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Electoral Rules Matter: Part I

Professor of social sciences Rein Taagepera and political scientist Matthew Soberg Shugart are renowned experts on electoral systems. Israeli politicians should study their book Seats and Votes.

Taagepera and Shugart use mathematical models in studying scores of electoral rules. Their research is especially relevant to Israel, not only because the government is working on a constitution, but also because it is considering a proposal to make the leader of the party that wins the largest number of seats in a Knesset election Israel’s prime minister.

That Kadima won 29 seats (the most of any party) in the 2006 election would have been sufficient to make Ehud Olmert prime minister without his having been designated by the president to form a government and have it approved by the Knesset.

In other words, it was enough for Kadima to win a mere 24 percent of the votes cast in the 2006 election for Olmert to become Israel’s prime minister. This calls to mind the following passages from Seats and Votes:

In 1970 Chile had three major candidates running for president. Socialist Salvador Allende narrowly surpassed a centrist and a rightist candidate and became president, although he received only 36.3 percent of the total vote. Allende’s electoral platform committed him to carry out extensive social changes. However, his support base was too narrow, and his attempt to forge ahead with radical changes despite this drawback backfired badly. The centrists became alienated to the point where they acquiesced in a military coup. The outcome was a bloody dictatorship.

History would have been quite different if Chile had different electoral rules. Chilean tradition demanded that the legislature confirm as president the candidate with the largest number of votes, although Allende was the least desirable of the three candidates for more than half the voters. In some other countries an absolute majority (that is, more than 50 percent of votes cast) is required for election. A majority can be achieved by having a second round of elections in which only the two candidates with the most votes participate. The outcome might be that the centrist candidate is eliminated, and the voters offered the choice between a rightist and a leftist. If most of the former supporters of the centrist candidate were to switch to the rightist, the latter could win, much to the dismay of many leftist voters. Instead of a second round, one can also have one round of elections but ask voters for their second preferences. In this case, the centrist candidate would presumably be the second choice of both leftists and rights, and the country would get a president at least semiacceptable to every body.

The point here is not to argue that one of the possible methods or outcomes described above is better than the others. The point is that electoral rules matter: with the same distribution of votes. The presidency could go to the leftist, the centrist, or the rightist candidate, depending on the rules.

Another case in point: The Weimar Republic’s parliamentary system was based on proportional representation with a low electoral threshold. It has been argued that Hitler’s ascendancy was helped by this electoral system, which, as one writer has put it, “preserved a maddening profusion of parties and led to a widespread yearning for a strong leader.” Even if the connection between electoral rules and Hitler’s political success is debatable, “the very suggestion indicates that electoral rules might have serious consequences … even for an entire nation, its neighbors—and even the whole world.”

Electoral rules matter in Israel. Indeed, it was known as early as 1952 that Israel’s electoral rules, more precisely, its single countrywide electoral district with proportional representation and closed party lists intensify group conflict, produce unstable governments, and actually render the people powerless.

In his essay “How Electoral Systems Matter for Democratization,” Taagepera sets forth two desirable outputs of an electoral system: fairness and stability. “A major (though by no means the sole) criterion of fairness is proportionality between vote shares and seat shares. Representation of significant minorities is an aspect of it. Stability is affected, among many other factors, by the number of parties … Too many parties may make for unstable coalition [and inept] governments.”

A tension thus exists between fairness and stability. While Proportional Representation (PR) promotes fairness, it may also undermine stability and even national security, without which talk about fairness is flapdoodle.

PR obviously produces a multiplicity of parties—more with a low electoral threshold (currently 2 percent in Israel). Since no party in Israel has ever come close to winning a majority of the seats in the Knesset, a coalition of (rival) parties is necessary to form the government. According to Taagepera, “As the number of actors [in the government] increases the number of possible disputes increase roughly as the square of the number of actors.” Taagepera arrived at this conclusion by statistical analysis of many countries. Since Israeli governments often have more than five rival party leaders in the cabinet, it seems miraculous that Israel has survived under its divisive electoral rules.

To be continued.

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