Direct Election of the Prime Minister
The History and Outcome of Israel’s Experiment with Direct Democracy
Andrew C. Smith
Social and Political History of Israel
The 1990s witnessed a blossoming of new direct democracy trends throughout the world. From referendum to institutional change, it seemed that a fever gripped the world in an attempt to overcome intermediary governmental mechanisms separating the people from their governments. (Scarrow 2001). This direct democracy suggested a new era in politics in many democratic countries and was hailed by some as a great historic change. This was especially true within Israel.
In 1992, the Israeli Knesset enacted a new law governing the electoral process “which calls for the direct election of the prime minister.” This reform was the result of decades of struggle against the electoral and political norms that had been instituted in the late 40s and 50s and brought with it “a dramatic change in the competitive electoral orientation of the Israeli party system.” (Hazan 1999, 163). To be first tested in the elections of 1996, the new system created a new paradigm of democratic governance:
The Israeli case is a synthesis of both parliamentary and presidential regime types, in which the elements are equally balanced, and not a fluctuation between the prevalence of one over the other. Israel, therefore, is no longer purely parliamentary and has not become purely presidential nor semi-presidential. In other words, as of the 1996 elections Israel became an institutionally unique and hybrid type of political regime. (Hazan 1999, 165).
The new system failed: less than a decade later, the reform was repealed. For those who viewed reform as vital to the success of the state, this failure represented a chilling moment. Many had tried for decades to bring about the change that they sought, and after finding the “perfect storm” needed to bring about reform, it was found to be lacking in many regards.
This paper will discuss the history of the reform attempts and the events immediately prior to the passing of direct election. It will cover the major changes that were enacted and their effects. Particularly, it will discuss the expectations of the reforms, their claims, hopes and reasons for choosing the type of reform they did, as well as the realities that stemmed from the reform and the resulting consequences of the reform experiment on the Israeli political and electoral system.
The history of attempted reform in the Israeli state dates nearly to the establishment of the state. Certain aspects of the political, and particularly the electoral, system have begged reform since the earliest days of the late 40s and early 50s. Some of the aspects of the electoral system that particularly were targets for change were the extreme proportional representation system wherein the polity itself stood as a single district and the extremely low electoral threshold (originally at 1%, but which has been raised a number of times until today when it stands at 2%). Within the political system one of the most debated issues of reform is that of enacting a fully written constitution to better define the processes, powers and politics of the state.
A number of proposals have been heard in the Knesset for the “correcting” of these issues. Ben Gurion himself wished “to replace the nationwide party-list PR system with a simple majority (winner-takes-all) system, based on the British model of single-member constituencies.” (Brichta 1998, 184). This initial proposal has been followed through the years by many more attempts.
The failed proposals encompassed practically every possible form of change, including: single-member constituencies; multi-member constituencies, with and without national pools; the single-transferable vote; thresholds of up to 10 per cent; a reduction in the number of MKs; and even proposals for a presidential system. (Hazan 1996, 24).
None of these major reforms made it very far within the Knesset. The political makeup of the state can be said to account for this failure as far as the first decades of its history are concerned. With the Mapai/Labor party domination from the 50s through until the late 70s there was little need for electoral and political reform. Most of the country subscribed to the same political and social philosophies rendering moot any oppositional voices or calls for reform by sheer numbers and consensus.
It wasn’t until “the Revolution” of 1977 when Menachem Begin and his coalition of parties within the Likud was able to defeat the longstanding Labor alignment at the polls that the voices of reform could even hope to be heard over the majority. Yet, this still allowed only the barest possibility of change in the air as far as political reform was concerned. However, this development and others were very important to the reform movements.
The claim is that these background factors made the ground more fertile for reform and also supplied windows of opportunity that would ease its promotion. These background factors did not, in and of themselves, lead to reform and their value in terms of promoting reform was as a result of human action. (Rahat 2008, 113).
Thus, these factors of historic political importance helped to establish the circumstances necessary for future reforms to the political system. However, these factors would need to come together at just the right moment and be manipulated in just the right way for the reformers to have any chance of gaining enough support for their changes. “A survey of the pre-1988 period reveals that there were individual politicians and academics who considered government system reform. But no serious attempt was made to promote these ideas until the late 1980s.” (Rahat 2008, 127). It was necessary that numerous political situations and conditions converged at just the right moment to create the atmosphere necessary for the reforms to be enacted. These situations consisted of: 1- a divided and relatively equal political spectrum resulting in government stagnation, 2- the rising star of the smaller political parties (particularly the religious oriented parties) demanding and receiving disproportionate amounts of political power, 3- a rising degree of political “horse-trading” and corruption culminating in what has become known as the “filthy trick” of Israeli politics and 4- a serendipitously timed proposal by a number of academic elites.
