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It seems (perhaps just an impression) that there are more Knesset elections in Israel lately which happen ahead of schedule than ones that happen when they are supposed to.

  1. Is that a correct impression? (I'm only talking about Knesset elections here, say for the last 10-15 years)

  2. If it's correct, is that the same pattern as always, or did something change from previous decades to bring it about?

  3. What are the main reasons for such an unusual pattern? Unscheduled parlament elections seem a lot less frequent in other countries, wither either parlamentary or presidential forms of republican government.

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First, here's all the data I managed to scrape on which elections were early and which were not:

(data sources: Wikipedia pages of the format "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_legislative_election,_YYYY"):

| Knesset | Elected on | Early? | Reason?                                       |
+===============================================================================+
| #19     | 2013-01-22 | Y      | 1. Budget fail 12/2012. 2. Tal Law fail 5/12  |
| #18     | 2009-02-10 | Y      | 1. PM Olmert resignation                      |
|                               | 2. Livni fail to form coalition               |
| #17     | 2006-03-28 | Y      | Labor resigns from coalition with Likud       |
| #16     | 2003-01-28 | Y      | Sharon's decision after Labor quit government |
| PM 2001 |            | Y?     | Seems like early due to PM Barak's resignation|
| #15     | 1999-05-17 | Y      | 1. Right coalition breakup (Wye River)        |
|                               | 2. Difficulties passing the state budget      |
| #14     | 1996-05-29 | Y      | 1. Assassination of PM Rabin                  |
|                               | 2. New PM Peres wanted mandate for peace      |
|                               |    process in the form of electoral victory   |
| #13     | 1992-06-23 | N?     | Seems to be NOT early?                        |
| #12     | 1988-11-01 | N?     | Seems to be NOT early?                        |
| #11     | 1984-07-23 | Y?     | PM Begin resigned in 1983 for health reasons  |
| #10     | 1981-06-30 | N      | Seems to be NOT early?                        |
| #9      | 1977-05-18 | Y      | NRP ministers sacked over no-confidence vote  |
| #8      | 1973       | N      | Seems to be NOT early                         |
| #7      | 1969       | N      | Seems to be NOT early                         |
| #6      | 1965       | N      | Seems to be NOT early                         |
| #5      | 1961       | Y      | PM Ben-Gurion over a motion of no-confidence  |
|    over Lavon Affair. He was unable to form new government => early elections | 
| #4      | 1959       | Y      | Ben-Gurion resigned after Labour voted against|
|    government over arms sale to W.Germany and refused to leave coalition      |
| #3      | 1955       | Y      | See Wiki for 1951 election (last secton)      |
| #2      | 1951       | Y      |  Knesset had rejected the Minister            |
|    of Education and Culture's proposals on the registration of schoolchildren |

Please note that this table is slightly confusing - I have placed the reason for early elections together with NEXT elections. In other words, 19th Knesset was elected in 2013, and it was an early election, but the reason listed in that line ("1. Budget fail 12/2012. 2. Tal Law fail 5/12") was the failures of 18th Knesset, NOT of 19th Knesset. Similarly, "registration of schoolchildren" was an issue with the FIRST Knesset, which resulted in the elections in 1951 that elected Knessed #2.

I am not 100% sure about some of the earlier elections which I labeled as NOT early (I couldn't find 100% firm support that they were NOT early, on the other hand nowhere does it say they WERE early; and they were held a "correct" (4 years) period away from prior elections. Therefore I have labeled 1992, 1988 and 1981 elections as NOT early. 1973 was definitely NOT early (it's noted that the 7th Knesset was one of the most stable).


Now, to answer the questions based on that data:

  1. As is clear from the data, for the last 16 years (since 1996), EVERY single one Knesset election in Israel was an early election (and likely that includes the only PM election that was on date separate from Knesset).

    So my original impression which led to the question being asked was 110% correct, in spades.


  2. The pattern DID change from previous years - between 1965 and 1992, only 2 out of 8 elections were held early.

    However, every election between 1951 and 1961 was held early, so it's not a completely unusual state of things for Israel :)

    Total ration of early elections for different periods is:

     | Period    | % early |
     ====================
     | 1996-2013 | 100% |
     | 1965-1992 | 25%  |
     | 1951-1961 | 100% |
     | 1951-1992 | 50%  |
     | 1951-2013 | 72%  |
    

  3. Of 13 early elections ever (and 7 in last 16 years), we can group them in the following cohorts over the election reasons:

    | # ever | <1996 | 1996+ | Reason type                                                     |
    +==========================================================================================+
    | 1.5    | 0     | 1.5   | Can't pass legislation/budget due to insufficient govt strength |
    | 4      | 3     | 1     | PM resignation or decision to break govt for political reasons  |
    | 3      | 1     | 2     | PM resignation for health reasons/death/corruption              |
    | 2      | 0     | 2     | Major coalition partner left large unity government             |
    | 2.5    | 2     | 0.5   | Minor coalition partner left small government, losing majority  |
    

    Here we see interesting patterns... (without explanations "why" so far)

    • Pre-1995, 3 out of 6 (50%) early elections pre-1996 were because PM either resigned or broke up the government/called for new elections for political reasons, usually a very specific non-budget issue.

