Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How many political parties are needed to run (ruin) a nation?

Canadians woke up yesterday to a new political reality. The Conservatives won a commanding majority, the Liberals were almost annihilated, the NDP almost tripled their seats in the House and became the official opposition for the first time, and the Bloc Quebecois more or less disappeared from the political map.

Israelis can only look on with envy at a country where a majority government is still very much the norm. In its 63 years of statehood, Israel has never had a majority government. And if the electoral system doesn't change, it never will. We are blessed with an abundance of small parties, each wanting a much bigger slice of the pie than its size warrants.

Israel is so fragmented that even a coalition made up of two or three parties is very much a wet dream. 33 political parties ran in the last Israeli election, but only 13 parties received more than the 2% of votes needed to enter the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). Israel is governed by proportional representation and the number of seats a party is awarded depends on the percentage of votes it receives. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, and the present coalition government required a coalition of 6 of the 13 parties in order to obtain a majority of seats (66).

In Canada, the situation is quite different. There is no proportional representation where candidates enter the House of Commons simply because they are high enough on the party list. Rather, they have to fight tooth and nail in their constituency (riding) in order to win a seat in the House. Here they are much more accountable, for they have a constituency to respond to after they are elected and are just not another number on a party list. This is apparently why small parties have so little influence in Canadian politics. It is one thing to collect votes throughout the nation in order to build up your total percentage of votes. It is quite another thing to obtain enough votes in one specific riding to defeat the candidates of the big political parties. The Green Party did it in one B.C. riding in this election. They put all of their efforts in getting their leader elected there. But while that one seat in the House will provide more opportunity for their voice to be heard, they still have little leverage.

You’d think that Israel would have learnt its lesson by now and would be ready for an electoral change to help it out of this political quagmire. But there is no sign that this will happen soon, and I will let you in for a little secret as to why it won't.

Israelis love to argue. They will do anything for a good argument. It is said that if two Israelis argue, there will be three opinions. A two or three party system offers too much stability for the Israeli mentality. How could the whole Israeli population fit itself into just two or three political parties? Where is there room for the chaotic diversity that Israelis are so fond of? Israelis have a natural flair for creatively creating infrastructures which will ensure discord. And the Israeli electoral system is just one example. If it didn't exist, they would have to invent it.

You might think that Israelis would think twice about voting for a political party that has little chance of passing the 2% threshold. But just try to tell them that they are wasting their vote and see what an argument you'll get. And while Canadians have apparently voted for stability, there appears little room left for argument. Now where's the fun in that?


  1. I like the "2 argue/3 opinions" saying, great! I think there is a fundamental difference in the coalitions formed in Canada and in Israel. In Canada, coalitions are formed to render powerless a minority government which has what I would otherwise call a "block vote". What do I mean? In syndicate lending, most votes require 2/3rds consent therefore providing any lender who has a 1/3rd or greater percentage the ability to block any vote. It forces any "coalition" to include that lender. As Canadian politics requires only a simple majority this allows coalitions to exclude a party that received up to 49% of the seats. Not fair!

  2. David are Israeliis required to vote, like in Australia? I am horrified at the number of Canadians who couldn't be bothered hauling their carcasses in to do their civic duty and vote. They indeed will get the government they deserve - unfortunately so will the rest of us.....

  3. I'm a Canadian, I tried to get people to go out. Personally, I'm of the opinion that Federal Election day's should be holidays so that people have no good excuse. I can't tell you how disappointed I am.

  4. You'd both be better off with a Preferential system like we have in State and Federal Lower Houses.

  5. As in Canada, Israelis are not required to vote. And the end result is pretty much the same. 61.4% of Canadians voted in the last election and 65.2% of Israelis voted in the last Israeli election.

  6. In Israel, election day is a holiday in order to allow as many people as possible to vote. It would be interesting to see if there'd be a significant difference in the number of voters if it weren't a holiday.

  7. Here voting is compulsory. Means you can't be prevented from voting too.