A Divided Political Arena
The ascendency of the Likud to power produced an era characterized by a two-party dominated system. The Likud and Labor found themselves of near equal strength, requiring them to broker coalition deals with smaller representational parties within the Knesset in order to garner the support necessary to gain a majority and build a strong enough coalition government. This resulted in the system being “characterized by two large parties of similar size forming the nucleus of two party blocs. These two blocs, commonly labeled left and right, crystallized around the major cleavage dimension of security, peace and the future of the territories.” (Arian and Shamir 2001, 693). The Likud held a slight superiority within the political sphere, but it wasn’t enough to completely discredit Labor. “Only in the 1980s did the coalition system’s deficiencies preponderate. The party system became extremely polarized…The two blocs were distinctly divided by three major overlapping cleavages:” ethnicity, religiosity, and hawkishness. (Brichta 1998, 182-183). Generally speaking, the Likud was supported by the Sephardi, religious and hawkish voters, while the Labor drew from the Ashkenazi, secular doves. For many years during this period the two were so evenly matched that the only way out of stalemate were unity governments (1984-88, 1988-90). Because of this, the growing public opinion was that stalemate and stagnation as well as perceived notions of weakness and instability were the hallmarks of the Israeli Knesset and government. “Paradoxically, Israel did not suffer from excessive governmental instability before [the reform]. There was, however, a perception of instability because the fact that the two large political blocs were almost evenly matched seriously complicated the task of the prime minister in keeping the governing coalition together.” (Arian 2005, 219). The divided political arena helped create the political atmosphere necessary for the reform movement to gain steam and bring change.
The Rise of the Small Parties
This same era also saw the ascendency of the small parties within Israeli politics. “The bipolar system that had consolidated since 1977 gave small parties the power to be king-makers, to decide which of the large parties would govern.” The small parties that rode this position to the highest power and prominence were the religious parties, particularly the ultraorthodox who “exploited their pivotal position to promote religious legislation and enlarge the budgets for their communal religious institutions. Many saw them as cynical exploiters of the system” with an inordinate amount of power for such a small portion of the population.
This power though wasn’t absolute, as the religious parties held each other in check as well as having their power curbed by the unity government that existed through the late 1980s. Yet, “most of these restraints disappeared after the 1988 elections, when the ultraorthodox exclusively captured the pivotal position and won more seats than the [National Religious Party].” (Rahat 2008, 114). They held this position for two years, “increased their demands, competing with each other for more gains from the large parties. Many began to argue that dependence on such parties was actually ‘minority rule.’” (Rahat 2008, 114). Indeed, many “reformers used such events as a ‘proof’ of the pressing need to check the power of the ultraorthodox parties.” (Rahat 2008, 121). This public outcry in and of itself prompted reform attempts:
The demand for government reform was raised together with that for electoral reform. Nevertheless, there were already those who claimed that the remedy to the ultraorthodox’s blackmail power lay clearly with government system reform rather than electoral reform…These events prompted the submission of five different bills that proposed government system reform in December 1988-February 1989. (Rahat 2008, 116-117)
In 1990, this political situation and the public outcry over minority party power provided the political motivation for change and converged with a “dirty trick” to result in the conditions of “a perfect storm” leading to the passage of the reform.
A Dirty, Stinky, Filthy Trick
Members of the Labor party initiated the trick in order to shift the power balance back in their favor. The divided political spectrum with its two main blocs, as has been discussed, had led to a period of seeming stalemate, as neither bloc was able to gather enough votes and support to build a proper coalition. The result was the formation of unity governments.
The first of these unity governments lasted from 1984 until 1988 and was rather effective in dealing with national affairs. Most of its effectiveness though can be attributed to the fact that the government was placed in positions of danger “due to the need to deal with two major crises: the war in Lebanon, which had to be resolved quickly, and the containment of rampant inflation.” Once these crises were dealt with though, partisan politics reemerged and cooperation fell apart between the two parties. (Brichta 1998, 183).
The second national unity government (formed in 1988 after elections returned the same balanced powers to office) found no common ground on which to build a policy discussion. When it was confronted with a large problem, the holes of disagreement could not be patched. “Since this second national unity government was not based on an agreed-upon platform, immobility became its hallmark. Neither partner could agree on a common program to further the peace process and the government disintegrated.” (Brichta 1998, 183). The United States at the time was pressing forward with a distinct peace initiative, the details of which were not particularly well received by the Likud under PM Itshak Shamir. Shimon Peres, the leader of the Labor party saw an opportunity to reduce Likud power and oust the coalition.
Emboldened by “the Likud’s intransigent position toward the peace process” (Brichta 1998), Peres communicated with other willing parties in the Knesset about forming a labor led coalition.
