Stability vs. Representation: A Look at the Electoral Systems in Israel and U.K.

While Britons eye a 'hung parliament' with concern, in Israel it has always been the norm, with post-election horse-trading trumping Election Day in terms of importance.

Dan Perry
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Benjamin Netanyahu and David Cameron in Downing Street.
Benjamin Netanyahu and David Cameron in Downing Street. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Dan Perry

AP - If the exit polls are to be believed, Thursday's British election may produce a "hung parliament," where no political party holds an absolute majority. That's cause for angst in a place where tradition, fair play and a system that inflates majorities have generally sorted out who is the next prime minister by last call at the pub.

To help navigate the awkwardness, Britons need look no further than to Israel, a former colony where fractured politics, post-election horse-trading and permanent campaigning have become the norm, and where a similar conundrum was just resolved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exhausted the full six weeks allotted by law in forming a majority coalition out of a number of smaller parties that was announced around midnight Wednesday, as Britons were themselves preparing to go to the polls.

In Britain, no obvious coalition may assert itself. The Conservatives don't want to partner with the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party; Labour would prefer to avoid dependence on the Scottish National Party; and no one seems to know where the Liberal Democrats belong.

That could leave the outcome uncertain in a pivotal vote that could decide whether Scotland stays in the United Kingdom and whether the United Kingdom stays in the European Union.

Labour's Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, SNP's Nicola Sturgeon and the Conservative Party's David Cameron at an election debate, in this April 2, 2015 handout picture provided by ITV.Credit: Reuters

It's an unusually dramatic situation for modern Britain, which has lately been mostly stable and at peace. But high stakes are the norm in Israel, which still lacks permanent borders and agonizes over religion and even the definition of a Jew.

Perhaps, like Israel, the British will find that it is oddly easier to never quite decide.

Meanwhile they can study Netanyahu's strategy for dealing with messy election results: his coalition includes parties that detest each other and, with only 61 seats out of 120 in parliament, could collapse at any moment. Many Israelis consider the whole thing a calamity. But Netanyahu is nonetheless on track to eclipse David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest serving prime minister.

Both countries are wrestling with the imperfections of their electoral systems — how to make democracy not just the least bad system, but one that most people think works well. Here's a comparison of the two systems, and what might happen if they switched:

The systems
Israel has proportional representation, in which any party that gets above a certain percentage of the vote nationwide gets a corresponding number of seats in the parliament. As a result, among the groups that got in this time are three different parties representing religious Jews and others representing Arabs, Russian immigrants, middle-class urbanites and leftist intellectuals. Pensioners once got in as well, and cannabis proponents always hope, but have yet to succeed.

No party has ever won a majority. Parliaments tend to be interesting and short-lived. So in the past 20 years, Israel has held eight elections — while in Britain Thursday's is the fifth.
In all but the last British vote, in 2010, one party won a majority. The country is divided into 650 districts, and whoever gets the most votes in each wins the seat. So if a party's support is at all evenly distributed, a slight lead will tend to translate into a huge national majority: grim business for the loser, but a recipe for stable government.

What if Israel had a district system?
Much depends on how the districts are delineated. With district-based systems — including with U.S. elections for the House of Representatives — gerrymandering is always a concern.

Such systems tend to eliminate minority representation except in cases where the minority is concentrated enough to win some districts. So Israel's cannabis-lovers and pensioners would be wiped out — but the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, who tend to live in their own areas, would probably get districts they would win. Still, they would probably get fewer seats than today, because an "overconcentration" in which a group has almost all the vote in some districts in effect wastes the extra votes which in proportional representation would be more meaningful.

The mainstream left and right parties, Labor and Likud, have a roughly similar distribution of support — so a slight lead, just like in Britain of the past, would be inflated into a majority.

It all boils down to this: under the British system, someone in Israel might occasionally win an election.

And what if Britain had proportional representation?
Under proportional representation, Britain — where Labour and the Conservatives generally seem to hover between 30-40 percent — would probably always have a "hung parliament" and require coalitions.

This would have once been seen as a major affront to the British way. But oddly, it is also where the country seems headed anyway, because each of the large parties has recently lost votes to groups concentrated enough to win some seats. Some think this relates to a fundamental fracturing of affiliations and loyalties that will not soon go away.

In the past, proportional representation might have helped Labour, which traditionally seemed to enjoy a natural fit with the Lib Dems. But the Lib Dems allied with the Conservatives in 2010, complicating that picture as well.

Under proportional representation the SNP would be guaranteed up to some 5%. Nationalists like UKIP would be a fixture as well. Greens would get in and smaller parties would arise. And Labour and the Conservatives would probably start to contemplate a "unity government" for the purposes of changing the electoral system.

Such a thing, at least, is what many foresee for Israel.

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