10, February 2016.

a. There shall be formed a permanent selection committee that shall screen suitable candidates, one of which shall be appointed to the position by the government. The term of each committee shall be four years. 

b. The chairman shall be a retired justice of the Supreme Court who shall be appointed by the President (Chief Justice) of the Supreme Court upon the approval of the Minister of Justice, and the other members shall be: a retired Minister of Justice or retired Attorney General appointed by the government; a Knesset Member elected by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset; a scholar elected by a forum comprising deans of law schools; an attorney elected by the Israel Bar Association. 

c. The AGI term duration shall be six years, with no extension, irrespective of the term of the government. 

d. The government may remove the AGI from his position due to specific reasons.… These reasons include, in addition to personal circumstances of the AGI, disagreements between the AGI and the government that prevent efficient cooperation. In such an event the selection committee shall convene to discuss the subject and shall submit its opinion to the government, in writing. However, the opinion of the committee is not binding, and the government may decide to remove the AGI contrary to the recommendation of the committee. The AGI shall have the right to a hearing before the government and before the committee. 

All of this makes for a reasonably independent office. Even if appointment and dismissal are still in the hands of the government, the screening and term provisions make it an arms-length relationship. The occupant of the post is obviously not a cabinet minister, as in the US, and is not a direct appointee of the head of government or the cabinet.

Worlds apart, institutionally.

And this is even before we get into the parliamentary vs. presidential distinction. A president is–for better or worse–meant to be hard to indict, let alone remove. That’s why the main tool against a potentially criminal executive in the US and many other presidential systems is lodged in the congress, through impeachment, and not in a state attorney. A prime minister in a parliamentary system, on the other hand, by definition has no presumption of a fixed term.

The normal way to get rid of a PM is, of course, a vote of no-confidence or the PM’s own party or coalition partners withdrawing support. But that’s the point–they are constitutionally not protected when the political winds, let alone the legals ones, turn against them.

In the broader institutional context of a parliamentary system, it is presumably much easier to take the step of also designing an independent Attorney General’s office that has the ability to indict a sitting head of government.

On the other hand, there is still no obvious way to remove Netanyahu from office any time soon, unless his own party rebels against him. Even though Trump’s own party will probably block the super-majority in the Senate needed to remove him from office*, the resolution of the case against Trump might happen considerably sooner than any resolution of Netanyahu’s case. Barring a rebellion by his current allies, Netanyahu may remain PM fore another 4-5 months, through a now-likely third election (since last April) and the post-election coalition bargaining process.

* Assuming the House majority impeaches him, which now looks all but inevitable.

Israel is about to have a very unusual ‘b’ election

Israel is about to hold its second election of 2019, and it will be unusual, relative to other cases of a second election within a year elsewhere. While the number of lists winning seats is likely to go down, other indicators of fragmentation are likely to go up.

Using the National Level Party Systems Dataset (Struthers, Li, and Shugart, 2018), I performed calculations to find out how the standard indicators of party-system fragmentation change from a first election that fails to produce a “stable” government or any government at all, leading to a second election. I looked at all cases in the dataset in which two elections were held in the same Gregorian calendar year, plus all cases where an election is in the second half of a year and followed by another in the first half of the next year. The first table below gives the full list, including the first and second election in each sequence. In one case in the dataset (Greece, 1989-1990) the second election was followed by yet another within a year, indicated by a “3” in the final column. Note that a country’s data sequence begins in the early post-WWII era or when a country democratized and ends in 2016, so any cases outside that timeframe are not included.

