The Politics of Coalitions

President Shimon Peres asked Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud Party in Israel, to form the new government on Friday.   Elections held last week produced a sharply divided Knesset (the Israeli parliament).  

Like many countries around the world, Israel uses a closed list proportional representation system, which means that voters cast ballots for parties rather than for individual candidates to represent them in parliament.  Parties send a number of delegates to the national legislature based on the proportion of the popular vote they receive.  So, for example, if a party wins 45 percent of the popular vote, it would be entitled to 45 percent of the seats in the legislature.

In the most recent Knesset elections, held on February 12, 2009, twelve parties won seats in the legislature.  The largest, Kadima, won 22.47 percent of the popular vote, entitling it to 28 seats (of the total 120 seats) in the Knesset.  Likud came in second place, with 21.61 percent of the popular vote, giving it 27 seats in the parliament. Some 21 additional parties also ran but failed to garner more than 2 percent of the nation-wide vote.  Under Israeli election law, these parties receive no representation in the Knesset.  Election results are listed below.

Party                    Percentage of the Popular Vote          Number of Seats
Kadima                                         22.47                                               28
Likud                                             21.61                                                27
Yisrael Beiteinu                         11.70                                              15
Labour Party                                9.93                                               13
Shas                                                  8.49                                              11
United Torah Judaism              4.39                                                5
United Arab List-Ta’al               3.38                                               4
National Union                             3.34                                              4
Hadash                                             3.32                                              4
New Movement-Meretz            2.95                                              3
The Jewish Home                        2.87                                              3
Balad                                                 2.47                                              3

The outcome of the Israeli elections demonstrate some of the challenges faced by parliamentary systems which use proportional representation electoral systems.  While such systems more accurately reflect the will of the electorate by allowing third party candidates to be represented in the national legislature, they also necessitate the development of coalitions to create majorities in the parliament.  Without a majority in the parliament, the ruling party cannot govern effectively—witness recent challenges in Canada

Netanyahu’s proposal to create a unity government, which brings in center-right and center-left parties into a single coalition, has already been rebuffed by Kadima and Labour, the two most obvious coalition partners.  Without their support, it appears that Netanyahu may have to rely on far right parties to secure a legislative majority.  Such a political maneuver—while perhaps necessary to establish a government in Israel—would further complicate peace efforts in the Middle East.  The incoming Israeli government faces a serious challenge, then.  If Likud forms a government of national unity, brining center-left and center-right parties under a single coalition, it risks creating an unstable government which may not be able to effectively rule the country.  If, on the other hand, Likud reaches to the right, forming a coalition with some of the parties on the far right, it may create a more stable government, but it would also be a government much less likely to move forward with the peace process.  Either way, Israeli politics should provide some interesting material for the study of international and comparative politics moving forward.

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