For an American living in Israel, there are many similarities, but a great many differences and even oddities, about Israel’s democratic process that leave one scratching one’s head. As the only true democracy in the Middle East, Americans are right to have an affinity for and kinship with Israel, but the democratic system is very different. One might say that Israel is a democracy on steroids.
With Israelis set to go to the polls on January 22, it’s useful to understand about how Israelis vote, and how the process works.
While in the US, one typically votes for a candidate affiliated with a specific political party, in Israel’s parliamentary democracy, one votes for a political party, each with its’ own internal process of selecting a slate of candidates to represent it. Some of these parties have democratic processes to select their slate of candidates, and others hand pick who they want in a less than democratic way, analogous to picking an all-star sports team, selecting players who (they think) will help them win.
In the upcoming election, 34 parties are vying for seats in the parliament (Knesset), whose 120 members are selected as a proportion of the vote that their party receives out of all the votes cast. Presumably all parties come up with optimistic lists of 120 members in the odd situation that they win all the votes. But the reality is that no one party is expected to win more than a third of the votes. None have ever won more than 50%.
However, in order to get in the Knesset, any party must pass a threshold of two percent of the votes. Any party that does not reach that benchmark, and most wont, don’t serve. Some say that the threshold should be raised to five percent in order to limit the often complicated issues of having more than a dozen political parties in parliment, each with their own parochial agendas, trying to propose and pass legislation.
This is my third election cycle living in Israel. Because ours is a parliamentary democracy, while a government does have a fixed term, any number of things can happen to initiate early elections as we did this year. This is actually the norm as no Prime Minister (PM) in recent years has ever served his or her full term. And, yes, Israel is also unique in having had one female PM, one female acting President, and two of the leading parties this year are headed by women.
When I first tried to describe the election process here, I described it as a three dimensional chess game, where two opponents play against one another, each planning his own (and projecting his opponents’) next moves that will impact the outcome of the game, but doing so with two other games taking place in parallel planes that you cannot influence, but whose moves impact the outcome of your game, and where your moves impact the outcome of theirs.
In more contemporary and seasonal terms, it’s like the Falcons and 49ers planning their upcoming NFC playoff game strategies while plays in the Ravens and Patriots AFC game also impact the NFC game, each play in the AFC playoff also impacting the NFC playoff, and vice versa, even before the two winners meet in the Super Bowl.
In order to succeed and form the new government, it’s common for parties to establish coalitions with other parties. Usually, this is done in the aftermath of the election itself with deals made by a leading party to coalesce a ruling majority of 61 Knesset members who’ll all agree by in large on the same set of rules and priorities, and a division of government ministries among their respective members. This works, until it stops working.
This year, some new mutations on that practice have come up. In what was hailed at the time as being a brilliant political move, guaranteed to ensure electoral success, the right of center Likud party and Yisrael Beiteinu party, long time political allies and coalition partners, established a joint party list to garner maximal support from all their voters. Since then, however, polls show they have lost as much as 30% of the seats that they were originally projected to win together. The game is not over until it’s over, and it still looks like they will win the most votes and be able to establish a stable government by bringing in other partners, but in Israeli politics nothing is a sure thing until it’s already happened.
The outside observer might think this all a variation on the popular TV reality show, Survivor, with each party looking to form coalitions and alliances against others, to ensure their support, but aware that even the closest alliances can lead to political cannibalism.
On the left of center, there has been an effort to unite the four leading parties as a coalition block and leverage the collective support that they, together, will win more votes and be able to form the next government. Other than some significant ideological differences, and the universal desire to unseat the sitting Prime Minister, one of the things that has prevented this is that they have egos, personality differences, and lack of trust with one other, as much if not more than their differences and dislike of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu.
In order to understand this, you need a score card:
The Labor party was the major political power and almost uncontested leader in Israeli politics for the first decades of statehood. In the last election they hit an all time low, and then the party split into two factions making Labor on the verge of extinction. The new party Chairwoman has done a laudable job breathing new life back into the old party, and projections are that they will be among the top 3-4 parties in the next Knesset.