country year date mo within_yr_seq
Denmark 1953 4/21/53 4 1
Denmark 1953 9/22/53 9 2
Denmark 1987 9/8/87 9 1
Denmark 1988 5/10/88 5 2
Greece 1989 6/18/89 6 1
Greece 1989 11/5/89 11 2
Greece 1990 4/8/90 4 3
Greece 2012 5/6/12 5 1
Greece 2012 6/17/12 6 2
Greece 2015 1/25/15 1 1
Greece 2015 9/20/15 9 2
Iceland 1959 6/28/59 6 1
Iceland 1959 10/25/59 10 2
Ireland 1982 2/18/82 2 1
Ireland 1982 11/24/82 11 2
Japan 1952 10/1/52 10 1
Japan 1953 4/19/53 4 2
Japan 1979 10/7/79 10 1
Japan 1980 6/22/80 6 2
Moldova 2009 4/5/09 4 1
Moldova 2009 7/29/09 7 2
Spain 2015 12/20/15 12 1
Spain 2016 6/26/16 6 2
Sri Lanka 1960 3/19/60 3 1
Sri Lanka 1960 7/20/60 7 2
St. Lucia 1987 4/6/87 4 1
St. Lucia 1987 4/30/87 4 2
Thailand 1992 3/22/92 3 1
Thailand 1992 9/13/92 9 2
Turkey 2015 6/7/15 6 1
Turkey 2015 11/1/15 11 2
UK 1974 2/28/74 2 1
UK 1974 10/10/74 10 2

The list contains 17 cases of an election within twelve months of the preceding one. Not a large sample; fortunately, this sort of thing does not happen very often. (There are 1,025 elections in the sample.)

If elites and/or voters “learn” from the experience of bargaining failure or lack of stability from the first election in such a sequence, we would expect the second to be less fragmented. We can test this by looking at mean differences between the second election and the first. The indicators I have are the number of parties (or lists, more precisely, counting an independent as a “list” of one) that win at least one seat (NS0), the effective number of seat-winning lists (NS), the effective number of vote-earning lists (NV), the seat share of the largest party (s1), and the vote share of the largest party (v1). The first three should go down if there’s an adaptation occurring, while the second two should go up (i.e., the largest party gets bigger).

Here is what we see from the results, reporting the mean differences:

NS0: –0.215

NS: –0.098

NV: –0.469

s1: +0.010

v1: +0.0035

In terms of raw direction, all are as expected. On the other hand, the number of lists winning seats hardly budges (recall that the first number is the actual number, not “effective”), and the effective number on seats changes much less than the one on votes. The implication is that fewer votes are wasted in the second election, as we would expect. On the other hand, the seat share of the largest party–the single most important quantity because it determines whether there is a single-party majority and if not, how far from majority it is–rises by a very small amount, on average. That is partly due to most of these systems being proportional, so large shifts should be unusual. The complete list of elections and their indicators is provided in an appendix below.

As far as statistical significance is concerned, only in NV and v1 is the difference significant (NV at p<0.03; v1 at p<0.10), when comparing these “second” elections to all others. (This is not meant to be a sophisticated test; I am not comparing to a country baseline as I really should.)

We might expect that the first election in such a sequence is anomalously fragmented, hence the need for a second election to calm things down once again. That is also supported, for NV and v1 again, but also, crucially, for s1.

Now, how might the Israeli second election of 2019 compare? We can use the polling average from Knesset Jeremy (using the poll of polls from three weeks before the actual election), and compare to the actual results of 2019a (the first election in the sequence) and the previous election (2015). Also included in the Seat Product Model expectation.

measure 2019b (poll avg) 2019a actual diff 2015 diff SPM expected
NS0 9 11 –2 10 1 11
NS 6.04 5.24 0.801 6.94 –1.70 4.93
NV ? 6.33 ? 7.71 –1.38 5.24
s1 0.258 0.292 -0.034 0.25 0.042 0.3
v1 ? 0.2646 ? 0.234 0.031 0.289

For the number of lists that look likely to clear the threshold, we have the direction expected: currently there are 9 likely to win seats, compared to 11 in April. In turn, the April figure was one seat-winning list higher than in 2015. However, in terms of both NS and s1, the case is anomalous. All indications are that the largest party will be smaller than it was in April, which also will drive up the effective number. Moreover, these measures in April were less fragmented than they had been in 2015; that is, the first election of the 2019 sequence was not unusually fragmented. Quite the contrary; I called it a “normal” election at the time for a reason.

