Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Knesset Election 2003: Why Likud Regained Its Political Domination and Labor Continued to Fade Out

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Knesset Election 2003: Why Likud Regained Its Political Domination and Labor Continued to Fade Out

Article excerpt

The January 2003 Israeli elections for the 16th Knesset marked the resurgence of the Likud Party and an electoral disaster for Labor. The elections also marked a return to the old system under which the Prime Minister is chosen from the dominant party rather than elected directly, as had been the case in recent elections. The 2003 vote came in the midst of continuing confrontations with the Palestinian Authority and followed the special election of 2001 in which Ariel Sharon had been chosen as Prime Minister. The article analyzes the 2003 results and their implications for Israeli politics.

The election of Israel's 16th Knesset (Parliament) witnessed the return of both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his party, the nationalist Likud, to a position of political domination. It also witnessed a return to the former voting scheme in which citizens cast a single ballot for one of the competing party lists. Last used in 1992, this scheme was replaced by a new two-ballot system in 1996. According to this unique Israeli invention, voters cast one ballot for a party of their choice and a separate one for Prime Minister. The rationale for the two ballot system was to provide the newly elected Prime Minister with a direct public mandate to free him from the post-election bargaining with the smaller parties. Because such bargaining involved sectarian demands and political blackmailing, it often undermined effective and efficient administration.1 Three Prime Ministers were directly elected under this new scheme: Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Sharon (who was first elected in the so-called special election held only for the post of Prime Minister in 2001). All three, however, still had to cope with a divisive multi-party parliament and were forced to make the same kind of deals the scheme set out to avoid. Thus, it became apparent that the "reform" had done little if anything to remedy the situation and indeed made it more difficult to rule in a stable manner.2 Therefore, the Knesset decided in 2001 to return to the traditional one-ticket voting scheme for the election of the 16th Knesset. Sharon, who initiated this return, became its principal benefactor.

The elections of January 2003 were conducted in the context of intense political, social, and economic instability generated by both internal and external sources. Both Barak and Sharon failed to execute public policies in accordance with public expectations. Both were therefore forced to end their four-year term in office earlier then scheduled. Barak ended his term after only one and half years and Sharon after about two years.

This article provides an answer to the following question: why, in spite of Sharon's poor performance record on almost all political dimensions: security, economics, social justice, religious affairs, and ethnic coherence, the voters did not send him home, but rather rewarded both him and his party. In fact, as a result of the 2003 election the Likud doubled its parliamentary presence and obtained 38 out of the 120 Knesset seats. Labor, the main opposition party, became the principal victim of that election -its size in the Knesset was reduced to 19 members, the lowest ever.

The first part of the article describes the dynamics that led to the 2001 "special election" when Barak lost the post of Prime Minister to Sharon. The second part concentrates on the performance of Sharon's Unity Government and the reasons for its early dissolution. The third part analyzes the 2003 campaign strategies of the 27 competing party lists and explains the victory of both the Likud and Shinui parties, and the defeat of the left bloc parties (Labor, Meretz, and the Arab parties). In the conclusion, special emphasis is placed on the structure of the coalition that was constructed following the election, and an assessment of its durability.


The period between the 15th and the 16th Knesset elections was one of the most tumultuous in Israel's contemporary history. …

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