Israel, Proportional Representation, Polarization, and Accountability
SaraWolk last edited by SaraWolk
Israeli elections are held at large, nationwide, with no districts at all. (Sidenote, the Torah calls for districts specifically.) Elections are by Closed List PR, so you vote for the party but have no say over who the party selects as the list. The threshold to win is 3.25%, so a party opposed by any less than 96.5% of Israelis can still win. This creates a many party system in which Israel is controlled by a minority party with a majority coalition government. This means that if the sitting Prime Minister loses the support of any minor party within their coalition they can be unseated by a vote of no confidence of parliament. There is no mechanism for recall of a specific person.
"Elections in Israel are based on nationwide proportional representation. The electoral threshold is currently set at 3.25% ... The Knesset is elected for a four-year term, although most governments have not served a full term... Israel has a multi-party system based on coalition governments as no party has ever won a majority of seats in a national election. ... Suffrage is universal to all Israeli citizens above the age of 18..." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Israel
"After an election, the President, ... chooses the Knesset member most likely to have the ability to form a viable (coalition) government. While this typically is the leader of the party receiving the most seats, it is not required to be so. .. That member has up to 42 days to negotiate with the different parties, and then present his or her government to the Knesset for a vote of confidence. If the Knesset approves the proposed government (by a vote of at least 61 members), he or she becomes Prime Minister."
"Early elections can be called by a vote of the majority of Knesset members, or by an edict of the President, and normally occur on occasions of political stalemate and of the inability of the government to get the parliament's support for its policies." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_system_of_government#Executive_branch
In practice, this means that Netanyahu, the current and longtime prime minister from the Likud party (right wing) has to maintain the support of the far far right parties or else he will lose the prime ministership (and be vulnerable to personal prosecution in the same way Trump is being brought up on charges he was immune to when he was sitting president.)
This system is highly vulnerable to vote-splitting due to the 'choose-one party' ballot and then again because the prime minister is almost always selected by a plurality of parliament. The fact that there are so many parties maximizes the impact and likelihood that vote-splitting will lead to unrepresentative results, and the fact that there are so many parties and that most are tiny means that voters can't reasonably predict which minor parties might be viable to challenge the sitting prime minister. Strategic voting attempts to try and prevent vote-splitting is likely going to be ineffective. This also prevents new parties from being able to gain viability and essentially creates the illusion of choice and representation with nothing to show for it.
The Israeli system seems to be specifically designed to be as polarizing as possible. The low thresholds give voters no accountability and no leverage or power over the government (ability to prevent someone polarizing from taking office or remove them from office). It also gives unpopular and polarizing elected officials maximum leverage over the government.
It's no surprise that this is essentially the same system that was in place at the rise of the NAZI Party and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.
My question here is for PR advocates who argue that any version of PR is better than any non-PR system. Do you still think that and if so why?
I strongly believe that with PR the devil is in the details and I only support PR if the details are such that there is local representation, that the thresholds are not too low, that the system selects for less polarizing representatives of varying factions when possible, and that polarizing and unrepresentative factions are not given too much leverage. That all goes way beyond simply picking the best voting method and requires that all the details of the system are in sync and are designed to collectively balance the competing goals of the country.
My other question is for those of you who have looked into the Israeli system and electoral reform climate specifically. What does the Israeli electoral reform movement look like, what are people advocating, and what could be a viable way to stop the bleeding here, literally and figuratively?
@sarawolk I agree that the political situation in Israel is highly problematic and that the influences of far-right figures like Smotrich and Ben Gvir are amplified beyond what one would expect based on their parties’ vote shares. However, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Israel’s version of PR for this. Instead, my claim is that no other electoral system that is currently in use by any other government on the planet would make Israel significantly better off.
What if, instead of PR, we had single-winner districts? You might expect this to cause fewer people on the fringes to get elected, but I’m skeptical since different regions of Israel are very different culturally. Tel Aviv and Haifa are liberal. Jerusalem is conservative. The settlements are extremely conservative. Israel’s most notable minorities (Arabs and the ultra-orthodox) tend to be clustered. With single-winner districts, people from across the political spectrum would still be elected; I have little doubt that Ben Gvir-ists would do well in the settlements. (The far left, i.e. Labor and Meretz, could suffer significantly, however.)
So how would things be different with single-winner districts? First of all, it would open the door to gerrymandering. I shudder to think what might happen if that became a possibility. In Israel, I think it is extremely important to deny politicians (or even ordinary citizens) from such means of gaming the system. Second, it would make the outcomes a lot less proportionate. I don’t know who would come out on top from this, but, in general, injecting random noise shouldn’t be expected to make things better. And insofar as the noise isn’t random I’m even more concerned.
Note that none of this is dependent on which single-winner method is used. Plurality, STAR, and Condorcet would all be vulnerable to these issues (though of course Plurality would be the worst by far). In short, I think that switching to single-member districts has little upside and could make things a whole lot worse.
