Israel will go to the polls again in September as coalition talks fail

Fresh elections will be held in Israel on 17th September after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to secure a new coalition deal. This will be the first time that the country has faced two general elections in one year.

The results of April’s election were, as ever, inconclusive and required a coalition. Netanyahu seemed in prime position to bring together right wing and religious parties under the leadership of his Likud Party, but former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman held out for his plan to force ultra-orthodox students to complete military service – something that angered religious parties. 

With no deal apparent by the deadline of midnight on Wednesday, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin would have had the ability to ask another member of parliament – either from within the putative right ring coalition or former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz whose Blue and White Party came second – to try to form a government. However the Parliament chose instead to force another election.

Netanyahu will be hoping that he can pin the blame for the failure of talks on Lieberman and persuade voters to return a stronger Likud presence. Gantz will be seeking to capitalise on the failure to form a right wing government to make gains for the centre and left. But any changes in outcome will likely be small and a further period of coalition negotiations will be needed.

One consequence of this vote will be that Netanyahu, who will continue as Prime Minister until the election, will become Israel’s longest-serving leader in July. He is still awaiting possible bribery and fraud charges.

Netanyahu threatens a second election as coalition talks stall

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to call fresh elections as talks to form a new coalition have stalled. By law, a new cabinet has to be in place by Wednesday, but former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ultranationalist secular party, Yisrael Beiteinu has failed to find common ground with religious parties over plans to force ultra-orthodox religious students to undertake national service.

If no cabinet can be presented to the President by Wednesday then another MP could be asked to try. This, however, is unlikely to succeed as Netanyahu is the dominant force in Israeli politics.

Israel has never had two parliamentary elections in a year and it seems likely that Lieberman will back down to avoid being labelled as the cause of instability. Netanyahu is putting pressure on his proposed ally by means of a bill to force new elections.

Has the UK failed some voters?

A big caveat for this article – I’m relying on news reports. And whilst there are multiple sources, this is not a substitute for a proper election observation.

But nevertheless, it does seem that many of those UK citizens who live overseas and who wanted to vote in the European Parliamentary election did not receive their ballot paper in good time and also that many of those EU citizens who were in the UK and wanted to vote here were prevented from doing so.

Let’s take each of those situations in turn. First up, UK citizens voting from abroad.

The law is that to be on the electoral role a UK citizen has to be normally resident at a UK address or have left to live overseas within the last 15 years. In the latter case, a person will retain a place on the electoral roll in the council and constituency they last lived in.

Until a few years ago, ballot papers would not be sent overseas and such electors would need to appoint a proxy – someone to vote for them who lives in the UK. But now they can be sent abroad, but at the risk of different postal services – you take the chance of the ballot paper being stuck in the post in either direction. But there is a good faith argument to be made. The council sending out the ballot should be doing so early enough in the process to give the voter every chance of receiving it and returning it in time for it to be counted. In this election a number of authorities sent out postal votes very early – at a time when the government was still claiming the election might be cancelled. So it was perfectly possible to ensure overseas electors had the maximum chance of casting a vote. However it is alleged that some councils did not send out ballots to overseas electors in good time. 

I suspect that this is going to be a matter that will have to be investigated on a council by council basis. They all keep records as to when each batch of ballots are sent out and so this will be relatively easy to do.

I’ll come back to what could be done for the future, but a number of current MEPs have suggested that returning officers accept any ballot that is received before the count begins on Sunday. That might be a sensible compromise.

There are also the cases of EU citizens living in the UK. The law says that an EU citizen can choose to vote where they live or in their country of citizenship if the two are different. But they can only vote once and the country concerned must have a process to enable a challenge in the case of an accusation of multiple voting.

So in the UK, an EU citizen must first be on the electoral roll – as a UK citizen has to be. The UK interpretation of the ‘challenge’ rule is to require them also to fill in a form (known as UC1 or EC6) to formalise their choice to vote in the UK and renounce their right to vote in that election in their country of citizenship. A couple of former Lib Dem MEPs – Andrew Duff and Sarah Ludford – have suggested this is a case of ‘gold-plating’, ie making a simple requirement far more complex than it needs to be.

