Parliamentary Anarchy of the Small Parties

United Torah Judaism is apprehensive that thousands of traditionally ultra-Orthodox votes are about to go to right-wing parties - Herut, the National Union and the Likud.

United Torah Judaism is apprehensive that thousands of traditionally ultra-Orthodox votes are about to go to right-wing parties - Herut, the National Union and the Likud. In elections under the previous system - when voters cast two ballots, one for the party and one for prime minister - UTJ's Torah sages urged their followers to vote for the Likud candidate for prime minister. Now they must assume there is no easy way to convince voters it is absolutely forbidden to vote for a secular party.

The entire political system faces a similar problem, though far more grave. In recent elections voters became accustomed to casting one ballot for the head of a party and the other for a sectoral list. Anyone who turned 18 after 1992 has never voted with one ballot.

The experts assumed that the return to the one-ballot method would recreate a functioning system based largely on the two big parties. It turns out, however, that having become used to voting for a sector-based party under the two-ballot system, people are finding it difficult to abandon that thinking even when they have only one ballot. So, according to Thursday's Ha'aretz public opinion poll - conducted by Dialogue and supervised by the statistician Prof. Camil Fuchs - Shinui will get 16 seats in the next Knesset and Shas 13.

Some light was shed on the problem by former Knesset Speaker Shevach Weiss in a report he prepared summing up the election campaign for the Fifteenth Knesset (the current outgoing parliament). Weiss reported that more than 75 percent of the MKs were elected on the basis of a "tribal vote" - national or ethnic.

The list includes the Haredi parties (22 seats), the new-immigrant parties (10) and the Arab parties (9), but not just them. Weiss noted that 95 percent of those who voted for Meretz and Shinui in the 1999 elections were Ashkenazi, and almost all the MKs of those two parties were also Ashkenazi. Similarly, 80 percent of those who voted for the Labor Party or the National Religious Movement were also Ashkenazi.

People tend to complain about the large number of parties in Israel, a problem supposedly aggravated by the system of direct election of the prime minister and sector-based voting. In practice, this is groundless. For many years, the Knesset has begun its term with 10 to 15 factions and ended it with 15 to 20 factions as parties split. The outgoing Knesset began with 15 factions and finished it with 19. That is not so different from the Ninth Knesset (1977-1981, the first Begin government), which started out with 13 factions and disbanded with 20.

The process leading to the loss of ability to rule and making the task of maintaining the coalition almost impossible is related to the disappearance of big parties. Today it seems so incredible, but in the Tenth Knesset (1981-1984, the second Begin government) the two big parties had 95 seats between them - about 80 percent of the parliament. Since then there has been a steady decline, with Likud and Labor having only 66 seats (55 percent) in the previous Knesset.

In the current Knesset there was a steep decline of the two parties to a nadir of 45 seats (37.5 percent). For the first time, they were unable to form a national unity government that would have an absolute majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The strength of the other factions has increased threefold since the Tenth Knesset, from 25 seats to 75 seats.

Effectively, there weren't two large parties in this Knesset. There were three medium sized parties - Labor (started with 26 seats), Likud (19) and Shas (17), and the result has been parliamentary anarchy. The government found it difficult to push through any policy, and MKs passed many laws that actually ran against government policy - the "large families law" being only one example of the destructive consequences of a Knesset with medium-size parties.

In this situation there is no single party that is the hinge for a narrow government - there are several such parties. Government stability has been severely affected - putting together a unity government involves a complex jigsaw puzzle. One of the absurdities of the situation is that surveys report Israeli voters declaring their ardent desire for a national unity government, but then they proceed to elect a Knesset that makes it almost impossible to achieve that goal and for any government to endure.

From the start of the current election campaign it has been clear that the reversion to the one-ballot system was not going to achieve the results hoped for. True, the Likud at one stage reached a peak of 41 seats in the polls, but Labor never got beyond 25. Commentators explain that the public had not yet taken in the transition to the new-old system, and when the voters did understand the implications, they would vote for the big parties.

In practice, the opposite has occurred. The corruption scandals prompted voters to abandon the Likud in favor of Shas, the National Union and Shinui - but not in favor of Labor, which in last week's polls was below the 20-seat level.

The most recent Ha'aretz poll forecast a Knesset with four medium-sized parties and no genuinely big party - Likud and Labor together will have about 50 seats. It's easy to understand the feelings of the voters who are disgusted by the corruption scandals and who won't vote Likud, and of those who find no compelling reason to vote for Labor either.

Nevertheless, people who want a government that is capable of functioning and who don't want another election very soon, would do well to take one basic fact into account - a functioning political system needs big parties.