|ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL MAY 1996|
The framework of the Israeli electoral system is defined in Article 4 of the Basic Law: The Knesset, which states:
"The Knesset shall be elected by general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional elections, in accordance with the Knesset Elections Law; this section shall not be varied save by a majority of the members of the Knesset."
- General: Every Israeli citizen aged 18 or older has the right to vote, and every citizen aged 21 or older is eligible for election to the Knesset. (The president, state comptroller, judges and senior public officials, as well as the chief-of-staff and high-ranking military officers, may not stand for election to the Knesset unless they have resigned their position at least 100 days before the elections.)
- National: The entire country constitutes a single electoral constituency.
- Direct: The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is elected directly by the voters, not through a body of electors.
- Equal: All votes cast are equal in weight.
- Secret: Elections are by secret ballot.
- Proportional: The 120 Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total national vote.
In the past, the task of forming a government and heading it as prime minister was assigned by the president to the Knesset member considered to have the best chance of forming a viable coalition government in light of the Knesset election results. This resulted in a situation which accorded undue influence to small factions which, in return for their support of the coalition, made demands inconsistent with their relative size. In order to prevent this, the Knesset has enacted legislation providing for the direct election of prime minister.
To this end, a new version of the Basic Law: The Government was enacted. This law, which enters into effect with the 1996 elections, together with relevant amendments to the Basic Law: The Knesset and the Knesset Election Law, inaugurates a new electoral system in Israel. For the first time, two separate ballots will be cast, simultaneously: one for the political party chosen by the voter to represent him/her in the Knesset, and the other for prime minister.
Elections to the Knesset remain virtually unchanged. Parties represented in the outgoing Knesset automatically stand for re-election; other parties may present their candidacy by obtaining the signatures of 2,500 eligible voters, officially registering as a party, and depositing a bond, which is refunded if they win at least one Knesset seat.
Each party presents its platform and list of candidates for the Knesset, in order of precedence. The different parties select their candidate list by various methods, whether primaries (among registered party members) or selection by a party committee or other body.
According to the Party Financing Law, a treasury allocation for election campaigns is granted to each faction at the rate of one pre-defined "financing unit" per seat won in the previous Knesset elections plus one unit per mandate won in the current Knesset elections, divided by two, plus one additional financing unit. New factions receive a similar allocation, retroactively, based on the number of seats won in the elections. A faction which receives more than 1% of the valid votes cast in the Knesset election but not enough to win a Knesset seat is entitled to one "financing unit" to cover its election expenses. The state comptroller reviews the disbursement of all campaign expenditures.
No faction may receive a contribution, directly or indirectly, from an individual (i.e. noncommercial entity), in excess of the sum of five hundred (500) NIS from any person or his dependents. In an election year, this sum shall be one thousand (1,000) NIS. (These sums are linked to the Consumer Price Index.) A faction or list of candidates may not receive a financial contribution from someone who is not eligible to vote in the elections.
The Central Elections Committee, headed by a justice of the Supreme Court and including representatives of the parties holding seats in the Knesset, is responsible for conducting and supervising the elections. Regional election committees oversee the functioning of local polling committees, which include representatives of at least three parties in the outgoing Knesset. Anyone aged 16 or older is eligible to serve on a polling committee.
According to the Basic Law: The Knesset, the Central Elections Committee may prevent a candidates’ list from participating in elections if its objectives or actions, expressly or by implication, include one of the following:
- negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people;
- negation of the democratic character of the State;
- incitement to racism.
All citizens aged 18 or older on election day are eligible to vote. Election day is a holiday in order to enable all to participate. Soldiers on active duty vote in special polling stations in their units. Special arrangements have also been made for prison inmates to vote, as well as for those confined to hospital. Israeli law does not provide for absentee ballots, and voting takes place only on Israeli soil. The sole exceptions are Israeli citizens serving on Israeli ships and in Israeli embassies and consulates abroad.
The results of the elections shall be published within fourteen days from election day. Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total national vote. The minimum required for a list to win election to the Knesset is 1.5% of the total number of valid votes cast (in 1996, about 46,000 votes). A party’s surplus votes, which are insufficient for an additional seat, are redistributed among the various parties according to their proportional size resulting from the elections, or as agreed between parties prior to the election.
Should the results of one election — for Knesset or prime minister — be contested, this will not affect the results of the other.