Many signs indicated that Labor was going to vote against the Government in a no-confidence vote that was scheduled for mid-March 1990. Yet Labor intended to stay in the Government, since the defeat of Government would have made it impossible for the PM to fire his ministers and would thus allow Labor to be in a better bargaining position. However, Likud recognized the “trick”…and Shamir fired Peres, which led all of the remaining labor ministers to submit their resignations. (Rahat 2008, 117).
With the vote, Labor managed to persuade just enough votes to oust the Likud-led coalition, the first and only time an expression of no-confidence has been achieved. This victory though was hard won for Peres as he needed to pull all of the political stings at his disposal. Although the opposition consisted of “Labor, the Arabs, the left and the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel, the key to the ‘victory’ of Peres and Labor was the fact that five of the six Knesset members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party absented themselves from the vote.” (Arian 2005, 228). Again, showing the power that the small parties, particularly the religious, had obtained by skillfully playing the large parties off one another.
That power though was just beginning to be wielded. With the Likud government ousted, Peres was given time to form his own Labor led coalition. “To succeed, [he] had to find Knesset members of the other camp who were willing to desert to the Labor side” (Arian 2005, 229) because the ultraorthodox parties “did not automatically join Labor to form a new Government, but instead opened negotiations with both large parties.” (Rahat 2008, 117). He failed in this attempt. “Peres thought he had enough votes. But his plans unraveled when two of the Aguda supporters bolted, despite the discipline that Aguda Knesset members had always demonstrated;” (Arian 2005, 229) he came up short and the opportunity was given back to Likud to from another government. Shamir was eventually able to form his own coalition, and Peres’ trick, labeled “stinky,” “dirty,” and “filthy” in the literature nowadays, backfired.
The entire crisis, with no official leadership for the country, lasted a total of three months, from March to June 1990. This crisis would play a significant role in the future of the reform debate and movement as it significantly illustrated the shortcomings and possible failures of the parliamentary system. Perhaps its most important effect though was the raising of public ire- “the notorious ‘filthy trick’ of Labor failed and bought about a major public outcry for the reform of the political system.” (Brichta 1998, 183). Because of the immobilization of the government for such a long period of time, the politicking and deal making was displayed to an ever more astonished public.
Ultra-Orthodox parties, other small factions, and individual MKs who defected from their parties tried to exploit the situation and made high demands in exchange for their support of either party. These demands included senior governmental and administrative posts, special budgets for affiliated institutions, and safe positions in the large parties’ lists in the next elections. This behavior resulted in public outrage since politics looked, more than ever, as if it was only about money and posts. (Rahat 2008, 117).
The public anger at such actions was impressive, as the common mob began clamoring more and more for political reform. Instead of being largely an issue that was reserved largely for academics and politicians to debate, the problems inherent in the Israeli political system had been put on display for the entire country to see. Yet the problems weren’t new.
In fact, the three-month crisis was unprecedented in only on sense: It starkly exposed the malfunctioning of the Israeli system of government and, more than ever before, made most Israelis aware of the problem. But almost everything that took place between March and June of 1990 had happened before: coalition horse trading; political blackmail and extortion by small extremist parties; shamelessly open political bribery; blatant and obsessive partisanship by the nation’s top policymakers; complete disregard for matters of national interest, such as the state of the economy or the absorption of Soviet Jews; and cynical and paternalistic attitudes toward the Israeli public. What was special about the 1990 spring crisis was that it happened on a larger and more intense scale. (Diamond and Sprinzak 1993, 362)
The public anger and mass response to the governmental failures provided the reform movement with the public support necessary to bring about change. “The pain that this crisis caused the Israeli polity served to accelerate mechanisms for change that were already in motion: a grass-roots movement advocating electoral and constitutional reform swelled in numbers.” (Hazan 1996, 24). Without this declared public support, reform would have been bogged down within the halls of a stalled political system or confined to the periphery of public conscience (as it had been for decades already): “The Stinky Trick…was exploited for the purpose of passing the direct election bills in preliminary and first readings, bringing it to the same legislative stage that electoral reform reached after years of struggle.” (Rahat 2008, 119).
With all of these other situations coming into play at the same time, the reformers needed a single reform plan that could be adopted. Being aware of the need to please and appease multiple sections of the fractured and multifaceted Knesset, as well as the general public, the reformers needed to back a plan that would be, if not acceptable to all parties, at the least bearable, with enough offsetting promises to enable their support. What they found was a serendipitous plan for reform presented not too long before.
In 1987, a group of academics had undertaken to produce the same type of necessary reform to change the system for the better, in effect predicting the crisis that would wrack the country not many years later. These professors from the Tel Aviv University Law School put together a basic reform package consisting of three parts. The first was a proposed mixed electoral system. “They recommended that Israel be divided into 60 single-member constituencies and that the representatives be elected by a simple majority vote. The remaining 60 Knesset members would be elected from a nationwide list” by the PR system already in place, only modified to have a 2.5 percent threshold and a provision by which the number of their seats gained in the constituencies would be subtracted from that obtained in the PR election. (Brichta 1998, 185).
