Israel runs on a parliamentary system, where dozens of political parties compete, and rarely does any single one achieve a majority. Instead, larger parties must partner with smaller ones to create a “governing coalition.” This is how a Prime Minister whose party won perhaps only 23% of total votes will appoint rival politicians to important roles, such as defense or finance.
The Electoral Process
The previous Knesset passes a law setting a date for new elections. This means 51% of Knesset members believe there is some benefit to be gained by reallocating Knesset seats.
Political parties choose their slates of candidates and sometimes hold primaries to determine their “list”– the individuals who will represent the party in the Knesset. Since the number of individuals who actually get into the Knesset depends on the number of seats that party receives, having a high place on the list is desirable. In the general election, voters must cast their ballot for a single party, not individuals, and the parties will win a proportion of seats equal to their proportion of the national vote. In some parties, for example in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the party leader appoints the list without a primary. Even in parties with primaries, certain spots are reserved by the leadership for important constituency representatives, ranging from kibbutzniks to women to Arab Israeli citizens.
Parties begin publically campaigning ahead of election day. Since no party ever wins a majority of seats alone, parties also jockey for potential coalition partners and often announce publicly whom they will or won’t consider joining. Although individual candidates can be funded by interests outside Israel for the primaries, in the general election funding for the parties is public and confined to Israel.
Israelis cast their single ballot by voting for a party. If Likud wins 10% of votes, they will receive 10% of Knesset seats, meaning 120 seats times 10% equals 12 Members of Knesset.
The President of Israel – a largely ceremonial position – consults with every party elected to the Knesset and then decides which party will be tapped first to build a coalition representing 51% or more of the Knesset. If successful, the head of this party will become Prime Minister. Usually, but not always, this is the leader of the party that received the most votes. Sometimes the President selects the head of the party that can form a governing coalition even if another party received more votes, such as in 2009 when Tzipi Livni’s Kadima had the most votes but was not asked to form the government.
Negotiation is fierce, as the final agreement effectively predetermines the state’s budget, priorities, cabinet positions, and policies. Parties unable to join the coalition are largely out of power. The Opposition leader is the head of the largest party outside of the governing coalition.
The new Knesset is convened and approves the new Cabinet, including the new Prime Minister, who assume office. Should a significant issue arise that divides the member parties of the coalition, meaning that the coalition has lost its majority, the coalition may attempt to continue to govern with minority support, the Knesset may select a new governing coalition, or early elections may be called. The “nation-state” bill was one of the reasons given for the breakup of the last government and the calling of the upcoming elections.
About Israel’s electoral system:
- Israeli Electoral System, by Zvi Hellman
- Comparing the US and Israeli Electoral Systems, by the Israeli Embassy
About this year’s election:
- Must-Read Articles by NIF Staff
- Wikipedia’s Israeli Legislative Elections – 2013 and 2015