What about tweaks to the PR system? I don’t think switching to multi-member districts with a List PR system would accomplish much of anything; the outcomes would still be generally proportional. Likewise with MMP; we’d still have similar distributions of seats and similar negotiation dynamics.
STV could make political parties less cohesive and that might help; one of the most likely ways for Netanhayu to be removed from power now is for some members of his Likud party to defect and call for a vote of no confidence. But remember: the reason Netanyahu came to power most recently is that the parties who constituted the previous governing coalition failed to be cohesive, so there were new elections that were won by Likud and the far-right parties.
One interesting option is increasing the threshold of support that a party needs to get elected. If this threshold was high enough it would keep the fringe parties out of the Knesset. But the political context in Israel is worth remembering: Ben Gvir and Smotrich don’t have the most toxic parties in the country in the public perception. That distinction belongs to the Arabs. In the lead-up to the last election, the Likud argued that you had to vote for them because if Yesh Atid (the center-left party) won they’d form a coalition with Arab parties who would insist on terrible things like allowing the creation of a “terror state” (i.e. an independent Palestine; this claim was pretty ridiculous, by the way). So the only way to stop the Arabs was to support Netanyahu. The bottom line: any reform that marginalized the fringes enough to keep Ben Gvir out of the Knesset would probably keep the Arabs out as well.
You mention vote-splitting as a problem in Israel’s system, and this is basically indisputable. Netanyahu’s faction won a majority of seats in the last election without a majority of votes because two left-wing parties failed to reach the threshold (if not for vote-splitting, the Knesset would have been split 60-60; see https://fruitsandvotes.wordpress.com/2022/11/02/coordination-failure-under-nationwide-pr-manufactured-majority-in-israel-2022/). There are easy opportunities for improvement here, but I don’t think the problem is all that severe. Vote-splitting can cause a handful of seats to go the wrong way from time to time, but it’s not the root of Israel’s problems.
Relatedly, I strongly disagree with the claim, “This also prevents new parties from being able to gain viability and essentially creates the illusion of choice and representation with nothing to show for it.” I assure you, the problem with Israeli politics is not a lack of viable political parties, and reaching 3.25% is not an outrageously tall order for someone looking to build a movement. (There is also the option of forming an alliance with another party for the purpose of an election, running on a joint list, and then negotiating coalition agreements separately.) Israelis have many choices, real choices, at the polling booth, and a wide range of minorities are represented.
Insofar as electoral systems are concerned, the problem in Israel is the same thing that allowed the Nazis to gain power: A majority of a majority can control the government, even if it is unpopular among a true majority of the population. We can see this with Israel’s judicial reforms that would abolish the independence of the judiciary and eliminate the only check on the Knesset’s power. Over 60% of Israelis oppose these reforms, including many Likud members. And people feel strongly enough about this that it caused the largest protest movement in Israeli history. But, as far as I remember, more Likud members support the reforms than oppose them.
This flaw is hardly unique to Israel’s system. In the United States it’s worse: Congress is elected in a sufficiently disproportional manner that a majority of the minority can hobble the government.
How Israel’s system is supposed to avoid the current predicament with the far right wielding so much power is through shifting coalitions: Instead of forming a coalition with Jewish Power and Religious Zionism (the far-right parties) the Likud would coalition with more centrist parties. What went wrong is Netanyahu. He has thoroughly alienated the parties that are ideologically closest to his, and they have no interest in forming a coalition that would protect Netanyahu from prosecution. This has left Netanyahu at the mercy of the far right. Still, I wouldn’t call this a complete fluke. It’s a problem that can befall any PR system in the world.
(Side note: Many left and center-left parties offered to form a unity government with Netanyahu still as prime minister after the attacks on October 7, on the condition that Jewish Power and Religious Zionism were excluded from the government. Netanyahu declined.)
It’s worth noting that STAR Voting and Condorcet have their own, very different solution to the majority-of-the-majority problem (when combined with primary reform): They give the minority faction(s) a strong voice in which politicians in the majority faction will be elected, such that these politicians won’t be beholden solely to voters in the majority faction. So the will of the true majority takes precedence. So long as gerrymandering and the like don’t mess things up.
So, do I think that any version of PR is better than any non-PR system? Yeah, pretty much. Israel’s system has its problems, but I don’t think they’re greater than the problems of single-winner systems. The experience of Israel has somewhat disenchanted me with List PR, and I no longer believe it’s dramatically better than STAR Voting with single-winner districts. But I don’t think it’s worse, either.
To the best of my knowledge, the Israeli electoral reform movement is nonexistent. As for what it will take to stop the bleeding…well, no electoral reform will eliminate, or even substantially ameliorate, the violence between Israel and Palestine. In my opinion, that would require (a) a two-state solution, and (b) the destruction of Hamas. The problems that we, as voting methods reformers, can hope to work on are Israel’s internal woes.
