It’s almost unthinkable, but how would a minority government work?
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It’s almost unthinkable, but how would a minority government work?

No minority coalition has ever been formed immediately following elections but Israeli law does not explicitly state that a new government must enjoy absolute majority support

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches rival Benny Gantz as they and other party leaders including Avigdor Liberman and Aryeh Deri prepare to pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The leaders of the two religious parties on Wednesday signed onto a pledge put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which they vowed not to join a minority coalition backed by the Joint List alliance of majority-Arab parties.

The move came as reports swirled over the possibility of the creation of a minority government led by the centrist Blue and White party and supported from outside the coalition by the Joint List and the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party.

But at no point since last month’s election has Gantz expressed any intention to form a minority coalition with Labor and the Democratic Camp (44 seats in total) with the outside support of the Joint List and Yisrael Beytenu, who would agree not to vote to topple the government — the scenario outlined in the Netanyahu-initiated pledge signed by leaders of United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Jewish Home-National Union.

In Israel, minority governments are rare. The few cases of minority governments took place after one or more factions withdrew from a coalition mid-term, as happened with the 1992 Rabin government after the withdrawal of Shas, or the 1999 Barak government after the withdrawal of Meretz, the National Religious Party and Shas.

And no minority government has ever been formed immediately following elections.

The plenum hall of the Knesset during the opening ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Nevertheless, the relevant Basic Law does not explicitly state that a new government must enjoy the support of an absolute majority of Knesset members.

The establishment of a minority government right after parliamentary elections, while unprecedented in Israel, is thus theoretically an option, constitutional scholars agree.

In principle, the candidate whom the president grants the right to form a government does not need a majority of 61 to do so. All that is really needed is a situation in which more hands vote in favor of the government than oppose it.

“It’s certainly a possible scenario,” said Prof. Gideon Rahat, who teaches political science at the Hebrew University. “Minority governments exist all over the world. In this particular case, the Joint List and [Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor] Liberman do not need to actively support Gantz. All they need to do is to not oppose him.”

Minority governments are quite common in democracies such as Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Spain, and minority governments are currently serving in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Sweden.

It is clear, however, that such a government in Israel would be very shaky. The coalition would not have a Knesset majority and thus would have to constantly bargain for the support of other factions in order to pass laws and other decisions.

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Research literature on minority governments shows different findings on whether they are less stable or less efficient. The latest data shows that it depends on the exact composition but it does not necessarily lead to less stability,” said Prof. Assaf Shapira of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“But Israel does not have a tradition of minority government, and that is a key factor,” he added. “Yes, there are parliamentary systems that have a long and established tradition of minority governments, and it has happened here under specific circumstances, but it does not appear to be a model that produces long-term stability.”

According to Shapira, however, the threat of third elections could force a change in the political culture.

“No one wants third elections and when the pressure is on, if another government can’t be formed again [like after the April elections], both sides — Blue and White and Likud — could look into the option seriously.”

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