The second proposal was “the adoption of a written constitution, including a bill of rights, based on the blueprint of their unsolicited proposed constitution for the state of Israel.” The third reform that they put forth was direct election of the prime minister “which actually meant a transition from the existing parliamentary system to a mixed premier-parliamentary system.” (Brichta 1998, 185).
The proposal though wasn’t met by approval unanimously, even by those more reform minded. “The professors realized that their proposal the electoral system stood no chance of being passed in the Knesset because of the staunch opposition from the small and medium-sized parties, mainly the religious parties.” (Brichta 1998, 185). These smaller parties feared losing part or all of their representation in the Knesset with the higher threshold, and many other politicians feared that changing the system that drastically would jeopardize chances for reelection.
The second proposal, the written constitution and bill of rights, met with opposition as well. This issue has been contentious throughout Israel’s history, and was opposed mainly by the religious parties who maintain a distinct dislike of establishing such a liberal and “uninspired” document as a foundational document.
The only remaining element of their proposal was the direct election of the prime minister. “Direct election came to the fore, not as an aspect of fundamental electoral reform, but as an alternative to it—a second-best option to be pursued once the smaller parties had effectively vetoed any serious revision of PR.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 112, emphasis in original). This proposal was taken very seriously, and “consequently, four members of different parties agreed to combine their four different private member’s bills into one, calling for direct election of the prime minister.” (Brichta 1998, 185). This would prove a magnificent boon to the reformers as it allowed for the consolidation of their supporters and addition of new support.
This agreement enable reformers to exploit the window of opportunity, opened at the time of the Stinky Trick, to promote legislation as much as possible when there were disagreements on content. At later stages, in order to complete the reform move, reformers would have to gain majority support for one specific version. The “mixed” nature of the reform proposal proved especially helpful in achieving this goal. (Rahat 2008, 128-129).
The mix here refers to adding presidential elements to the parliamentary elements already in place. This mix added incredible power to the developing situation for the reformers by better allowing them to convince skeptical ministers to support their proposal.
This allowed them to present different faces of reform to those with different perceptions of the ideal structure of regime and to those with different, sometimes contradicting, interests…It was also flexible enough to enable shrewd and aggressive reform agents to ‘sell’ different, and even contradicting, versions of the anticipated consequences of reform…The two names of the proposed reform expressed its two faces. One, the direct election of the PM, was a reductionist and clearer label that implied that, after all, it was only a change in the way the PM was to be elected. The second, government system reform, was a name that implied a more general and radical change, but was more ambiguous in its content and could refer to various version of reform. (Rahat 2008, 129).
Thus the reformers were able to use this single element of the originally academic proposal to tap into the circumstances and present their reform initiative and agenda to the differing sides of Israeli politics “to garner support from people with opposing ideologies: from liberals who saw it as supporting…the principle of separation of powers, to authoritarians…who expected that the reform would lead to effective rule by a single strong leader.” (Rahat 2008, 136).
It all comes together…
The “perfect storm” necessary for the reformers to push their agenda came together very serendipitously for them. The reformers were able to make use of a multiplicity of events emerging at roughly the same time to gain the support and the reforms they wanted. The background context of the reform needed to fall into place precisely with an evenly divided political system that allowed for small middle-ground parties to obtain excessive amounts of power within the political structure. This allowed the political contradictions and problems within the system to come to the fore, not remaining hidden behind seemingly well working machinery. The central parties’ excessive deal making and “horse trading” to take advantage of the political situation exposed the extent of the corruption and unabashed violations of ethical arrangements that existed within the political elite to the public. This roused the anger of the public to a fever pitch that was fed more by the seeming minority control taken by the religious parties. The Stinking Trick of Peres was the final straw, bringing public opinion firmly into the reformers’ camp. The presence of a ready-made reform proposal that fit their needs of ambiguity and “sellability” simply completed the necessary prerequisites for their reform movement.
The reformers were able to put together all these factors into a cohesive push for reform.
The link between the solution (direct election of the PM) and the background factors was mainly a creation of the reformers. They used their great skill, as well as their allies inside the Knesset and their extensive resources, to highlight particular problems of the political system and channel dissatisfaction in the direction of the government system reform “solution” rather than any other alternative…The promoters of reform were important less in terms of coming up with the original idea, but rather in terms of transforming it from an abstract idea with no followers into a reform with substantial support, one that would induce others to invest resources in its promotion. If it was not for these promoters, this idea would have remained wishful thinking, and no one would even bother seeking its origins. (Rahat 2008, 127-128).
The reform promoters were simply responsible for exploiting the presence of these factors all at the same time and converting the powers of the mob, the academicians and the politicians into a cohesive and convincing proposal that they were able to drum up support for and pass through the Knesset on 18 March 1992.
