Alon van Dam

How the Israeli Elections Work (in excruciating detail)

Welcome to Election Day 2015! As you’re reading this, the 5,881,696 eligible voters in Israel are enjoying the beautiful weather on their free day and wondering whether there’s a point in dragging themselves to stand in line for one of the 10,372 ballot boxes across the country. It is my fervent hope that many of them do and that the turnout will trump the 67.77% of the 2013 elections.

What follows is an article that outlines the finer points how elections in Israel actually work in 4 easy steps. Readers who really like getting into the nuts and bolts of how Knessets and governments are chosen: watch out for step 2, it’s a doozy.

Step 1: Voting

Voting in Israel is a rather archaic affair. Rather than tapping a computer screen, ticking a box, or punching out a chad, citizens of the Start-Up Nation are spending their day putting pieces of paper into envelopes and then putting those envelopes into cardboard boxes. It’s riveting.

Citizens in Israel vote for predetermined ‘lists’ rather than individuals. When arriving to the polling station, voters receive an envelope and walk behind a screen to find a box filled with ballots for each of the 25 lists that have registered with the Central Elections Committee. Each ballot is emblazoned with 1-4 letters of the party’s choosing that identifies it. These can either make sense (Meretz’ and Shas’ ballots spell the parties’ names), be catchy (Yesh Atid spells “here”, Jewish Home spells “good”), have ancient significance (Likud’s “Mahal” and the Zionist Union’s “Emet” are acronyms of a bygone era) and some just tell you what you need to know (“L” is for Lieberman!).

The voter puts their chosen ballot into the envelope, seals it, has the sealed envelope signed by a representative of the CEC and then puts it into the ballot box. Naturally, putting multiple ballots into the envelope, writing on the ballot or any other funny business will see the vote disqualified.

At 10pm the polling stations will close, media will begin releasing exit polls and tens of thousands of people will start counting the votes. This is where the magic happens.

Step 2: Allocating Seats

The Israeli Knesset has 120 seats. Translating votes into seats is rather complex and happens by the Bader-Ofer system, which internationally is called the Hagenbach-Bischoff variant of the d’Hondt method. I’m sorry; I swear I didn’t make any of this up. I’m going to explain the entire system in detail below, please feel free to skip to the next step if you’re a sane person who’s utterly bored by this.

  1. Israel recently raised its election threshold to 3.25%. That means that any list that received less than 3.25% than the total of all cast votes has all its votes discarded. You read that correctly – it’s as if those votes never happened. In the 2013 elections, when the threshold was 2%, 268,795 votes went to waste this way.
  2. The valid votes for all parties above the threshold are added up, divided by 120 and then rounded down. The resulting number is called the ‘Net Indicator’, which stood at 29,366 in 2013.
  3. Every party’s votes is then divided by the Net Indicator and rounded down to show the initial seats that each party gets. In 2013, 113 seats were allocated in this manner – meaning 7 were still available.
  4. To see who gets the ‘rest seats’, each party’s votes are divided by their initial seats + 1. Whichever party gets the highest number here (i.e. would have the most votes per seat if they had 1 seat more) gets another seat. This calculation then repeats itself until all seats are allocated, with the new seat total of the party who got the previous rest seat kept into account.
  5. In order to maximize their chances to gain rest seats, two parties can sign a Rest Vote Agreement. This means that for the purposes of step 4 above their votes and seats are tallied. Since that step favors larger parties over smaller ones (the +1 in the denominator lowers the outcome of a party with 5 seats more considerably than a party with 30 seats), this is generally seen as a good idea. In this current election, the following rest vote agreements are in place: Likud-Jewish Home, Zionist Union-Meretz, Kulanu-Israel Betenu, and Shas-United Torah Judaism.
  6. Finally, rest seats gained by such agreements need to be allocated between the parties in the agreement. To that end, the new total of seats by the combination is divided by their total votes, yielding a ‘Combination Indicator’. The votes of the individual party is now divided by the combination indicator and rounded down, resulting in a new seat total per party. If there is a seat left to divide between them afterwards, they each divide their votes by their new seats +1; the party with the higher number gains the seat.

