And another Israeli election rolls around – the fifth in just over twelve years. In most places, early elections suggest political excitement: crisis, change, dramatic swings. Not so in Israel, where they reflect minor reshuffles among the same cast of characters. In fact I can’t really think of another democracy whose elections so consistently seem to lack zest.
Three factors conspire to produce that effect: a strongly proportional electoral system, a dysfunctional party system and a high degree of underlying stability in electoral behavior. Party names come and go, but the basic options on offer change very little. Relatively few voters shift between them, and the electoral system faithfully reflects the resulting mix of preferences in all its confused glory.
The last election, two years ago, produced what was clearly (if very narrowly) a right-wing majority, but it was split between the religious right, in the shape of the Jewish fundamentalist parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the more secular racists of Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu. In the long period of negotiations that followed the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to ditch the religious parties and compile a majority coalition that embraced the centrist parties Yesh Atid (which had scored a surprising second place) and Hatnuah.
By late last year, however, Netanyahu’s patience with the centrists had worn out and he chose to break the coalition and try his luck with fresh elections. In one sense it’s a gamble, but the general shape of the results is eminently predictable.
However well Likud does, a purely right-wing coalition is going to be subject to much the same difficulties as last time. That doesn’t make it impossible, just difficult. And while Netanyahu has tacked rightwards during the campaign – most notably in his comments on Monday ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state – there is nothing to suggest he will abandon his longstanding wish for some centrist presence in the government to provide a sort of ideological cover.
Conversely, while this election will probably produce what 2013 narrowly failed to, namely a notional centre-left majority, the overwhelming odds are that it will remain purely notional. Such a majority would depend crucially on the votes of the Arab or non-Zionist parties (this year combined in the “Joint List”), and while both they and Labour (running in alliance with Hatnuah as the Zionist Union) might be willing to accept such a situation, it’s unlikely that centrists like Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid would be prepared to make it work.
Some critics argue that Labour’s real aim is not to force Netanyahu out but to do well enough to obtain favorable terms in a grand coalition with him. Personally I don’t quite buy the cynical explanation, but even if that’s not the objective of Labour leader Isaac Herzog, it may still be where he ends up.
Polls closed about an hour and a half ago, and exit polls put Likud and the Zionist Union neck and neck. Netanyahu has described it as “a great victory”, but in reality his options are going to be limited. And for all the sound and fury, very little is likely to change.
Updates to come later today (Australian time) when we have some firm numbers.
**UPDATE 1pm Wednesday Israeli time**
Netanyahu’s claims of victory now have a bit more substance with official results (not yet final) showing Likud on 23.4% and 30 seats, 4.5% and six seats ahead of the Zionist Union – a big improvement on what the opinion polls and even the exit polls had predicted.
But as with any proportional system, first place is good for bragging rights and not much else. In total, the parties of the right have dropped four seats to 57, those of the left and centre-left are up four to 42, and two centrist parties, more than ever the kingmakers, have the remaining 21 between them (unchanged, but different parties to last time: Kadima has disappeared and a new centre party, Kulanu, won ten seats).
So change, but really no change. Netanyahu will probably return as prime minister, but that and the shape of his government will be totally dependent on how the next few weeks of negotiations play out.