Both the scholarly literature and the empirical reality tend to distinguish between two types of no-confidence votes: regular and constructive. The former is more prevalent and simpler: in order to pass a regular vote of no-confidence (which, in effect, means removing the existing government from power and beginning the process of either replacing it with another one or calling for early elections) the vote must be supported by a majority of the MPs voting. Some countries make this more difficult by requiring a quorum of at least a majority of the MPs in order to vote no-confidence (as in Denmark, Ireland and Italy), while others require a majority of the MPs to support no-confidence in order for the vote to be successful (as in France, Portugal and Sweden).
A constructive vote of no-confidence severely limits the ability of the legislature to bring down the government because it demands two elements that do not exist in a regular vote of no-confidence: the support of an absolute majority of the MPs and an agreement on a candidate to lead an alternative government. In other words, a constructive vote of no-confidence is a vote for a new government that must be supported by an absolute majority (and, by definition, this same absolute majority opposes the existing government).
The constructive vote of no-confidence can create a situation where an absolute majority of the legislature opposes the government, but cannot agree on a candidate to form an alternative government. Coalition governments in general, and minority governments in particular, are thus strengthened if the vote of no-confidence is constructive, especially if the opposition is bilateral.
The constructive vote of no-confidence is quite rare, and only seven countries have adopted it (in chronological order): Germany (after World War II), Spain (after the Franco regime), Hungary, Slovenia and Poland (after the collapse of the Soviet Union), Belgium (in 1995) and Israel (in 2001). The first five adopted the constructive vote of no-confidence after a lengthy authoritarian period and as they embraced democracy, while the last two were stable democracies that adopted the constructive vote of no-confidence as part of a political reform.
The combination of the two requirements for a successful constructive vote of no-confidence makes such a vote extremely difficult and thus rare. Such a vote has taken place only eight times among the six countries other than Israel that have adopted this mechanism.
Until 1995, Belgium had a regular vote of no-confidence; it then underwent comprehensive political reform. Along with a shift of power among the two houses and the creation of a federal state, Belgium adopted the constructive vote of no-confidence. These changes were largely due to the social cleavages in Belgium that cut between the Flemish and Walloon regions, with each side fielding and being represented by separate political parties.
Until 2001, Israel had a regular vote of no-confidence, which was based on the Basic Law: The Government enacted in 1968. However, in 1992 this Basic Law was revised, changing both the electoral and the political system in Israel. The new law established the direct popular election of the Prime Minister, alongside the existing parliamentary elections. This reform forced a change in the vote of no-confidence, because a plurality in the legislature could no longer remove a popularly elected Prime Minister. The new law raised the threshold of no-confidence to an absolute majority; and if such a no-confidence vote passed, it would bring about the mutual dismissal of the Prime Minister and the parliament, heralding new elections for both. The new electoral/political system quickly showed its faults and was abolished after only nine years.
The new 2001 Basic Law brought back a pure parliamentary system, abolishing the separate election of the Prime Minister, but maintaining the requirement of an absolute majority in a vote of no-confidence and added a second criterion – the need to agree on an alternative candidate. However, this agreed-upon alternative prime minister would not take office, but rather would be entrusted with the task of forming a new government. If the government presented did not receive the support of the legislature in a vote of investiture, the legislature would be dispersed prior to the completion of its term and early elections would be held.
In 2001, Israel thus adopted a quasi-constructive vote of no-confidence. The Israeli version created a new formateur, not a new Prime Minister, and could lead to early elections rather than an alternative government. This, however, was never tested because on 11 March 2014, the Israeli parliament once again revised the Basic Law: The Government, particularly the article dealing with the vote of no-confidence.
The new Article 28B states, “An expression of no confidence in the Government will be by a Knesset decision, adopted by the majority the members, to express confidence in an alternative Government that has announced its policy platform, its makeup and distribution of roles among the Ministers…” As of mid-March 2014, Israel has, therefore, adopted a complete constructive vote of no-confidence, along with the provision that an absolute majority can install an alternative Prime Minister, but only if the entire cabinet along with its policy platform are presented to the Knesset.
Article written by Prof. Reuven Y. Hazan
Chair, Department of Political Science
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem