The Israeli Elections: Reform Law Has Not Changed Voting, but It May Affect Coalition Process

Political parties seeking entry into the 13th Knesset will have a higher barrier to scale than they had for the 12th — but not by much.

An amendment passed last year raising the election threshold from 1 to 1.5 percent of the vote cast has failed to achieve its first goal, which was to deter splinter parties with little hope of success from running in the elections.

Last year, when a list of candidates needed 1 percent of the vote — then about 26,000 ballots — 27 lists ran, of which 15 were elected.

This year, considering that the electorate has grown considerably, a minimum of about 44,000 votes will be required for entry into the chamber.

Undeterred, 25 would-be factions have completed the registration procedures to the satisfaction of the Central Elections Committee. They have paid their 23,000 shekel entry fee (slightly under $10,000) and submitted their verifiable lists of at least 1,500 sponsors.

Among the aspirants are 10 parties that have never won a seat but think they can this time.

On the face of it, there has hardly been a major streamlining of Israel’s notoriously fragmented political structure.

But there are those who say that in order to work in the next elections four years from now, the higher threshold must be seen to work in this one.

If, in the upcoming elections, substantially fewer than the 15 lists of 1988 get into the Knesset, that may well have a chastening effect on the political ambitions of assorted would-be national leaders when the time comes to elect the 14th Knesset.

In fact, such a reduction of the number of factions in the Knesset would be a great success in itself.

The higher threshold, moreover, renders unlikely the fairly common one-person party. In the new Knesset, the smallest delegation will probably consist of two members.

That is because the difference between the new threshold of 1.5 percent and the “votes value” of two Knesset members — 1/60 or 1.66 percent — is so small.

Another new law forbids Knesset members from splitting away from their parties to become single-member factions.

But beyond such calculations, the present election campaign must be seen as the first stage of a lengthy process of constitutional reform, which began by raising the threshold and will continue with the implementation of a new law providing for the direct election of the prime minister.

That measure, enacted by the 12th Knesset, will become effective when the next Knesset is elected, by statute in 1996, if not before.

Then, and presumably in all elections to follow, voters will cast two ballots — one for prime minister and one for the party of their choice.

Should that electoral reform enjoy success, it might catalyze efforts to introduce some form of district or constitutional element into the Israeli political process, possibly in the form of a mixed proportional representation-constitutional system.

It is justifiably said that Israeli elections do not end on polling day but merely move from the first stage of the process of forming a new government to the second.

That is because no party in Israel has ever won an outright majority; nor is any party likely to do so as long as the present proportional system remains in force.

Governments are invariably formed in a drawn-out process of negotiations among the parties after the president has assigned one of the party leaders the task of trying to set up a government.

The president need not confer this upon the leader of the largest party. After consulting with all the factions in the new Knesset, the president selects the candidate with the best chance of forming a government, regardless of its strength at the polls.

This year’s coalition-forming process will take place in the shadow of the new direct election law. The parties will negotiate in the knowledge that if they fail, or if the government they set up falls, the new law will be invoked and will be applied in early elections.

It is hard to guess in advance how this new factor will impact the political players.

Conventional wisdom is that many of the small parties that fear the new law and opposed it in the last Knesset will try to get it overturned in the new Knesset, or at least postpone its implementation.

The small parties therefore will be vitally interested in the survival of the new government and loath to cause a coalition crisis that would threaten its longevity.

This logic presumably will apply to small parties that are partners in the coalition. But it could also apply to small parties in the opposition, since they fear the effects of the new law too.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party leader, has been one of the most ardent advocates of the direct election law. He believes — and the opinion polls bear him out — that he would win a landslide victory in a direct, personal fight against Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir.

Rabin’s strategy in the next Knesset, especially if he heads a shaky coalition, may be to bring about its early collapse so that he can run again under the new law.

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