- With the entry of the centrist, secular Kadima party into the Likud led government, the two main parties in the coalition agreed to pursue reform to the Israeli electoral system in time for the next elections.
- Whilst Israel’s parliamentary electoral system has sustained Israel as a stable representative democracy since its establishment, Israel has experienced increasing fragmentation of its party system, and the weakening or mainstream parties at the expense of smaller factions representing minority interests.
- Those arguing for reform of the electoral system see it as important to the ability of future governments to deal with significant diplomatic and domestic challenges.
What is the current situation?
- Israel’s currently elects the 120 seat Knesset as a single constituency in a directly proportional party-list system, with a low electoral threshold of 2%. Large parties have always had to gain the support of smaller parties through the allocation of ministerial positions and by offering concessions over policy.
- In the past two decades, support for the blocks which had formerly dominated the party system – the centre-left Labour and centre-right Likud – has steadily declined. Until 1996, the largest party has always held at least one-third of the Knesset seats (40), allowing it to form a coalition with relative ease. But growing support for smaller parties representing minority ethnic or interest based groups have increased the bargaining power of junior coalition partners and limited the ability of governments to execute ambitious policies in domestic or diplomatic arenas.
What kinds of reforms may be considered?
- Since Israel’s establishment, there have been various proposals and attempts at electoral reform. Most of these sought to reduce of the number of parties in the Knesset, decrease the disproportionate power of small parties and enhance the stability of governments or the strength of the Prime Minister.
- Many reform proposals have included elements of regional elections, but none of them ever progressed beyond preliminary legislative stage. The introduction of the system of direct elections for the prime minister (enacted in 1992 and repealed in 2001) was supposed to strengthen the Prime Minister and make him less dependent on small parties. Instead, however, voters split their votes, supporting mainstream prime ministerial candidates but at the same time backing marginal parties in even greater numbers. The effect was therefore to further reduce the strength of the mainstream parties.
- A radical shift to a presidential system, favoured by some, is unlikely. Changing to a presidential system would likely require deeper rooted changes to the balance of powers within the government than the political system can handle.
- Reviewing proposals by Israeli research groups in recent years indicates that any reform is likely to include some of the following components:
- Allowing the head of the largest party the first chance to form a coalition. At present, the partly leader most likely to succeed in forming a coalition is asked to do so by the president after consultation with the elected parties. This may increase voter incentive to back the larger parties.
- Placing restrictions on the size of the cabinet. To satisfy coalition partners, Israeli prime ministers have been forced to expand the number of ministerial positions. Limiting cabinet size would restrict the bargaining power of small parties.
- Raising the electoral threshold from the current 2%. This will make is harder for small parties to enter the Knesset and will encourage likeminded parties to form larger blocks.
- Introduction of a partially-regional voting system, in which a proportion of MKs are elected regionally whilst others are elected through the proportional system. This would potentially give an electoral advantage to larger parties as well as increasing the accountability of MKs to voters.
What is the process and what hurdles may it face?
- The coalition agreement concluded between Kadima and Likud in mid-May determined that reforms to the electoral system will be passed before the next elections, though it will be a considerable challenge to complete this ambitious legislative process in time.
- An attempt to reform the electoral system through a combination of measures may garner support from Likud, Kadima, Ehud Barak’s Independence party and perhaps Labour, who stand to gain from the weakening of smaller factions. Opposition is likely to emerge from smaller ultra-Orthodox, right-wing and Arab parties. Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who has been a strong advocate for a presidential system in Israel, may oppose an electoral reform that preserves many of the characteristics of the parliamentary system, primarily because his party’s influence over future coalitions will potentially be reduced.
- Electoral reform will require the support of at least 61 MKs. Given the already ambitious agenda of the coalition and the fact that elections are schedule for October 2013 at the very latest, passing comprehensive electoral reform may prove challenging. As a compromise, the coalition may opt for smaller reforms like raising the electoral threshold.