The reformers had a lot of reasons for the enacting direct election of the prime minister. Their intent was to change the political system for the better and make the governance of the country run more smoothly and less problematically or “to ameliorate a deteriorating political situation and increase governability in Israel.” (Hazan and Rahat 2000, 1318). Here we will discuss the direct intentions and hopes the reformers had for overcoming the problems that they saw in the political system. In general, the reformers “hoped to 1) strengthen the PM’s legitimacy with a direct voter mandate; 2) ensure that changes of government would come from popular voting; and 3) reduce the size, number and overall influence of smaller parties.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 112). The reformers believed that they could enact all of these changes simply by reforming the way that the PM was elected.
Strengthening the PM
The direct election of the prime minister was to enhance the powers and abilities of the PM. The reformers hoped “to strengthen the executive branch of the government by granting the prime minister the power to form a stable and effective government.” (Brichta 1998, 186). Following the stalemates and unity governments of the 1980s, where, despite intense negotiations, neither major party was able to establish a workable coalition, the reformers hoped to give the PM direct power to form his coalition. “Direct election…would give Israel’s prime minister the kind of legitimacy that the previous system simply did not provide, due to the fragmented nature of parliament” which had the responsibility of electing the prime minister. (Ottolenghi 2001, 114). The goal was to have the prime minister gain a direct mandate from the people – “The new system would return the choice of chief executive to the voters, which in itself held intrinsic democratic appeal, and would also grant the Prime Minister both a mandate and legitimacy.” (Hazan 1996, 28).
This new mandate was meant to strengthen the PM’s chances of forming a new coalition quickly, rallying the public behind him/her and creating greater unity within the Knesset and the country. Besides placing the mandate of the people behind the PM-elect, the hope was that designating who exactly the prime minister was would decrease the time necessary for inner-Knesset workings and politicking. The reformers “wished for it to be clear, as soon as the election results were tabulated, who would be prime minister and form the government…they wanted to eliminate the confusing interregnum between the elections and the formation of the government.” (Susser 1997, 238). Specifically, it was hoped that “the new system would free the prime minister from the extortionist demands of small parties and individual MKs when forming his cabinet.” (Brichta 1998, 186) and in turn “the prime minister would be relieved of the stressful pressures of intense and costly bargaining with medium-sized and smaller parties to form a coalition. Potential partners would have to cooperate with the directly-elected prime minister.” (Arian 2005, 219-220).
The MKs and various parties within the Knesset would be forced to either deal with the prime minister chosen by the people, or relegate themselves to the opposition. There would be no other choice for them. The PM was meant to be the only game in town, thereby allowing him/her to set the terms of the bargaining and decide who would serve where, instead of the small and medium sized parties declaring their terms for joining the coalition. “They wished to avoid the demoralizing spectacle of coalition-making parties abjectly prostrating themselves before their potential junior coalition partners – that is, making deals that were as hateful to themselves as they were to the vast majority of the electorate.” (Susser 1997, 239). This would also decrease the time necessary for coalition formation, eliminating the windows of governmental weakness between administrations. In short,
Direct Election of the prime minister, it was claimed, would alter the basic context in which coalitional negotiations take place. Since it is immediately clear who will be forming the government, the entire logic of capitulation would be avoided. Prime ministers would negotiate with their potential coalitional partners from a position of strength and exclusivity because there would be no other alternative open to the small parties. The dynamic of spiraling demands would be neutralized at the outset. (Susser 1997, 240).
Another change that was hoped for, which would cause greater unity in the country was that the new system of “majoritarian elections would help nurture and promote moderate candidates.” (Hazan 1996, 28). Based on the fact that the PM was to be elected popularly, the expectation was that the candidates would need to reach out to ever-greater numbers of voters, and could only accomplish this by moderating their rhetoric and platforms. “The shift toward the center was to be expected in the race for prime minister, since most two-candidate races are won due to the support of the moderate, undecided voters.” (Hazan 1999, 166).
Lastly, the reformers hoped that the reform would strengthen the executive branch to better its execution of policy. Citing certain historical evidences, perhaps the most prominent of which was the “failure of the Government in the absorption ‘of a large wave of new immigrants from the former USSR,” the hope was “that only direct election would enable government to be effective in its policy decisions and implementation” by forcing the Knesset to back a certain prime minister and adhere to his leadership. (Rahat 2008, 122).
Ensuring popular sentiment in Government change
Reform was also propagated as a tool to ensure that changes within the government would only happen with the approval of the general public—“[enshrining] the idea that a government must be always as much as possible a direct expression of popular will.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 115). In an effort to increase the democratic nature of politics, the reformers hoped to reduce governmental and legislative corruption and illegal practices. “Reformers used the various events that occurred during the Stinky Trick period as evidence of the need for government system reform, as a solution for corrupt government.” (Rahat 2008, 118).
