The worst way to form a government, except for all the others

Earlier this week, Avigdor Lieberman decided, for some reason, that he would not join PM Netanyahu’s coalition (yes, he gave ‘reasons’, but nobody takes them seriously). Coalition negotiations with Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, the last to get on board, continued until a few hours before the deadline for Netanyahu to present his putative coalition of 61 Knesset members to President Rivlin.

As I make the final update to my post on Thursday morning, the excitement is over. Bennett demanded and got the Justice Ministry portfolio for Ayelet Shaked. There will be a Likud government with 61 mandates, the narrowest possible margin, a government that can be knocked over by the defection of a single member.

There were other possibilities. Netanyahu and Bennett might not have come to agreement, or some other member of the coalition suddenly might have decided to make a new demand despite having signed an agreement. Netanyahu might have chosen to invite Labor’s Herzog into a unity government; given the proper inducements, he would have agreed despite his protestations.

If Netanyahu hadn’t succeeded at the last moment, the President might have given the job of forming the coalition to some other Knesset member, like Herzog, who would probably have had even more trouble than Netanyahu. He might have tried to force a unity government. There is even the possibility that no member of the Knesset could form a coalition, in which case there would have to be new elections.

This is tremendously frustrating. There are big problems — internal and external — that require attention, and the PM and various party leaders who are ministers have spent almost two months negotiating with each other, having meetings (open and secret), hatching plots (Lieberman), etc. This is after the excruciating election campaign that went on from December to March.

I admire PM Netanyahu for being able to carry on at least the most important affairs of state during this protracted period, but this system is dysfunctional. And a 61-member coalition means that it isn’t over — Netanyahu will have to try to broaden the coalition after its inauguration unless he wants even more instability.

The parliamentary system is a good one, because it makes the government highly responsive to the will of the electorate, as expressed by their representatives in the Knesset. An ineffective government can be removed at any time. If only the US had such a system, Obama would be long gone! But the coalition process is problematic.

One suggestion is to simply get rid of the process by appointing as Prime Minister the leader of the party with the greatest number of seats. But this could have unintended consequences, if there are more than two parties in the race. Suppose there were three parties, two on the Right and one on the Left. If the right-wing parties received 39 seats each, and the single left-wing party got 52, the latter would win by a large margin — but the clear preference of the electorate for a right-wing government would be thwarted.

Another possibility would be to elect the Knesset and then have the MKs choose a Prime Minister from among themselves, by majority vote. One problem with this is that it removes the direct connection between the voter and the PM that is important if the people are to have confidence in the PM. Worse, it would produce backroom wheeling-and-dealing similar to what goes on in coalition negotiations, except that there wouldn’t be explicit coalition agreements.

What about direct election of a Prime Minister? Israel tried American-style separate elections for the Knesset and the Prime Minister in 1996 and 1999. This proved unsatisfactory because the elected PM didn’t necessarily have the base needed in the Knesset to form a stable coalition. Other suggestions that detach the PM from the Knesset could bring about the kind of paralysis that has characterized the relationship between the US President and the Congress.

Yet another idea would be to raise the minimum percentage of votes needed to enter the Knesset from the present 3.5% (5 Knesset seats) to a much larger value and then require that each party designate another party that would get its votes if it did not reach the threshold. This would make it more likely that one of the larger parties would get a majority, and simplify coalition negotiations if not. But it would also reduce the representation of minority views in the Knesset, in effect disenfranchising their voters (it could also produce an outcome with two large Jewish parties, each without a majority, and one smaller Arab party holding the balance of power).

Despite the frustration, this isn’t a simple problem, especially since the political propensity is to find ways to exploit unplanned loopholes in any system. Possibly, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous comment on democracy, the coalition system is the worst way to form a government — except for all the others.

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One Response to The worst way to form a government, except for all the others

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I don’t think anyone is pleased with the current system. I also believe that no one has ever really been pleased with the system. And I do not know what the proper alternative is.
    I also am not pleased with the coalition politics and the result of the negotiations. The previous government had a sense that the ultra-orthodox sector had to somehow change its ways. This is not only a question of fairness in Army service. It is also a question of the economic future of the country, and educating in basic skills required for participation in an an advanced economy. All of this is now cancelled and the ultra- orthodox again will be paid to avoid contributing to the country.
    The election in this sense did signal the triumph of the Zionist majority but rather of the anti-Zionist right over the Anti- Zionist Left. This is preferable for the number one issue facing the country, Security but it is not a good alternative.

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