AJC's Israel Elections Guide: How do the Elections Work?
This post is the first in a series about the upcoming March 17 Israeli national elections. The other posts can be viewed at AJC Elections Central.
To help you follow the upcoming Israeli elections, here’s a
rundown of what will go into creating a new government—before, during, and
after the March 17 elections. Read on:
Before the election
from campaigning, a great deal of strategic shuffling takes place prior to
Election Day. First, there are party
formations and mergers. Each of the last several election seasons has seen at
least one serious new party emerge. In 2013, it was Yesh Atid, headed by former
broadcaster Yair Lapid, which won the most seats of any single party. This year
the nascent Kulanu, under the leadership of the popular former communications
minister Moshe Kahlon, seems poised to perform well at the polls. Also, just as
in 2013 the center-right united around Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, this year the
center-left is uniting around a merged Labor-Hatnuah list. Finally, each party
determines its list of Knesset candidates. Some, like The Jewish Home, do so
through primaries, ranking their list by the number of votes each candidate
received from the party members. Other party lists—such as those of Yesh Atid
and Kulanu—are set by the party leader. Finally, some parties use a hybrid
model, reserving spots to be filled by the party leader on an otherwise elected
list. This stage of the election has just been completed.
During the election
is elected through proportional representation. There are no geographic
districts—the entire country makes up a single, 120-member district. Whereas in
the U.S. voter turnout rates are traditionally quite low—only 36% of Americans
of voting age cast ballots in 2014—the voting rate in Israel approaches 70%.
Knesset seats are allocated based on the percentage of the vote each party
wins. However, there is an electoral threshold of 3.25%. This means that in order for a party to earn
any seats it must earn at least 3.25% of the total vote—equivalent to four
seats—rather than the .83% of the vote that would theoretically be required for
one seat. This is a relatively low threshold compared to the 5%-thresholds in
Germany and New Zealand, or the 10%-threshold in Turkey. The low threshold
ensured that of the 36 parties that ran in the 2013 elections, 13 earned seats.
This distribution of seats among many small and medium-sized parties has so far
made it impossible for any one party to gain a majority, and makes it difficult
to arrange and maintain the necessary coalitions to form and sustain
After the election
Once the votes are in, the
president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, will be responsible for choosing a party
leader to be the “formateur,” responsible for creating the coalition
government. That person will do so by promising ministerial portfolios, funding
for pet projects, and pledges to advance legislation that may entice parties
into joining the government. In 2013, then-President Shimon Peres picked
Benjamin Netanyahu to form the government even though Netanyahu’s Likud party
won fewer seats than Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Peres made this decision because
he felt that Netanyahu—whose Likud ran jointly with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael
Beiteinu party, and thus represented a large list—was the likeliest party
leader to be able to build a governing coalition. This proved correct, as
Netanyahu quickly assembled a coalition of five parties.
The current government, which was
supported by 68 out of the 120 members, is a surplus majority government,
meaning that it includes parties that are unnecessary for maintaining a
majority. This is common practice, since the intensely factionalized Israeli
polity can easily lead to the defection of one or more parties from the
government over such divisive issues as negotiations with the Palestinians or
secular-religious tensions. By including extraneous parties, formateurs are
better able to ensure the long-term survival of their coalitions.
This post is the first in a series about the upcoming March 17 Israeli national elections. The other posts can be viewed at AJC Elections Guide.
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By Shira Loewenberg, Director of AJC's Asia Pacific Institute
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