Frequent Elections and Political Instability

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Israeli law calls for general elections every four years. However, recent Israeli governments have not survived a full term in office. In light of the 2009 elections, IDI Researcher Dr. Ofer Kenig, Knowledge Manager for the Israel Democracy Institute's website, explores the implications of frequent elections on the stability of Israeli democracy government.

After many long months of political uncertainty, the die has finally been cast: the decision has been made to advance the date of the elections for Israel's 18th Knesset. In just a few months, the country's citizens will be summoned to the ballot box once again—for the fifth time in the past ten years—to elect a new parliament. The prevailing feeling among the public is that, in recent years, Israel has gone to the polls too many times and the government has changed hands too often. There are those who argue that these phenomena indicate a degree of chronic instability in Israel's political system that exceeds the norm in Western democracies. Is this in fact true?

It is important to recognize that there is more than one definition of stability. If we speak of the stability of a regime (which is reflected by the lengthy duration of a democratic regime as opposed to one that is in imminent danger of collapse), then Israel is actually an example of a state that has continuously maintained a democratic regime for over sixty years now. And if we consider the country's divided society and the grave threats and challenges confronting the state since its inception, Israel is actually impressive for the robustness of its regime. Political stability, on the other hand, may be measured by the frequency of elections: If citizens are frequently called to the polls, this is an indication of instability. Political stability can also be gauged by tallying the changes of government, since governments can change even without elections. In Israel, there have been 17 general Knesset elections to date, but 31 governments. What this means is that 14 governments were established during a Knesset's term, which also reflects a certain degree of instability.

Therefore, although Israel maintains a stable regime, it is certainly not perceived as being politically stable: Elections take place frequently and governments do not last long. Is this unique to Israel?

According to the figures, not necessarily. If we look at what is happening in other parliamentary democracies, we see that Israel is, in fact, not that exceptional. Elections have recently been held in Austria and Canada, and in both cases, they were early elections, held before the end of the term. Moreover, Austria and Canada, like Israel, have experienced frequent elections and numerous changes of government in the past two decades. Other states, including Japan and Italy, are also marked by frequent changes of government.

In Japan, for example, no fewer than three prime ministers have served since 2005. Granted, all of them belonged to the same party (the Liberal Democrats, or LDP), but the internal primaries for party leader paralyzed the political system for a significant length of time—just as they do in Israel. In Austria, the unity government that was established following the last elections in 2006 soon collapsed. The governing partners, leaders of the two eternal rivals—the People's Party and the Social Democrats—found that they could not bridge the policy gaps between them and decided to advance the elections to late September. Similarly, in the '90s, two general elections were held within a year. The election results indicate that the two parties in power were severely weakened while the parties on the extreme Right became stronger. The new political map that emerged from the elections does not bode well for the Austrian system; the composition of the government to be established is uncertain and it is doubtful that it will govern for an extended period without disruption. Even Canada, which is considered one of the most successful and stable democracies in the world, has recently undergone multiple elections. The current government, like its predecessors, is a minority government. Such governments tend to be short-lived and to have difficulty ruling effectively. In fact, the two most recent parliaments did not even reach the halfway mark (in Canada, the maximum parliamentary term is five years). A similar fate apparently awaits the present parliament as well, which was elected on October 14, 2008.

These cases illustrate that, at the very least, Israel is not alone when it comes to multiple elections and frequent changes of government. While other democracies, such as Britain, Germany and Spain, do demonstrate greater political stability, Israel is not an exceptional case. Of course, this does not mean that the political system in Israel can be characterized as very healthy. The country suffers from a divided parliament, legislative work overload and numerous problems of authority that make it difficult to plan and carry out long-term policy. Certain aspects of the Israeli system that are unique to it also contribute to the lack of stability: lax party discipline, frequent reshuffling of cabinet ministers, and unstable coalitions that do not endure for long. For this reason, there is a need to strive for structural changes in Israel's parliamentary model. The governing of Israel can be improved by introducing gradual changes in the electoral system, by strengthening cohesiveness and discipline within party factions, by bolstering accountability and by reinforcing the Knesset as a body that is charged with overseeing the executive branch. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties' Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.