Additionally, the reformers hoped to create a system of public control over change within the government and the Knesset. The reasoning was that establishing a link between Knesset and PM elections would ensure a “balance of terror” with each being able to dissolve the other. This would mean that neither side would seek to intentionally “rock the boat” in order to gain a small measure of power. This link would
plant in basic law the rule that the legislative branch and the now-to-be-directly-elected executive branch would have to enter and leave office at the same time. In other words, the new system required that any change of majority within the Knesset (something conceivable in the framework of a multiparty parliamentary system ruled by coalitions) be endorsed by popular vote. Moreover, the system transferred the power to choose a PM from the parties to the voting public, with parties relegated to the role of putting candidate forward to receive the popular verdict. (Ottolenghi 2001, 115).
Small party reduction
One of the more significant hopes of the reform was the decrease in the power, influence, size and number of the small parties that had been the “king-makers” of previous coalitions. The hegemonic powers that the these parties were seen to wield made sure that
the reformers hoped that the direct election of the prime minister would also reduce the size, number and influence of the smaller parties in the Knesset. That is, they hoped that a separate ballot for the prime minister, with its requirement of an absolute majority, would reduce the prime ministerial race to the two main parties and encourage “straight-ticket” voting in the ballot for the Knesset. (Hazan and Rahat 2000, 1318).
This “straight-ticket” voting was what came to be understood as the “coattails effect.” What was hoped was that “because winning the prime ministry would require winning an electoral majority…splintering of the vote would no longer be rational in terms of electoral and political success.” (Arian 2005, 220) The hope was that this would in turn decrease the number of parties in the Knesset (because people would be voting for the main two parties, both for prime minister as well as for Knesset representation) as well as reduce the number of the MKs from the small parties, and thus, “neutralizing the importance of the pivotal position that these parties had captured.” (Rahat 2008, 121).
An interesting paradox to the reform is that there was the effort to defragment the representation in the Knesset by deepening the schism between the two major parties. The reformers were attempting to make the elections a stark choice between two major parties while retaining the multiparty system- it was hoped that direct elections for the PM would “reduce the extreme multiparty nature of Israel’s party system by strengthening its incipient bipolarity, and reduce the disproportionate political power that had been attained by the small parties.” (Hazan 1996, 28).
The realities of the direct election experiment did not exactly follow the expectations expressed. In some cases, the reformers guessed right as to what the changes would bring, in others they missed the mark completely and their detractors were vindicated. In still other areas, the law of unintended consequences appeared and brought changes that were not predicted or expected by either camp.
Strengthening the Prime Minister?
While the reform did grant the winner of the PM race greater mandate from the people and greater legitimacy (in a sense), it failed to provide much else. “Being able to claim a direct popular mandate doubtless made the PM stronger, but party fragmentation continued to make this strength often more notional than real.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 114). This fragmentation was caused mainly by the split-ticket voting phenomenon (discussed below) that became the hallmark of the elections run under the direct election reform.
This fragmentation caused some serious problems for the elected prime ministers and the government in general. As the voters chose representational parties with their second vote (instead of the straight-ticket voting hoped for), the large parties found their majorities in the Knesset reduced significantly- “Neither side enjoyed a ‘coattail’ effect” (Ottolenghi 2001, 117) and “the prime minister-elect was weakened politically as the electoral base of his party declined, whereas the electoral strength of the small and sectarian parties increased.” (Nachmias and Navot 2002, 143).
Similarly, the change in the electoral process forced new aspects upon the parties and their candidates during the elections. As had been hoped for, there was a general shift towards a moderation of candidates for the premiership. This negatively impacted the candidates and their parties though. For the two large parties who were fielding candidates for the election
there was only one comprehensive campaign, not two and the race for prime minister prevailed…Both parties thought, correctly, that whoever won the contest for prime minister would be able to form a coalition in the Knesset…Thus, in order to win the more important race, the emphasis placed on the less important contest was not just diminished, it was almost nonexistent. Both Labor and Likud were willing to lose seats in the Knesset in order to win the prime ministership (sic). (Hazan 1999, 166-167).
The choice to focus solely on the prime minister race led the candidates to slowly separate themselves from their parties to expand their support base. They needed to adopt more broad and open language and rhetoric that was not based in party aims or policy and led the candidate a distance away from the party organization. The candidate was forced
to run a campaign unencumbered by his party’s ideological baggage, and the party was forced to back this campaign at the cost of both its representativeness (as presence) and its representation (as ideas) in the legislature. The result is a chief executive who is elected by a constituency quite different from that of his own party. However, after the election, the prime minister is forced to rely on his party as the core of the legislative coalition with which he must operate. (Hazan and Rahat 2000, 1329).