So the Israeli sequence of two elections in 2019 is unusual indeed.


Appendix

Below are two tables. One has all the “second” elections, and changes in the various measures. The second has all “first” elections. In each case, the comparison is just to the immediately preceding election (not to all other elections), so we can see how much short-term fluctuations were affecting the process in each sequence.

Elections ocurring within one year of previous, compared to previous results
country year mo diff_Ns0 diff_Ns diff_Nv diff_s1 diff_v1
Denmark 1953 9 1 -0.2199998 -0.1000001 0.014 0.009
Denmark 1988 5 -1 0.0100002 0 0.005 0.005
Greece 1989 11 1 -0.0800002 -0.1700001 0 0
Greece 1990 4 5 0.05 0.0700002 0.005 0.017
Greece 2012 6 0 -1.07 -3.75 0.07 0.108
Greece 2015 9 1 0.1490002 -1.19 -0.014 -0.008
Iceland 1959 10 0 0.24 . 0 .
Ireland 1982 11 -1 -0.01 0.03 0 0
Japan 1953 4 . 0.8099999 0.8999999 -0.088 -0.091
Japan 1980 6 -8 -0.3999999 -0.24 0.074 0.033
Moldova 2009 7 1 0.8699999 0.27 0 -0.048
Spain 2016 6 -1 -0.3700004 -0.7999997 0.04 0.043
Sri Lanka 1960 7 . -1.22 -2.52 0.166 0.032
St. Lucia 1987 4 0 0 -0.1099999 0 0.007
Thailand 1992 9 0 -0.0999999 0.0999999 0 0.017
Turkey 2015 11 . -0.322 0.03 -0.126 -0.089
UK 1974 10 -1 -0.01 -0.02 0.028 0.021
Election that is the first in a series of two within a year, compared to preceding election
country year mo diff_Ns0 diff_Ns diff_Nv diff_s1 diff_v1
Denmark 1953 4 0 -0.1300001 -0.0900002 0.013 0.008
Denmark 1987 9 0 0.27 0.5799999 -0.009 -0.023
Greece 1989 6 1 0.26 0.1400001 -0.044 -0.006
Greece 2012 5 2 2.24 5.79 -0.173 -0.25
Greece 2015 1 0 -0.6700001 -0.77 0.067 0.066
Iceland 1959 6 0 -0.28 . 0.035 .
Ireland 1982 2 -2 -0.05 -0.1699998 -0.039 0.009
Japan 1952 10 . . . . .
Japan 1979 10 -1 0.1199999 -0.2199998 -0.002 0.027
Moldova 2009 4 1 0.1400001 0.1600001 -0.079 0.035
Spain 2015 12 -3 1.93 3.23 -0.18 -0.159
Sri Lanka 1960 3 . 1.456 2.26 -0.206 -0.043
St. Lucia 1987 4 -1 0.55 -0.0800002 -0.295 -0.049
Thailand 1992 3 . . . . .
Turkey 2015 6 . 0.4320002 0 0.002 0.005
UK 1974 2 2 0.1900001 0.6900001 -0.05 -0.077

 

Marginal candidates on closed lists: Israel 2015 edition

Do party leaders use personal characteristics of candidates they recruit to their closed lists as a way to attract voters to the list? If the objective is to mobilize voters who might not otherwise have strong incentives to vote for the list, the strategy we might observe is the nomination of candidates associated with particular groups (or partnering parties) to marginal ranks–a rank at which the party is likely to be on the cusp of winning or losing. I pointed out such a strategy in the Israeli election of 2006, when Shas nominated representatives of the Ethiopian and Georgian immigrant communities to the 12th and 13th ranks. The party had won 11 seats in the 2003 election and would win 12 seats on 2006; there were indications that the party indeed received votes from the two communities.

How common are such marginal-ranks personal-vote strategies by parties? I wish I knew! I do have another data point from Israel, however: this year’s Zionist Union list.

