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Tags: israel | minority | governments

Why Minority Governments Can Actually Work

exterior view of the knesset
The Israeli Knesset building (Stephan Schulz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Micah Halpern By Friday, 13 March 2020 08:29 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

In parliamentary democracies, after the voting ends, the work of forming a government begins. In Israel's most recent election, it appeared as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party had the clear advantage in the race to form a government. Now, several weeks later, it's not quite that clear anymore.

It appears that rather than a strong majority within the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, a party might govern with a minority government. It's a simple and clear way out for parliamentary democracies. And that's not necessarily bad news.

Israel is not in a political stalemate. I'll explain why. Governments continue in many ways. One way is a minority government, another is a caretaker government.

There are examples throughout Israeli political history of successful minority governments. The best example is from 1993. That's when Shas, the religious Sephardic party, bolted from the Rabin government. And yet, Yitzhak Rabin successfully continued to govern via minority government until 1996. In Israeli politics, that's a resounding success.

For the best example of a caretaker government, look no further than Israel today. This situation has been in place since December 2018. Prime Minister Netanyahu lost a vote of no confidence and has continued to govern through three indecisive election tries until today.  

Israelis consider the number 61 to be a magic number. With a Knesset consisting of 120 members, half plus one should be the way to go. But while it is generally assumed that a minority government is not a very stable government, the truth is that a government with a majority of 61 is not very stable either.  In that situation a government can fall at any time.

The principle of a minority government is that the ruling coalition has less than half of the members in their pocket, 61 in Israel or less than a majority in another government. It comes with the promises of other members of Knesset that they will not vote against the ruling coalition in the case of a vote of 'no confidence'. It is in effect a pledge that any legislation that is passed that will be in the best interest of other parties will be passed with over 60 votes. Passing the annual budget is a perfect example.

The life expectancy of such a government is short, but at least the government and hence the country can begin to function.

In Israel, at this point, both large parties have the ability to create a minority government.

To do so, the Blue/White coalition will depend on 15 members of the Joint Arab list. Given that several members of that list reject Israel's right to exist, they are certainly not dependable. It is also reasonable to assume that two members of the Blue/White party are against an agreement with the Joint Arab List. Should the rest of the party go along with the plan they may bolt. That would bring the Blue/White coalition with the Joint Arab list to a total of only 60.

And if they bolt, that also brings the Likud coalition to 60.

Not enough to fell a government in a vote of no confidence.

The minority governments that have successfully existed in Israel in the past had a purpose. In European parliaments, too, those minority governments that have been successful in the short run succeeded because they, too, had a purpose. There are two reasons why minority governments emerge. First, because it is best option available.   Second, because it avoids another election.

Since World War II fully one-third of the 29 European parliamentary democracies have been minority governments. In Denmark, for example 89% of the governments formed have been minority governments. Often these governments are based on "jumping majorities." That is when different supporters join the majority at different times. The other style of minority government is called a "loser alliance." That is when an agreement is made between enough people to keep the government in place.

Currently, in Europe, there are 14 minority governments — that is half of the parliamentary democracies of Europe. Even Great Britain, known for its very contentious parliament had a minority government under Prime Minister John Major from 1996 to 1997. In Canada, in 2019, Justin Trudeau created a minority government.

In Israel, a majority of Knesset members is not needed to swear in a government. The government can just operate after being appointed by the president. In Israel, a special majority is only needed to change "Basic Laws" but for nothing else.

If Europe can successfully navigate through minority governments, Israel can do it, too. The question is whether Israeli leadership is wise enough to see the situation as it is — and to then proceed responsibly.

If the two Blue/White members leave, they will have to create their own, new party. According to Israeli law they cannot switch to existing party — if they do they are prohibited to run in the next election cycle.

But know this: if the stalemate continues and nobody switches, or if no agreement for a minority government is reached, Israel is in store for a fourth election.

Stay tuned.

Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern" a weekly TV program and "My Chopp" a daily radio spot. A dynamic speaker, he specializes in analyzing world events and evaluating their relevance and impact. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. To read more of this reports — Click Here Now.

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For the best example of a caretaker government, look no further than Israel today. Prime Minister Netanyahu lost a vote of no confidence and has continued to govern through three indecisive election tries until today.  
israel, minority, governments
Friday, 13 March 2020 08:29 AM
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