In addition to all this, the prime minister is also expected to make major payoffs to the increased number of parties and supporters necessary to form a coalition. “The person charged with forming the coalition had to bring together a greater number of diverse and competing interests while lacking the political resources that were available prior to the reform.” (Nachmias and Navot 2002, 143). This political weakening of the prime minister’s party ticket more than offset any powers, legitimacy or mandate that the reform hoped to grant him
The split-ticket phenomenon led to other problems for the reformers. Their original intents of stabilizing governments and decreasing government corruption by making the PM stronger, failed utterly: “the electoral reform strongly influenced the coalition-building process and the size of governments…multi-partner coalitions were formed, uncertainty over the stability of governments increased, office-related payoffs expanded and their distribution was characterized by increased disproportion.” (Nachmias and Navot 2002, 144).
In turn, the Knesset fragmentation following the reform failed as well with respect to the stated goal of preventing out-of-hand negotiations for coalition building such as happened in 1990. The number of days required in order to form a coalition after the election saw an overall increase from the 1992 election to the 2001 election. This means that it was harder and took more time to put together a workable government- “in short, the presence of a ‘clear winner’ PM whose prospective cabinet was ‘the only game in town’ did little or nothing to streamline coalition negotiations. Indeed, coalitions grew even bigger and more awkward.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 118).
All of the overall hopes of the reformers with regard to the prime minister and the executive branch proved to be false under the new system. In rather succinct language:
Rather than enhancing the capability of the prime minister to lead the cabinet and govern, the reform granted him formal authority that could not be translated into action. Instead of instituting a stable system of parliamentary checks and balances and accountable intra-party decision-making procedures, the direct elections for the prime minister created a system with no core political party in the Knesset, thus increasing the likelihood of government instability. The electoral reform diminished the power of the prime minister’s party and increased party fragmentation in the Knesset…Overall, the electoral reform seriously impaired the governance capabilities of both the executive and the legislature. (Nachmias and Navot 2002, 136).
Ensuring Public Involvement in Government Change?
This main intent of the reformers was the only of the three to actually be relatively achieved. By tying the elections of the Knesset and the PM together, and giving both the power to dissolve the other, any change that occurred in government also involved public input by virtue of the elections that would follow. However, this brought with it some unforeseen consequences.
Arranging matters such that any coalition crisis triggers elections can be a recipe for drift and paralysis as disparate coalition partners, united mainly by an urge to stay in power, settle on “not rocking the boat” as the best survival strategy. Thus direct election channeled power to the people and away from horse-trading elites, but at the cost of energy in the executive. (Ottolenghi 2001, 115, emphasis added).
Inadvertently, the reformers had created a situation that theoretically created the means for greater democratic sanction in government workings, but which contradicted their other stated goals of reducing governmental lag, instability and empowering the prime minister.
Decreasing Small Parties?
The area in which the reform for direct elections failed most completely in comparison to the hopes and intents of the reformers was the decreasing of size, influence and number of small political parties. Despite their intentions to remove the smaller parties from the position of coalition “king-maker” and make them subservient to the larger parties, “the new system…significantly increased the bargaining power of the small, medium-sized, and religious parties.” (Brichta 1998, 190).
The largest contributor to this fact was the split-ticket phenomenon. Previous to the reform, Israeli voters were allowed simply one vote for the party of their choice. The party that would receive the most votes proportionately would generally be asked to form the governing coalition. Knowing this forced the voters many times to deliberately vote strategically for the main party in their preferred Knesset bloc instead of voting for a smaller party that might fit their political preferences better. This was done to increase the chances of the bloc that they preferred forming the coalition and including the party that they preferred most in the coalition. The changes that the reform brought dramatically changed this rational.
The incentive to vote for the largest party in the Knesset bloc disappeared. Voters could now vote for both the candidate they preferred for prime minister and the party with whose platform they most closely identified without worrying that their votes might facilitate the formation of a government by the competing bloc. The inevitable outcome was a sharp increase in the electoral strength of small and medium-sized parties at the expense of Labor and Likud. (Nachmias and Navot 2002, 142).
This ticket splitting first appeared in the 1996 election, but was exhibited in even greater numbers in the 1999 election as the public became more aware of the new changes. (Arieli-Horowitz 2002). “This sophisticated use of the ballot box by the Israeli voter left in its wake a party system in shambles, and a Knesset fractionalized and weakened compared to the prime minister and the executive branch.” (Arian 2005, 220).
From all of this we see that the size and number of center parties and small parties grew significantly. Empirically, it has been seen that “the number of so-called center parties, which are ready to join any winner of the PM race, rose from three (with a total of 16 seats) to six (with 38 seats in all).” Similarly, religious parties, which had 16 seats in 1992, rose to obtain 23 in the elections of 1996 and then 27 in ’99. (Ottolenghi 2001, 118).