The Zionist Union (or Zionist Camp) list was formed by the merger, for purposes of this election, of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua party. Although Labor holds a member primary, the joint-list agreement gave Livni the right to nominate candidates to various positions on the list. One of these was position #24.

On January 25, it was reported that the 24th spot would go to Yael Cohen Paran, “one of Israel’s leading environmentalists for the past two decades”. She is one of the leaders of the Green Movement party.

By nominating Cohen Paran, Livni has maintained her agreement with the Green Movement, whose leader Alon Tal was given the 13th rank on Livni’s HaTnau list for the 2013 election. The list won only six seats, so Tal was not close to winning, but Livni’s manifesto commitment to focus on the environment was upheld in various ways, most prominently by claiming the Environment Ministry for one of her MKs, Amir Peretz.

Of course, I can’t prove that Cohen Paran received this specific list rank for this campaign because of her ability to bring additional votes. It is possible, however, given the past record of Livin-Green cooperation. It is especially noteworthy that in the week immediately prior to the announcement, the Labor-HaTnua list was averaging just about 24 seats in the polls, meaning Livni controlled what could be the most marginal rank on the list. If there is a bloc of potential votes, and a candidate who might appeal to such a bloc, and the nominator was strategic… let’s just say Livni behaved exactly as a hypothesis about personal votes for marginal ranks on closed lists might predict.

Labor and Livni’s HaTnua presenting a joint list, promising to rotate PM

Israeli politics never ceases to amaze! A union of Labour and Livni’s HaTnua has been widely anticipated, and several polls now have shown this combined list would win more seats than Likud. But a rotation of the premiership if the combined list is in a position to form a government? I never imagined such a deal.

As the article in Times of Israel notes, “There is a precedent for prime ministerial rotation in Israel. Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir led the country in that format between 1984 and 1988.” But note the difference: that was two parties–still the two big ones back then–agreeing to take turns. This deal is that one party (or, here, alliance) will swap the leader it has supplied to head the government at the midterm, and it means a far weaker partner supplying the PM for half the term. Quite unusual.

Regarding list formation:

Herzog is understood to have agreed to place Livni in the second place on the joint party list, as well as giving Hatnua the 6th, 21st and 25th slots on the joint list. The 6th slot was earmarked for former environment minister [and once Labor Party leader] Amir Peretz.

Those same polls still suggest the right would be more likely to form the government. (So far, Likud is probably losing votes to Bennet’s nationalist-Orthodox party, not to the center or left.) Is this a game changer that would attract enough votes off some of the right-wing parties? I would not count on it, but that’s obviously the intent.

The ways a cabinet can be terminated

There is a literature in political science on government (cabinet) termination in parliamentary democracies. This is not a review of that literature. Rather, it is an accounting of three recent cases that illustrate different ways that a government in a parliamentary democracy can end.

We can have a party based on an electoral majority that seeks a fresh mandate. That is, a party–or bloc of parties running together in the election– that has won a majority of seats, but, for strategic reasons, decides to hold an early election. Exhibit: Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Liberal Democratic Party) announced a snap election on 18 November, despite about two years remaining on the term and a comfortable majority won in the 2012 election. The election will be 14 December.

We can have a coalition government, formed by bargaining among multiple parties after an election, which holds a majority of seats. The parties might have a falling out over one or more policy issues, and the parties break up the government rather than resolve their differences within it. Exhibit: Israel. On 2 December, Prme Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two ministers, each of whom heads a party that was in his coalition: Finance Minister Yair Lapid (of the Yesh Atid party) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (of HaTnua). The firing, which meant the breakup of the coalition, followed weeks of rancor over the budget and a bill backed particularly by another coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, that critics (including the ceremonial president) said would elevate the state’s Jewish character over its democratic character. New elections will be 17 March.

