Tuesday, February 24, 2009

So the people didn't vote the way the Israel Democracy Institute thinks they should and suddenly electoral reform is all the rage.

There are a number of directions that reform can take and they need to be carefully distinguished. The one most often discussed is switching from proportional to first-past-the-post regional elections. I've already discussed that before. In short, the idea has some merit but plenty of risks. It's certainly not the most pressing reform.

Less discussed but simpler and more pressing is how the Knesset forms a government. One current favorite idea of the leftist elites is that the head of largest party should be named prime minister with no Knesset ratification necessary. Coincidentally, in the current situation that would make Tzipi Livni prime minister despite coalitional support approaching zero.

That fact alone should explain the abject stupidity of the idea but let me explain in broader terms. The effect of changes to a mechanism for coalition formation is not only at the last stage. The main effect is the one on the strategic considerations of the voter. When voters know that the largest part will get a huge bonus (in this case, its head becoming prime minister), they have a very big incentive to vote for a party that has a chance to be the biggest one. Such incentive for strategic voting already exists but the proposed change would exacerbate it. This would either destroy small parties (if their voters shift to the large parties) or it would turn them into spoiler parties (if their voters do not shift).

As it happens, I'm not a huge fan of small parties (they have a natural tendency to focus on narrow interests at the expense of broader ones), but it would be catastrophic, socially and politically, for them to be wiped out. Furthermore, if the voters for a given small party belong predominantly to a certain bloc, it would be a distortion of the voters' will for voters for that party to harm the chances of their preferred bloc to form the government. Supporters of this proposal understand full well that, since the right is divided fairly evenly among religious and secular parties, the proposal is advantageous for the left which is not inherently divided (except for the Arab parties).

From a purely objective point of view, the proposal also facilitates a situation in which the government and the Knesset are at complete loggerheads, potentially creating paralysis.

A much more reasonable proposal is that parties be allowed to form blocs prior to elections that would name a joint candidate for prime minister. All votes for any of those parties would then go towards the bloc's candidate for prime minister. The prime ministerial candidate of the largest bloc would automatically be named prime minister.

The strategic effect would be that, most likely, two blocs would result, since voters will only vote for a party in a bloc with a legitimate chance to be the largest one. The advantages of this method are manifold:
1. Voters for any party would know in advance where their party stood. This is simply more fair to voters.
2. The political power of the larger parties would increase since post-election horse-trading would be eliminated. It would also be harder for small parties to jump blocs after elections, having sold their voters on a particular they (For this advantage to be fully realized, the conditions under which a government could be brought down through no-confidence would need to be tightened a bit.)
3. The numerical power of small parties would remain stable, if not increase, since the incentive to jump to a large party is greatly diminished. (This point could make it a hard sell to the big parties, who might not be savvy enough to realize that point 2 is more important than point 3.)
4. Extremist parties that can't join any bloc would be severely weakened.
5. The chances of ending up with a prime minister who does not have broad Knesset support are small, since the government is guaranteed to have at least the support of the largest bloc. I concede that it is theoretically possible for there to be three blocs with the largest one having only 40-something seats, but this sounds like a stretch (and it wouldn't be as catastrophic as, say, 28 seats).

There's much more to say on this topic but I'd be happy to get comments on this teaser.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forming blocs before the election is certainly beneficial to voters - but why would it benefit the small parties? In the current system, their power comes from their numbers as needed by the larger parties to form a government. In the proposed system, they would be committing without knowing their strength, and the larger parties could take them for granted. Any promises of cabinet posts would have to be done pre-election.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

The advantage lies in the fact that the voter who is freed up from worrying about getting a prime minister elected can vote for a small party. For example, when direct elections for PM were used, the small parties got much bigger. The tradeoff is that the bigger parties gain political power and the smaller parties get numerical power.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Had your plan been implemented in the recent elections and say Meretz and Labor had announced prior support for Livin, then the shift in leftist votes from Labor and Meretz that occured would not have happened and Kadima would have ended up with 18-20 seats they were polling up to a week before the election and the start of the Tzippi or Bibi campaign - but the overall seats on the left remain the same. Let's assume that Lieberman had supported Bibi prior to the election and the charedim had remained neutral (a not unlikely scenario) and not announced a candidate (or vice versa), so the Likud ends up at 23 and Lieberman at 19 instead of the switch rom Lieberman to Bibi that happened in reality as a response to the Kadima campaign. Let's also assume that the far right goes with the religious parties - or acts like the arab parties and stays neutral - again a not unlikely scenario. In theory you can end up with a PM from the 3rd largest party that is on its way to dissolution rather than one of the big 2. I don't thik that the head of the 3rd largest party who basically can't form a coalition should automatically become PM.

6:36 PM  
Anonymous JoeSettler said...

Been discussing that here (and there).

11:34 PM  
Anonymous zalman said...