I see two institutional changes that would greatly improve the stability and long-term future of Israel. First, there should be supermajority requirements to make changes to the structure of government; a slim majority shouldn’t wield unlimited power. (It is worth noting that Israel doesn’t have a constitution. Instead it has “basic laws”, and all it takes is a simple majority of the Knesset to pass them.) Second, I do think that changing voting methods can greatly improve the state of Israeli politics, but the kind of system that would be a major improvement is not in use anywhere.
What would be a major improvement is a system that provides politicians with an incentive to care about the opinions of opposing voters while also yielding proportional representation. I view this as the holy grail of electoral reform. The main paths to addressing polarization are (a) incentivizing politicians to care about the preferences of a wider swath of the electorate, and (b) having more than two parties with substantial representation so that no one party can expect to obtain a majority on its own, leading to coalition agreements and shifting coalitions, and preventing the binary “us vs. them” dynamic that is so pernicious in American parties. Single-winner STAR and Condorcet achieve (a) and PR achieves (b). The ideal system would achieve both - and I believe that anything less than this would fail to significantly help Israel. This is a big part of why I’m interested in STAR-PR; such systems are possible, and by researching them and promoting a good one we might eventually help my new country of Israel.
What if, instead of PR, we had single-winner districts?
I didn't propose any specific reform, and I certainly didn't suggest a polar opposite 180 degree switch from At Large Closed List PR to gerrymandered single-winner districts.
I don't think starting with a specific policy proposal is the way to go for this conversation. Rather, I think it's valuable to look at the current system and it's known impacts and then see if that matches what we are seeing play out on the ground. Then look at what we would want in a better future, and look at what electoral changes could solve the problems identified and get those kind of outcomes. Then look at what a path to get there might be.
In general I tend to caution sweeping multi-part changes with multiple complex impacts and intersections because it's hard to tell what impact each change independently has and because it's very difficult to weigh the pros and cons of each facet of the proposal. I caution people from looking at any extreme situation and saying "this is terrible, let's do the exact polar opposite."
"I assure you, the problem with Israeli politics is not a lack of viable political parties, and reaching 3.25% is not an outrageously tall order for someone looking to build a movement."
It's a glass ceiling. Getting a seat does not make a party viable or any more likely to get their ideas for Israel into practice and it certainly doesn't get them in a position to challenge Netanyahu for the prime ministership.
I think switching to multi-member districts with something more like 5 seats per district makes a ton of sense. While a racist Ben Gvir or a racist Hamas party would not likely fare well with a 20% threshold, the parties who are willing to broker peace and collaborate would be able to hit those numbers. Rather than having an Arab party it might be a few parties that include Arabs and Jews who support Arab interests for example but offer different solutions. And Arab/Jewish interests in Tel Aviv are very different from Arab/Jewish interests in Jerusalem.
A 3.5% threshold is low enough to platform the worst extremists and give them insane leverage over the entire government. That's a huge problem.
I definitely think Israel could have a better system of PR, but that's not to say the main problems with Israel's government would automatically go away.
Closed party lists are a problem for individual accountability. Voting for one party means there is vote-splitting, as said. Having a minimum threshold also means more wasted votes.
A candidate-based system, with presumably smaller regions, would be preferable in my opinion, and there would be no need for a discussion about whether a minimum threshold was good or bad.
Under PR, if the government is not roughly in the centre of the parliamentary make-up, then a majority of MPs should be able to cause the government to fall. And while the inaccuracy of a particular PR method can cause a faction with a minority of popular support to get a majority, as Marcus says, it's unlikely to make a massive difference. So really, under a system of PR that works and a parliamentary system that works, a stable government would have to be around the centre of public opinion. Whether that is in fact the case in Israel, I'm not really in a position to say.
But certainly, candidate-based systems mean that corrupt politicians at the top of their party can't simply assume they will be elected, and that would be a start.
Having a minimum threshold also means more wasted votes.
In choose-one, yes. In systems were voters can support multiple parties the Ghallager index automatically goes way up, and then in systems were voters can show nuanced degrees of support (0-5 stars) the number of totally unrepresented voters in a PR system would approach zero in most cases.
A candidate-based system, with presumably smaller regions, would be preferable in my opinion, and there would be no need for a discussion about whether a minimum threshold was good or bad.
I personally prefer candidate based PR to party list in general, but I haven't really thought that through in a Israeli/Palestinian context. In terms of Israel they currently are at one extreme of the spectrum where voters have as little say over parties candidates as possible. I definitely think any change in the opposite direction would help, even just going from Closed list to Open List. That would allow every party to ideally veto any of their candidates and leaders parroting genocidal war crime type talking points without turning their back on the party platform entirely. This seems like an easy change to start with since it would probably be less controversial than other ideas I support.
So really, under a system of PR that works and a parliamentary system that works, a stable government would have to be around the centre of public opinion. Whether that is in fact the case in Israel, I'm not really in a position to say.
My very limited understanding of Israeli politics leads me to believe that Netanyahu has been wildly unpopular most of my life, but he maintains power because nobody has been able to successfully challenge him and hold the position. I see Israel as not stable, but stagnant. I'd love to see actual Israeli citizens chime in here with some lived experience on the ground.