We can have a minority cabinet, in which the party or parties holding ministerial positions do not hold a majority of parliamentary seats, with no available backing from among the non-governmental parties in parliament, and which fails to get the support needed to pass its budget. Exhibit: Sweden. On 3 December, the minority center-left government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven lost a budget vote, 153-182, and announced there would be a snap election. The wild card here was the Sweden Democrats, a far-right or “populist” party that neither Lofven nor the center-right opposition wanted to be seen to deal with following elections that were held less than three months ago. When the center-right would not back the budget, the government effectively lost its right to continue governing. A new election is expected to be set for 22 March.

One could say that these were listed not only in chronological order, but in reverse order of “necessity”. There was no reason why Japan needed an early election–its government has a solid majority. The Israeli election call is also not exactly necessary–the parties whose leaders Netanyahu fired were not in anything like open rebellion even if they were in policy disagreement (which is, after all, natural in coalitions). It was, however, a coalition that the PM himself clearly never wanted, and was forced upon him by the election results in early 2013 and the bargaining stances of other parties (specifically, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home). Polls show the potential of a much stronger right-wing bloc in a new election. So, it is an opportunistic call, but arguably less unnecessary than Japan’s. The Swedish situation, on the other hand, is one of real deadlock.

Of all these countries, the one that has the lowest tendency towards early elections is Sweden, even though minority governments are quite common there. Usually, however, they have had a fairly reliable “outside” party to back them on budgets or other confidence matters. Israel has frequent early elections–although this one will be earlier than any in years–and usually has oversized governments (meaning containing more parties than actually needed to have a parliamentary majority–such as the just-collapsed one). Japan usually has electoral-majority governments, but has had many early elections, including the famous one of 2005, also called by a government that had a secure election-based majority, but wanted (and got) a bigger one to push through reforms blocked by intra-party resistance.

All these great examples of early elections in parliamentary systems, and it wasn’t even my teaching quarter for any of my comparative democracy courses.

“‘We refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state”

Well, OK, then. If the Palestinian Authority sticks to this position, the current partition talks will go nowhere (like all previous iterations). The question of recognizing the character of the state is, as Ari Shavit (a self-declared leftist, by the way) put it some years ago, “the core of the conflict.”

From Haaretz on 20 December:

According to [former PA negotiator Muhammad] Shtayyeh the declaration of Israel as a Jewish state implies the prevention of Palestinian refugees from returning to their homeland, opening the door to the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel from their homes and the imposition of the Jewish narrative on the history of this country, thereby rejecting the Christian and Muslim narratives.

Yes to Shtayyeh’s first point if “homeland” means within what would become the recognized borders of Israel, but no to the second. I am not aware of any but the farthest-from-the-mainstream actually advocating expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens. On the other hand, as best I can tell, it just assumed that Jews will be expelled from the proposed Arab state of Palestine and, of course, would have no right of return (and should not have) to the part of their homeland that becomes outside the borders of Israel.

As for Shtayyeh’s “narratives” point, as far as I know, the Christian narrative–if there can be said to be one such narrative–does not deny that the land in question is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. If there is indeed a single “Muslim narrative” that denies this historic fact, then it is not an equivalently legitimate narrative.

The idea of a partition is that each of the people with competing claims to the territory being divided gets its own state. I do not see how an agreement can be signed that does not recognize each state as the state of one of those peoples. Ideally, it should also grant protection to the minority, who would be allowed to remain within the borders of the other people’s state. However, Shtayyeh may be right about one thing: a partition could open the door to migration of Arabs out of Israel (less likely to be through “expulsion” as through choice amongst perceived-to-be bad options). Most (all?) partitions are accompanied by population transfers. And that is why a partition process is not really a “peace process”. Partitions, and especially population transfers, are not typically peaceful.

Note also that Shtayyeh’s references to narratives refers to religions. Although some tendencies within the State of Israel blur the lines, the Jewish state is not about a religion, it is about a national group’s right to sovereignty–national liberation, in other words. This is not a small semantic matter, though it gets elided regularly by all those who have an agenda against the existence of an ordinary “secular” and democratic state in the ancestral home of the Jewish people.