      This only happened once in the last 16 years, and even then didn't cause new Knesset elections!

    • Pre-1995, 2 of 6 (33%) were due to a small party disagreeing with and leaving a not-too-big coalition.

      However, despite VERY popular perceptions in people observing modern Israeli politics over too-big influence of small parties over government stability concerns, this only happened ONCE in last 16 years (over Wye River), and even then wasn't the direct cause of early election (subsequent problem passing the budget was the immediate cause).

    • Pre-1995, only 1 PM left office over non-political matters (health).

      Since 1996, 2 did (one assassinated, and one resigned over criminal charges of corruption).

    • No government has fallen over a super-major law or budget before 1995.

      This happened 2 times since 1996 (budget both times, plus Tal Law about military service for ultra-religious in the second case).

    • Despite having very broad coalition governments (Meir), NONE of them failed over a big partner leaving the coalition.

      Yet this happened 2 times in last 16 years.


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    As a note - I didn't actually plan to answer my own question, but had too much fun digging up data to stop :) – user4012 Mar 22 '13 at 3:41
  • That was an interesting read :) – KJ Tsanaktsidis Mar 24 '13 at 12:17
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Some of the reasons are:

None of the major parties have sufficient majority to be able to rule without courting the favors of the smaller parties. Israel is a bitterly divided country with many unsolved questions, among which are: the question of the settlement with the Arabs on the territories (which includes the extent of anti-terrorism measures, the talks with the opposing side leadership or the absence of such, matters which are acceptable or not acceptable to discuss there, the policy regarding Jewish settlements on the territories, the status of Jerusalem and especially Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, etc.), the questions of economic policy and welfare policy, the questions of the place of the religion (mainly meaning Judaism of course) in the state, the questions of labor laws and union privileges, and many more. For many of these questions, positions of the smaller parties are very hard to reconcile.

For the smaller parties, it makes a lot of sense to drive a hard bargain with many of these positions and extract concessions - monetary or lawmaking - from the major party to be part of its coalition and allow the major party to rule. On the other hand, for small parties with loyal electorate, it is very little reason to fear the elections - there's very high probability that they will keep their representation nearly unchanged. This makes it harder to preserve the coalition since for some parties, the talks become "my way or highway".

On the other hand, for a major party elections can be very convenient if they expect that the situation on the ground changed in a way that would allow them to have stronger position or more agreeable coalition partners and since as described above they always have "hard-bargaining" partners, they could pass the responsibility for the elections onto them. Since many of these small parties do have a loyal electorate, it is a win-win situation - those who vote for that small party keep doing it because they "didn't sell out", while those who didn't are energized by the desire to "show these bastards" and strengthen the other side. Since neither side is able to achieve domination, and the only way to try and gain tactical advantage is the elections, the elections happen more frequently.

Alternative to this may be so called "national unity government" where major parties come together to form a broad coalition. However those are usually unstable since the incentive for each one to break the coalition and have all the pie for itself instead of sharing it with others appears too great. Those usually dissolve as each party wants to try and take over. One of the most notorious examples of it is known in the Israeli politics as "the stinking trick". Reading it you can see all the machinery in motion - attempts at power grab, selling political power, fickle coalition partners, high price paid for their temporary loyalties, etc.

  • I used to agree with the "small parties" theory (as does pretty much anyone discussing Israeli politics, including Israeli politicians), but as the research in my answer shows, it appears that most of the recent failures were not directly attributable to small parties (well, technically, Tal law failure in 2012 was because of Shas which may or may not be classified as small party). But even if you count that, you only can attribute 1.5 failures out of 6. – user4012 Mar 25 '13 at 15:28
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    The small parties do not directly cause the elections. They cause the unstable coalitions and the high price of maintaining those coalitions - which when compared to the price/risk of the elections often comes higher. If coalitions were easier to organize and maintain, the risk of the elections would be comparatively higher and thus they were happening more often. Not frequently small parties decide "let there be election" but sometimes the major party sees that with current layout they can not do anything and small parties are not willing to move - so the major ones go to the elections. – StasM Mar 25 '13 at 22:41

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