The number and order of members entering the new Knesset for each party corresponds to its list of candidates as presented for election. There are no by-elections in Israel. Should an MK resign or pass away in the course of the Knesset term, the next person on that party’s list automatically replaces him/her.
Israel’s prime minister, for the first time, will be elected in the same national general elections, by a separate, direct ballot. The ballot will be of a different color, and list only the candidate’s name.
The candidate for prime minister may be nominated by a party, or parties, with at least 10 seats in the outgoing Knesset, or by 50,000 enfranchised persons. The candidate must be a citizen at least 30 years of age, and heads his/her party’s list of candidates for the Knesset. If the outgoing prime minister has served for seven consecutive years, he/she may not stand for re-election.
Upon publication of the results of the elections for prime minister, the candidate who receives more than half of the valid votes is the elected prime minister.
- Should no candidate receive more than half the valid votes, run-off elections will be held between the two candidates with the most votes 14 days after the first round of elections. In the return elections, the candidate receiving the largest number of valid votes will become prime minister.
- Should one of the candidates die or become unable to participate in the run-off elections for health reasons, another may be nominated by his party, no later than 96 hours before the scheduled elections. However, should one of the candidates in the run-off elections resign, the next candidate with the next largest number of valid votes shall replace him in the run-off.
- Should there be only one candidate for prime minister, in either round of elections, the vote shall be cast for or against such candidacy. If the number of valid votes for the candidate is higher than the number of valid votes against – the candidate is elected.
- Should no candidate be elected, new elections will be held for prime minister only.
Within 45 days of the publication of the election results, the prime minister-elect will present his/her list of ministers and basic policy guidelines before the Knesset, asking for its confidence. The number of ministers, including the prime minister, may not exceed eighteen, nor be less than eight. At least half of the ministers must be Knesset members, but all must be eligible for Knesset membership. Deputy ministers may be appointed, up to a total of six, and must be Knesset members. (Under the new law, the Knesset may remove a minister from his post by vote of a majority of 70 MKs.)
Should the prime minister elect fail to present a government to the Knesset, special elections for prime minister will be held within 60 days. Should the same candidate once again be elected and once again fail to present a government within 45 days, that candidate may not stand for election in the third round of elections for prime minister.
The prime minister’s term of office corresponds to that of the Knesset, except when Knesset elections must be repeated (i.e. as a result of faulty elections) or where the law calls for special elections for prime minister.
HOW DOES THE KNESSET WORK?
A new Knesset begins to function after general elections. The first session is opened by the president, who yields the chair to the oldest member. The Knesset members declare their allegiance, and the speaker of the Knesset and his deputies are elected.
The Knesset holds two sessions a year, one in the winter and one in the summer, which together must last for at least eight months. An extraordinary session may be called during recess, either by the government or by any 30 members of Knesset.
The Knesset is elected for a tenure of four years, but may dissolve itself or be dissolved by the prime minister before the end of its term. Unless early elections are called, elections to the Knesset take place on the third Tuesday of the month of Heshvan in the year in which the tenure of the outgoing Knesset ends.
With the inauguration of direct elections for prime minister, procedures for dissolving the Knesset have been amended.
New elections for the Knesset and the prime minister, are held when:
- The Knesset rejects the list of ministers proposed by the prime minister;
- The Knesset expresses no-confidence in the prime minister, by a majority of at least 61 MKs;
- The Knesset fails to adopt the Budget Law within three months after the beginning of the fiscal year;
- The Knesset dissolves itself by passing a special law to that effect;
- The prime minister, after notifying the President, resigns and dissolves the Knesset (e.g. if a "hostile" Knesset prevents the proper functioning of the government).
Special elections for the prime minister shall be held when:
- The Knesset (by a special majority of 80 members) votes to remove the prime minister from office;
- The Knesset removes the prime minister from office (by a majority vote) due to conviction on an offense involving moral turpitude;
- The prime minister is unable to appoint the specified minimum of eight ministers to form his government;
The prime minister has died, or is permanently unable to fulfill his functions.
With the inauguration of direct election for prime minister in Israel, questions naturally arise as to how the new system will work. Will the Knesset be weakened by the greater independence granted to the prime minister? How will the prime minister and government function if the opposition wins a majority in the Knesset?
While nobody has clear answers, these provisions of the law do supply "checks and balances" designed to maintain the equilibrium in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches.