Since last week’s elections, I’ve been thinking about the size of political parties in Israel. We have gone from a Knesset in which the largest party has as many as 56 seats (Mapai in the seventh Knesset), or one in which two parties have over 40 seats (the Alignment and Likud in the tenth Knesset) to a Knesset where the largest party has as few as 26 seats (One Israel in the 15th Knesset). The last time a party passed the 40-mark was in 1996, the last elections before the change to direct prime ministerial elections.
Why has this happened? To further complicate the question, look no further than the election threshold. Today, in order to have any representation in the Knesset, a party must win at least 2% of the vote, meaning the minimum number of seats for any party is two. However, the election threshold has not always been at this level, and for most of the state’s existence the figure was only 1%. Indeed, in the eighth Knesset, the Alignment had 56 seats, but there was also a party with only one seat. One would think that with the raising of the threshold, fewer people would vote for smaller parties. Yet, the opposite has happened. Today, when representation by a single seat is not even possible, the representation of smaller parties in in the Knesset is far greater than it was in the past.
After reading Avraham Poraz’s piece in Haaretz (which I could not find in English), I think I finally have the answer. His overall point is irrelevant here (he has some weird, inconsequential idea of how to change the electoral system), but he does make one important note. Opponents of the direct elections experiment (1996-2001) based their claims on the fact that such a system would destroy the large parties, and give too much power to smaller parties.
They were right. In the Knesset before the first time Israelis voted directly for PM, the largest party had 44 seats, which dropped to 34 in those elections. The two largest parties have historically been the major players in any Knesset. In those elections that figure dropped from 76 to 66 (a decrease of 13%). The average combined size of the two largest parties, including every single Knesset since 1948, is 69.77. However, when calculating the same figure pre-1996 (the first direct elections), the figure jumps to 75.77. Since the implemention (and subsequent cancellation) of direct elections, the average combined size of the two largest parties is 54.2.
The public used to be very committed to either Labor or Likud (in any of their incarnations), and the average voter wanted to vote for the prime minister. Along came the wonders of two-ticket voting and people realized they can vote for a party without a candidate for prime minister. What seems to have happened is that a greater percentage public has fallen in love with voting for smaller party, and unlike pre-1996, they have simply decided not to give up that habit.