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.

The big problem with the “rotation” deal

The Israeli press, especially Haaretz, has carried several critical opinion pieces since the announcement of the joint list and rotation agreement between Labor, led by Isaac Herzog, and HaTnua, led by Tzipi Livni. (On the agreement, see previous post.) One problem with the deal that has been less directly addressed–with one partial exception that I will cite below–is its impracticality. Or, more to the point, its non-enforceability.

When a Prime Minister resigns, as Herzog promises to do after two years, there must be a new government-formation process. Therefore, the deal between two leaders of one list can’t bind the other parties. (It can’t actually bind Herzog, as the first PM under the deal, but that is another matter.)

Let’s suppose that Labor(-plus) does win the most seats in the election, as several polls now suggest is possible if the election were held now. (It is not till March.) Let’s also suppose that Herzog and Livni operate under the best of faith and fully intend to honor the deal by which Herzog steps aside and Livni replaces him. So far, so good. But then comes the problem. The deal would also require the coalition partners who form the Herzog-led government to agree to it. It further requires the coalition partners to uphold the deal after two years, when the “new government” has to be formed (and there would be a new formation process under the terms of the Basic Law, Government, Art. 19). That is a lot of to expect!

So, while the deal may be good in the polls, it has a flaw in its non-enforceability. Will enough Israeli voters buy it to give it a chance? At the moment, the same polls that put Labor ahead also suggest a right-wing government headed by Likud and with Benjamin Netanyahu, is more viable. Being first in seats does not guarantee a party/alliance the right to form a government. Just ask Livni. She has been there before.

The Herzog-Livni deal draws on the precedent of prior arrangements in which the Prime Minister was changed at midterm. However, these really are not very relevant as precedents. In the two previous rotation agreements, it was two separate parties making the deal, and together controlling a majority of the Knesset. While there still would have been the possibility that the party initially holding the top post might renege, the (potential) problem was only one of commitment between the two leaders and their parties. (For overviews of Israel’s “unity” governments, see the Washington Institute’s useful history; the cases involving rotation agreements were 1984 and 1988.) By contrast, the Herzog-Livni agreement is a pre-electoral commitment regarding their own list, but would depend on consent of various other, post-election, coalition partners. More specifically, it would depend on two rounds of bargaining with those partners.

One article in Haaretz went so far as to quote a “source” inside Labor as admitting the rotation deal was not necessarily viable:

Don’t get too upset, sourpuss analysts. The arrangement for a rotation between the two is good for now, for the start of the election campaign…

It has been well received by young voters and women; it conveys confidence and power. When the time comes and Herzog is asked to form a government, he and Livni will sit down and negotiate with the others all options on the table. If Kahlon demands a rotation, that too will be considered. We’re not naïve, and that won’t be a hindrance to forming a government.

Moshe Kahlon is leader of a just-registered new centrist party, Kulanu.

Yes, there will be a lot to consider. In the meantime, maybe it will help get votes, under the assumption that voters do not work through the next steps and all the pitfalls they put in the way of a rotation promise.

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.