What appears to have happened is that some EU citizens were not made aware of this requirement, including some who specifically asked about a form but were told by their council that they were ok to vote and didn’t need to fill it in. Others were sent the form far too late to return it by the deadline of 7th May. And there appear to have been some presiding officers who got confused about the rules and mis-informed legitimate voters, telling them they could not vote.

The Electoral Commission has laid the blame squarely with the government. They said that the government knew about this confusion but, because of the intention to leave the EU before these elections, chose not to do anything about it. And once participation became the only option, it was too late to do anything about it.

So what can be done? To be honest, very little that can give votes to those who missed out. The principle in the UK is that elections are only ever overturned or re-run in cases where it can be proved that the result was changed by fraud or official failure. That is a pretty high bar and almost impossible to clear in an election spread across regions of the UK.

But, the case for legal action does not begin and end with a re-run. Managing elections is an official duty and so there may be a case for investigation to see if that official duty has been breached. The standard in such cases is pretty low – that an official ‘is guilty of an act or omission in breach of that duty’ (RPA 1950 s.32 as amended). So if it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that a returning officer or registration officer failed in their duty to properly manage the process then they run the risk of a fine or even jail time.

I’m not going to suggest whether any individual should be taken to court. There are those (including Democracy Volunteers and the electors affteced) who know more about each case. But if such breaches did occur in an election being observed by a recognised group then you could be sure that they would be highlighted in the observation report and recommendations would be made for the future. Such recommendations might include:

  • Ensuring that all presiding officers, electoral registration officers and returning officers are properly trained and resourced for the specific election they are managing. Presiding officers should have up to date manuals for the right election to hand.
  • Ending the haphazard nature of local decision making for national elections. There should be a defined timetable managed by the Electoral Commission with which each returning officer must comply.
  • Local councils should understand the precious nature of the elections they are managing. Giving incorrect information to electors – even if done unintentionally – should be regarded as a serious failing.

Above all, these reports show that UK elections are not perfect. We might not have the same problems that exist in other countries, but we do have issues and we should acknowledge the fact and seek to address them as soon as possible.

Australia to vote on May 18th

Australians will vote for a new lower house of parliament on May 18th after PM Scott Morrison announced the widely expected polls. In a very Australian turn of phrase, Morrison described the vote about giving people a ‘fair go’.

The current government is formed by a coalition of Morrison’s Liberal Party (he took over as PM after ousting Malcolm Turnbull last year) and the National Party. In Australian terms the Liberal Party is a broadly conservative force. The opposition is dominated by the Labor Party. The current parliament has a number of independents who have exerted a lot of power over the minority government.

Elections to the House of Representatives are conducted using the alternative vote (or instant runoff voting) in single member constituencies and voting is compulsory. At the last election, the Liberal/National coalition was re-elected with 76 seats – a bare one seat majority in the 150 seat house. Labor won 69 seats and Greens, Centre Party, Australia Party and two independents won a seat each.

Since the 2016 poll, two Liberal members faced (and won) by-elections caused by the dual nationality crisis. One Labor member faced a by-election for similar reasons and the party held the seat. At present five seats are vacant – four due to the nationality issue.

Current polls put the coalition marginally ahead with 38%, Labor on 35%, the Greens on 11%, One Nation on 5% and others on 10%. However, the AV election system often results in straight fights between the top two parties after minor candidates have been eliminated. The majority of these voters favour Labor and so the two party preference polling currently shows the party leading 52-48 over the coalition.

Netanyahu wins in Israel for the 5th time

[Updated to reflect the final vote tallies and that The New Right slipped below the threshold]

Israel has voted and it seems pretty clear that Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in his aim of becoming the country’s longest serving Prime Minister. After a fractious campaign against the new Blue and White Party led by former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Netanyahu is in the best place to form a ruling coalition.

As ever in Israel, no single party has enough seats to form a government on its own. The national list system, combined with a 3.25% threshold, means that there are going to be either 11 or 12 parties in the 120 seat Knesset. And with religious parties and parties on the right being able to muster around 67 of those seats, Netanyahu is in a much stronger position than Gantz.

As things stand, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party holds 36 seats. Their potential coalition partners line up as follows:

Shas 8; UTJ 7; Yisrael Beytenu 5; Kulanu 4; URP 5;

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party holds 35 seats, and the rest of the opposition is:

Labor 6; Meretz 4; Hadash-Ta’al 6; Ra’am-Balad 4.