There, that’s it. The seats are now all allocated. Incidentally, I built an Excel spreadsheet that does all of this automatically, which I would be happy to make available if anyone’s interested.

Step 3: Recommending a Prime Minister

After the results are finalized and officially published by the CEC the leaders of the parties elected to Knesset will make their way to the President’s Residence, in order of seats, for tea, crumpets and giving their party’s recommendation for what a new government should look like and who should head it.

Despite what most people in Israel believe, the President is under no legal obligation to heed any of these suggestions. Section 7(a) of Basic Law: The Government reads “…the President of the State shall, after consultation with representatives of party groups in the Knesset, assign the task of forming a Government to a Knesset Member who has notified him that he is prepared to accept the task”.

While the President can name any MK, custom suggests that every party leader’s recommendation is a number of votes for a Prime Minister equal to that party’s number of seats, and that the President should name the person receiving the most recommendations. Regardless, the President has to name a person within 7 days of the election results being published.

In a stunning show of democracy, given how close these current elections are likely to be between the ‘Center-Left’ camp and the ‘Right’ camp, the person selected to form the government will probably be whomever tiebreaker and kingmaker Moshe Kachlon will recommend to the President.

Step 4: Forming a Coalition

From the moment of being appointed, the person selected has 28 days to present a government to the President. At this stage, the only legal requirement on this ‘government’ is that it should contain ‘ministers’. Quite.

After this presentation, the Knesset must pass a Vote of Confidence in the government and its coalition agreement. This vote of confidence is probably the only time in a Knesset’s term when all 120 of its members are in plenum. This means that a coalition that wishes to pass the vote should consist of parties numbering 61 MKs together. The other option is constructing a minority coalition with express provisions to placate certain opposition parties, like Prime Minister Rabin’s government in the early 90s.

Coalition negotiations are where horse trading happens, if ministerial posts, committee leaderships and policy proposals were horses. The small parties have immense bargaining power here. The Prime Minister-elect knows that if he/she can’t form a government in the allotted time, someone else will get an opportunity to try. Therefore, senior ministries and committees will be given to small parties in order to entice them to join the coalition. Policy matters central to the platforms will be highlighted and anchored in the coalition agreement to allow these smaller parties to justify to their voters why they’re entering government with a party they said just days before was the devil’s own list.

The above is why for the majority of Israel’s existence the ultra-orthodox have had disproportional power in shaping the country’s policies: when giving the left and the right the option between entering a grand coalition with their ideological enemies or recruiting the religious, most have opted for the latter. This is why Israel still doesn’t have civil marriage, public transportation on Saturday and has other policies that I would term ‘religious coercion’.

The PM-elect not only needs to placate the smaller parties, but get them to agree to sit together in government. This can be a rather difficult puzzle to solve: the religious really don’t want to sit with Yesh Atid, Meretz and Israel Betenu won’t sit in government together and other fun aspects of kindergarten politics.

Besides this, the PM-elect also has to keep other members of their party happy by giving them senior ministerial positions, or risk internal opposition to policy proposals and votes. This interplay between needing to give away the best positions and yet keep the best positions inside the party means that it’s impossible for whomever will be the new Prime Minister to keep everyone happy and simultaneously be able to lead the country according to their own vision. The new coalition will be filled with conflict and strife.

This strife will present itself by the junior partners and party rivals of the new Prime Minister trying to grab credit for every success, blame others for every failure, and look for the perfect opportunity to leave the government in a huff to call new elections. It’s truly a wonderful system.

But the most important thing is this: more people voting means a more representative Knesset, while not voting gives disproportional power to those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. The Israeli democracy might not be a perfect one, but at least it’s lively. Happy election day everyone, go vote!

About the Author
Alon van Dam is a Dutch-Israeli political analyst and journalist featured in Haaretz, Metro, NRC and other leading newspapers. A seasoned political campaigner, Alon was Head of Online Strategy for Kadima during the 2009 national elections.
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