Parity for All

I enjoy learning new words when I read books, magazines and newspapers. Today I discovered the word paritetic as I read about the negotiations to form the next Israeli government. The word comes from parity, and describes a method of governance in which two groups are given completely equal power.

The concept is totally foreign in the American system of winner-takes-all politics. In our country, whoever gets the most votes, even if the difference between the two top candidates is one vote, gets the position. We also only have two major parties that can control Congress, unlike Israel where 9 parties will enter the next Knesset.

In our binary system, the loser of the election has virtually no institutional power, but in Israel that is not the case. Avigdor Lieberman, whose party won only 8 out of 120 seats, fifth best in the voting, is considered the kingmaker in Israeli politics because his seats in the Knesset tip the balance.

Usually in Israeli politics one party can form a government by cobbling together a coalition of diverse groups, but sometimes this is impossible. In such a case, as we have today when it seems neither the Blue and White nor Likud parties can put together 61 seats in the Knesset, talk turns to a government of national unity in which the two largest parties form the coalition.

This is the option favored by Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who has proposed a special kind of paritetic unity government, last seen in Israel in 1984, when neither the Likud nor the Alignment (Labor) parties could form a coalition. Instead the two came together in a fully equal government: each party would hold the prime minister position for two years in rotation and, crucially, the cabinet contained exactly equal numbers of ministers from each party.

This last provision was crucial since it ensured that the parties had to govern together because each had a veto over major decisions, even if the other party held the premiership. Such a government is difficult to manage, and Israel has only tried it once, but the only other option may be a staggering third election in a year.

The idea of a parity government is intriguing, especially in a religious context. Another example of the form comes from early modern Germany, when some cities, following the Protestant Reformation, had equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants in government offices. Today Lebanon has a similar form a government, where offices are specifically reserved for Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Today it is so easy to stay in our bubbles, surrounded only by people who share our views, and certainly America’s winner-take-all system leaves the political losers feeling dejected and powerless. In our increasingly fractured world, perhaps we need more paritetic institutions, where people have to work together, in unity and equality, with the other side.

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