The negotiation powers of the small parties also were strengthened. Kenig, Rahat and Hazan summarize the enlarged abilities of the smaller parties with regard to getting their way in negotiations:
After the direct elections were introduced, the smaller parties enjoyed greater blackmail potential. They could adopt a range of tactics, from threatening to run their own candidates for the prime minster—leading to a split in the votes of the camp as a whole—to calling on their voters to support one of the two candidates for the position of prime minister, or refraining from doing so. Accordingly, the major parties had a clear incentive not to arouse the wrath of their potential coalition partners. Small parties benefited twice from this situation: on the one hand they could concentrate on urging voters to choose them in the party vote, without needing to adopt any stance in the majoritarian contest, while on the other hand they were protected from attacks by the major parties. (Kenig, Rahat and Hazan 2005, 46).
It became clear quickly that the reformers had overstated the ability of the reform to curb the power of the small parties. Despite the reform, and even more so because of it “partisan dynamics and the stern arithmetic of coalition maintenance often forced [the PM] to dance to the smaller parties’ tunes.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 118).
From the split-voting phenomenon, we can also see an unanticipated backlash against the hoped-for moderating and central pulling effect that the reform caused with relation to the election of the prime minister. “Direct election did in fact foster a centripetal trend, but only in voting for prime minister.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 116, emphasis in original). Having seen how “the two way contest obliged both the Labor Party and the Likud…to blur their positions and move toward the political center in an effort to convince as many floating voters as possible to vote for them,” here we see the voters moving the opposite way because as “this blurring of position was essential in the elections for the prime minister, it served only to encourage voters to give their second vote to those parties which presented a distinct identity.” (Kenig, Rahat and Hazan 2005, 42). Just as centripetal forces had moved the two largest parties together to capture more votes for PM, centrifugal forces moved the voters outward with their second vote for the Knesset. Thus, we can see the failure of the attempt to attenuate the bipolarity of the system and reduce the power of the small parties. “The result of the electoral reforms is therefore not the strengthening of the incipient bipolarization of Israeli politics but rather its breakdown and Balkanization.” (Hazan and Rahat 2000, 1327).
This breakdown and fragmentation within the Knesset resulted in a large-scale decrease in overall governability.
The electoral reform in Israel produced a party system characterized by the prevalence of centripetal drives at one level of competition—and governance—and centrifugal drives at another level. This simultaneous occurrence produced concurrent moderating and polarizing consequences, which is one of the main reasons for the reduction in government stability. (Hazan and Rahat 2000, 1324).
These forces caused the job of the prime minister to become much harder. The fragmentation of both the Knesset and the subsequent coalition that the PM was forced to make because of such low representation from his party caused the PM to take a permanent role in smoothing ruffled feathers and agreement troubles with all the disparate groups within the government. “The sheer cost—in time, trouble, and state funds—of holding disparate coalition governments together sapped the executive’s ability to tackle pressing political issues.” Under such conditions, “a stable coalition is essentially beyond the reach of even the cleverest and most energetic prime minister.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 118-119).
Conclusion: Repealing the Changes
After less than a decade in operation, the direct election reform was repealed by the Knesset. The stated hopes of the reformers to strengthen the executive branch, introduce greater democratic process and involvement in the system and reduce the power, influence and size of the small parties in the Knesset were dashed as the reform provided for only one of the goals, the introduction of greater public involvement into government change, and that rather weakly and with accompanying unintended problems.
Repealing the ineffective reforms wasn’t enough though, because all could agree that the way the system had worked previous to their passage was not acceptable. Therefore, the parliament enacted some additional changes upon changing the system back: they introduced a constructive vote of no-confidence, and required a majority vote for it within the body of the legislature. They also retained the PM’s power to dismiss the Knesset to retain a check on the power of the small parties.
The direct election of the Prime Minister had been a genuine attempt to change the overall system of Israeli politics. Pulling together skillfully the convergence of numerous historical event chains, the reformers were able to combine the power of the public mob to override political renitence for change (even though the real reform necessary, PR reform, was still untouchable). This wave of public opinion was encouraged and ridden to the end that politician concerns for the system were both allayed and addressed by the adoption of a plan produced by the academic elite. Bringing together these disparate and often contradictory sections of society, “the reform had hoped to achieve the same results that a less proportional electoral system would have produced,” but which had proved too radical of a change to drive through the already fractionalized Knesset. (Ottolenghi 2001, 119). However, the brief experiment with reform has proved that “direct election had amplified political fragmentation and created a system that condemned the PM to inaction and ineffectiveness, and the country to chronic political instability and frequent elections.” (Ottolenghi 2001, 120). Despite their best intentions, the reformers zealous pursuit of reform for the sake of reform, led them to blindly stumble into a maze of worsening political considerations.
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