In my column last issue, I wrote about the recent upheaval in Israeli politics. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the process of replacing defense minister Moshe Ya’alon – formerly a distinguished general in the Israel Defense Forces who served as the military’s chief-of-staff – with Avigdor Liberman, who rose only to the rank of corporal in his brief military service.
Liberman’s appointment to the defense ministry – perhaps the second most important job in the Israeli cabinet after prime minister – had nothing to do with merit or qualifications. It was a purely political move. Netanyahu’s governing coalition was as weak as could be with 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and Liberman brought with him the six seats of his Yisrael Beiteinu party. Netanyahu had no breathing room with a one-seat majority, but will be somewhat more secure with a seven-seat majority.
Liberman, who led Yisrael Beiteinu to just 5.11 per cent of the vote in the 2015 election, was able to demand – and receive – the defense ministry, even though it meant losing perhaps the most qualified cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s own Likud party.
There may be a lesson in this for Canadians as a parliamentary committee begins to consider alternatives to our first-past-the-post electoral system.
In our system, geographic ridings elect members of Parliament. With multiple parties and independent candidates, it is the candidate with the most votes – the one who is first past the post – who becomes the MP, even if he or she does not receive a majority of votes in the riding. It is then the party with the most MPs elected that forms the government. Most governments – even majority governments – in Canadian history have been formed by parties that have received less than 50 per cent of the popular vote. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau formed a majority government with 39.47 per cent of the popular vote in 2015. In the previous election in 2011, the Conservatives under Stephen Harper formed a majority with a very similar 39.62 per cent.
The last time a Canadian party formed a majority government with an actual majority of the popular vote was in 1984, when the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney took 50.03 per cent. They were re-elected in 1988 with 43.02 per cent.
One of the Liberal Party’s platform planks in last fall’s federal election campaign was the replacement of first-past-the-post.
“We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” said Trudeau in speeches on the campaign trail.
Proportional representation – in which a party’s seat-count in Parliament reflects its percentage of the popular vote – is one of the alternatives to first-past-the-post that some in Canada advocate. In the last election, if proportional representation had been in effect, the Liberals would have won the most seats, but would have needed to form a coalition with one or more other parties to form a governing majority. With proportional representation in a multi-party system, it becomes virtually impossible for any party to form a stable majority government on its own. Proportional representation also allows for the electoral success of small, often single issue, parties.
Countries like Israel that have proportional-representation systems are governed by coalitions. In the 2015 Israeli election, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud was first among the many parties with 23.4 per cent of the vote.
So Netanyahu had to wheel and deal with other parties in order to cobble together a coalition. That’s why the two religious parties, which together received just over 10 per cent of the vote, are able to impose haredi Orthodox control on many aspects of Israeli society – from who may marry to which gender may read from the Torah at the Western Wall, and much more.
And that’s why Liberman – leader of a party that received just 5.11 per cent of the vote – was able to demand and receive control of Israel’s most important ministry.
Who knows what the parliamentary committee tasked with studying alternatives to first-past-the post will come up with? But I dread the possibility of small parties wheeling and dealing for control of important ministries.