After voting was over and all ballots have been counted, there was still some uncertainty. The New Right, a party formed by former Minister Neftali Bennet, was briefly listed as securing 3.26% of the vote. But the Central Election Committee reviewed some of the ballots cast by soldiers and others using an absentee ‘double envelope’ system. As a result,  TNR slipped below the threshold and lost their four seats. This didn’t change the overall outcome of the election that much, but still constitutes a massive failure for Bennet who helped to bring down the previous government when he walked out of Netanyahu’s cabinet.

Formally, the parties have two weeks of horse-trading before the President calls them in to see who can form a government. He does not have to call on a party leader to be the new Prime Minister, but it seems all but certain that Netanyahu will be receiving the call.

The campaign itself was dominated by unprecedented interventions from abroad with Netanyahu getting the explicit backing of Donald Trump (who announced his support for formally recognising the Golan Heights as part of Israeli territory) and implicit support from Russian, Brazillian and Indian leaders. Netanyahu pulled his traditional last minute rabbit out of the hat by suggesting that he will look to annexe much of the West Bank into Israel. Whether he follows through on this pledge is still in the air.

The other key issue is an investigation by the Attorney General into Netanyahu over ossies of corruption. The indictment has been published and looks strong but will the Prime Minister excape being charged by adopting some form of immunity – the so-called ‘French law’? Will he then seek to become President and avoid the courts for a further 10 years? What will that do for confidence in the Israeli political and judicial system? All these are questions that will dominate Israeli politics for some time to come.

Thai election candidates seek attention with name changes

The Guardian reports the news that 15 candidates in Thailand’s general election have changed their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck – the names of previous Prime Ministers. According to the paper, the tactic is to make candidates memorable to voters in a country where campaign laws are pretty restrictive.

theresa-may-lord-buckethead-united-kingdom-electionIn the UK we have some history of candidates changing their names, although few have tried this particular tactic. Lord Buckethead is one name that appeared on a ballot paper but probably wasn’t on the candidate’s birth certificate.

More controversial was the practice of spoof party names which closely mirrored those of real parties. In the 1994 European Elections, Richard Huggett stood as a Literal Democrat candidate for the Devon and East Plymouth seat, taking more votes than the Conservative Party margin over the Liberal Democrats, leading to a legal challenge by the Liberal Democrat candidate. The subsequent 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act ensured that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again in the future.

In other countries, similar tactics were also used. In the Russian Duma elections of 2003, newly elected President Vladimir Putin faced real challenges to his authority. His United Russia Party needed to win or he ran the risk of being a one term president. The main challengers were the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (a fiercely nationalist party which, now known simply as LDPR, continues to contest elections under its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and the Communist Party. New parties – Rodina and The Party of Russia’s Rebirth – were created, allegedly aiming to draw votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Communists.

Ukraine Presidential Election latest

The build-up to Ukraine’s Presidential Election continues. 

1. A primer on the politics of Ukraine

If you want a (western) academic view on the forthcoming race, this 30 minute YouTube video by Professor Taras Kuzio is worth watching. It was created in July last year and so does not take into account all the latest developments, but is a good primer.

 

2. Disenfranchisement of IDPs

Elsewhere, Open Democracy have published a paper about the disenfranchisement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) for local elections in Ukraine. Although people who have moved from the Donbas because of the conflict there are able to vote in Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the paper suggests that excluding them from local elections is both unfair and liable to convey the message that they are not ‘proper’ citizens. It may affect their participation in the Presidential election.

3. The political novice

Andreas Umland, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, has written about the candidacy of the actor and TV producer Volodymyr Zelens’kyy in the Presidential race. Zelens’kyy played the character of the President in the TV show ‘Servant of the People’ and is now the candidate on behalf of the party with the same name.

Umland says that there are significant downsides to Zelens’kyy’s candidacy, not least his lack of any governmental experience. Whilst TV can write situations for a novice president to navigate, how transferrable is that to real life? On the other hand, Umland argues that Zelens’kyy has changed the debate around the Presidential elections. He says that voters regard the two leading candidates – Poroshenko and Tymoshenko – as old news and debate had ossified as a result. He also identifies Zelens’kyy’s jewish roots and south east (Russian speaking) Ukrainian origins as being different from the mainstream debate.

Note: The links shown are the views of the individual authors and not of myself.