Small parties are commonplace in Israel. They multiply as a result of Israel’s system of proportional representation with an electoral threshold of 1.5%, by far the lowest in the democratic world (except Holland). A party need only obtain 1.5% of the votes cast in a national election to obtain two seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. Some three million ballots were cast in the 1996 Knesset elections, so that to win the minimum of two seats, a party had to receive only 45,000 votes.
The question arises: To what extent are small parties conducive to Israel’s national interests? But first, how shall we define a “small” party? Although the definition will be somewhat arbitrary, let us say that in a 120-member Knesset, a party having five seats—roughly 4%—is “small”. A somewhat larger figure might also be reasonable, in view of the fact that many countries have higher electoral thresholds. (Liechtenstein, with a population of only 31,461, has an 8% threshold! And by the way, David Ben-Gurion wanted a 10% threshold for Israel.)
Now, what are the alleged advantages of a low threshold yielding small parties? First, its supporters contend that a low threshold is more democratic, since it enables small minority groups to be represented in the legislature. This argument may be reduced to an absurdity, since its logic requires not only a further reduction of the threshold, but enlarging the membership of the Knesset to accommodate a larger number of minute parties. Indeed, this logic points to the replacement of representative democracy by participatory democracy, in which every citizen would represent himself in an enormous assembly—a “New England” town meeting on a gigantic scale. (Remarkably, the computer can make such a democracy possible!)
Making an electoral system more democratic can undermine democracy. A permissive electoral system that multiplies the number of parties fragments not only the legislature, but the Government. A fragmented Government can hardly execute coherent and resolute national policies. The Netanyahu Government consists of seven parties, each with its own agenda. The entire nation, including groups represented by small parties, suffers as a consequence. Democracy, therefore, is not an adequate justification for small parties.
A second argument for small parties is that they can prevent the tyranny of a large party. There is no solid evidence that small parties have such power, or that tyranny is the likely consequence of eliminating small parties. The 8% threshold in Liechtenstein and even higher thresholds for other democracies refute the advocates of small parties. But to clinch the point, recall the Weimar Republic, whose democratic system of proportional representation with a low electoral threshold enabled Hitler’s National Socialist Party to gain power and establish a monstrous tyranny!
A third argument for small parties is that they raise controversial issues which large parties avoid to attract the largest number of voters. In other words, large parties, typically centrist, tend to ignore important issues. There is truth in this argument, but it has little if any practical significance. Consider Israel’s small right-wing parties which, during the past, have opposed withdrawal from Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. They have had no discernible effect on the territorial policies of Israel’s Government.
True, such parties have a Knesset forum to educate public opinion regarding the deadly results of the Oslo or Israel-PLO Agreement. But there are members of the Likud which have denounced that agreement—some have called for its renunciation—which they can do with greater effect on public opinion than a “fringe” party. Nor is this all.
The negative consequences of small right-wing parties in Israel far outweigh whatever good may be attributed to them, and for this reason. These small right-wing parties are usually labeled “extremist,” if not “racist.” Such labels, which take the place of reasoned argument, are then used to discredit and defame those who share the views of these small parties, but do so within a larger framework of ideas and political considerations. Which means that the alleged advantage of small parties, namely, that they raise controversial issues avoided by large parties, may actually prove counterproductive. A small party may sully or undermine an intrinsically just policy precisely because that policy is endorsed by a small party!
Now, in the present writer’s judgment based on extensive research and experience, Israel would do well to adopt an electoral threshold of at least 5%. This would induce small parties to join one or another large party wherein to advocate their program. However, this 5% threshold should be employed in multidistrict elections. Given the issues that dominate Israel—too complex to be discussed here—a 5% threshold would probably eventuate in three Jewish, national parties or party coalitions: secular “left,” secular “right,” and “religious.” But what of the Arab parties, a no longer insistent concern of any small right-wing party?
A Knesset composed in accordance with the previous paragraph, a Knesset whose members would for the first time be accountable to the voters, would to that extent be constrained by Jewish public opinion. Since the Government is linked to the Knesset, the Government could the more readily be induced to enforce the law prohibiting parties which deny the Jewish or democratic character of the state. Let this serve as a brief commentary on the futility of small parties on the one hand, and the importance of multidistrict elections on the other.