Why would political power of the larger parties increase under the "head of largest bloc" system? Post-election horse-trading would be eliminated. But what about pre-election horse-trading?

And given that there would be pre-election horse-trading, why would smaller parties suffer more under the "head of largest party" system than under the "head of largest bloc" system?

11:57 PM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Perhaps I shouldn't have used a specific example to make my point. But your proposal can very well lead to a situation where the PM is from the "losing" bloc and/or the 3rd largest party.
I don't believe that the winning "bloc" should be penalized for not engaging in pre-election horse-trading - especially if there is a clear winning bloc. This undermines the basic foundations of parliamentary representative democracy.

So I am basically left to accept Dr. Aviad HaCohen's position - the system should not be changed (with the exception of my caveat as per my comment on your previous post regarding regional elections). And the right (and now left) should understand the futility of "strategic voting" and all sorts of other manipulations. In previous elections, right-wing religious settlers gave their votes to Eli Aflalo and Ruchama Avraham. In this past elections socialist, secular kibbutzniks gave their vote to bend-over backwards, but still religious settlers such as Otniel Shneller in a left-center party. These are the ridiculous results that strategic voting leads to.

In any event, the elites will continue to rule the country. Miki Eitan's opening remaks on choosing an Israeli constitution over a Jewish constitution (said in order to provoke religious as much as to woo Kadima into the coalition) the should be as clear an indication as any that - once again - during this knesset term the Constitution Committee will just turn paper and no constitution will be passed.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

The small parties leverage before elections isn't that great because their need to get into a good bloc is as great as the bloc's need to get them. If they don't their voters will abandon them. The largest party system is much worse for the smaller parties because it forces people who want to influence choice of pm to vote for large parties; the largest bloc system allows voters to influence choice of pm by voting for any party in the bloc.

I think your scenario is farfetched. It is much more likely, though not definite, that only two blocs will be viable, precisely because rational parties (spare the cynicism) will want to avoid the scenario you describe.

As for Miki's comment, he merely said that the constitution of Israel can't be identical with the constitution of the Jewish people, i.e. the Torah. He did not say and did not mean that the constitution should be more Israeli than Jewish.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Had your suggestion been implemented in the most recent election, my scenario could have happened precisely. the Kadima pre-elction bloc could have more seats than the Likud pre-election bloc Who becomes PM?

Also, why is your proposal different than the direct election - there too we had a clear decision as to who would be PM and tightened up the no-confidence rules (which are still in place)?

12:58 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

The religious and right wing parties would all have supported Netanyahu. They'd be crazy not to.

The difference between this and direct elections is that 1) direct elections can result in a PM with little support in the Knesset but this method can't and 2) having declared their choice of bloc before elections, it would be a great political liability for small parties to jump ship.

In addition, I'd tighten the conditions for no-confidence even more. First of all, you should need to propose an alternative government as part of a no-confidence motion. Second, the budget shouldn't be a confidence vote (alternatively, it should bring down the Knesset, not just the government).

1:31 AM  
Blogger chardal said...

How about just leaving the voting rules as they are but passing a law that the PM can only appoint ministers who were not on any of the party lists.

He would have to choose someone based on competancy and it would cause a bit of seperation between legislative and executive powers.

1:49 PM  
Blogger treppenwitz said...

"it would be catastrophic, socially and politically, for [small parties] to be wiped out"

'splain please Lucy

11:23 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Unlike countries in which outlier groups are essentially more radical versions of mainstream groups, Israeli society splits up along a variety of dimensions. While it's true that giving every splinter representation in the Knesset is inefficient, forcing all groups into two parties would be overkill, since it would effectively disenfranchise a fair number of them. This would probably result in frustrations being expressed in extra-parliamentary ways (in other words, instead of screaming in the Knesset, they'll be rioting in the streets). Now can I be in the show, Ricky?

12:43 AM  
Blogger HolyCityPrayer said...

"it would be catastrophic, socially and politically, for [small parties] to be wiped out"


"forcing all groups into two parties would be overkill, since it would effectively disenfranchise a fair number of them."

I continue to disagree. I am of the BL/IL demographic, but am in the Likud, where I see all kinds. As we already see a much higher representation of religious in the Likud list, we would see more charedim, olim, and others as well. That is what happens in a democratic party, which the Likud is [the closest to:-)].

That being said, I am a believer in direct representation, which would calm things down, and allow me to vote for someone who I think would do a good job in general and representing my interests as well.

(hope this is coherent enough; running on empty writing this at the end of taanit esther)r

5:16 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

As you know, I'm also in the BY/IL demographic and an active member of the Likud. So here's something to ponder. Had the method proposed in the direct elections bill considered during the last Knesset been used during the elections in 2006, the Likud would have gotten a grand total of... 0 seats.

5:42 PM  
Blogger HolyCityPrayer said...

Ben - huh?
Please quote the pertinent bill, I cannot imagine how the Likud would get 0 seats..

12:15 AM  

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