The disgruntled former chairman of Labor recently bolted his party and allied with the head of a new political party established by a former Foreign Minister who, herself, bolted her previous party (Kadima) after losing that internal party primary. Unique to Israeli elections, she named her party “The Movement – the Tzippi Livni Party (TLP),” begging the question what would happen if she were voted out of her own party (again),or dropped dead. This party handpicked its’ members without any democratic process, and looks like a party of political refugees with agendas against their former parties more than presenting their own serious leadership agenda or substantial platform. Adding to that is that TLP founder and chair is not just a refugee of Kadima, her previous party, but she also left the Likud party when former PM Ariel Sharon formed Kadima, and took his top and most loyal members with him. Voters don’t seem impressed as polls show a steady decline in support for this party named for its founder and leader.
Kadima, headed by a retired general and Chief of Staff who ousted Tzippi Livni in their last internal primary, is made up of refugees of that first split with Likud under Ariel Sharon. Current polls show Kadima on life support, maybe not even garnering enough votes to pass the 2% threshold.
Another new party is called Yesh Atid (there is a future) headed by a former journalist and son of a past renegade Knesset member. Unlike TLP whose members are all recycled Knesset members, Yesh Atid is all new faces, a breath of fresh air. But as a new party with no legislative experience or voting record, it’s anyone’s guess whether the party can stick together, and what the members really believe in. Nevertheless, polls show them doing relatively well on the left, between Labor and TLP.
Oh, and there are also 3-4 religious parties (no separation of church and state here), 3 Arab parties (yes, Israeli Arabs not only vote but serve in the government in their own parties and as members of national parties), a revived “Jewish Home” party expected to rise from the ashes of only three seats to as many as 12-15, and no shortage of others which each have their own unique (sometimes absurd) political agenda. Don’t count any of these out though. Some year’s back the “Pensioners” party surprised everyone with several seats because young secular Israelis thought that a party of old people for old people was cool.
Making the elections even more interesting is that each party is entitled to free TV air time. Just as many watch the Super Bowl for the clever commercials, similarly here we have evening broadcasts of back to back political commercials. Some are funny, some are pathetic, some are overtly hostile, and some cross so many lines that they are pulled immediately. They are fun and interesting to watch sociologically, also noting that most have subtitles in Arabic or Russian, except the Arab parties which don’t even try to win other votes and only advertise in Arabic.
After the election, with parties that receive fewer than 2% of the vote cast aside, all the remaining parties have the 120 seats of the Knesset divided up proportionally based on the percent of the vote each received. In this model, one or two votes one way or another, certainly dozens or hundreds, can be the difference between one seat more or one seat less. The President, a largely figurehead head of state role, will designate the leader of the party with the greatest likelihood of being able to form a government to be able to do so. Typically, the PM is the head of the party that receives the most votes, or the one that is tapped to form the government and establish a coalition successfully.
How long the PM will serve is anyone’s guess. While in the US there are defined election seasons, in Israel, the PM is always both governing and politicking, always building and looking out for who may take him (or her) down, from the opposition parties not in the government and sometimes even from within the government.
This phenomenon always comes to mind when the Israeli PM meets with the US president or other world leaders. Because while in theory the PM should be able to make decisions and act independantly, the PM also knows that a little too much of one thing or another could create a coalition or governmental crisis.
And finally, a word about how we vote. Israelis are very smart, ingenious, people, but living through my third election here, I have yet to figure this out, or why and how we got here. Of course, different districts in the US have different means to vote. The infamous “chads” and “dimpled chads” of the 2000 election will forever be something that Americans look back on as an oddity marring an otherwise effective voting system.
In Israel, we vote by putting a paper ballot inside an envelope, and then that inside another envelope and seal it and put that in the ballot box. Very 1950s, something a bit charming and a bit third world all rolled into one. I don’t know how much paper we go through to make all the ballots and envelopes, but you can bet the environmentalist parties have something to say about that.
Rather than putting a slip of paper with the name of the party on it, for some reason each party is assigned a 1-3 Hebrew letter symbol, and all campaigning includes not just a political message to win the vote, but the letter or letters to remember who you are voting for. The system has a hint of some code in a spy movie, that in order to be able to vote for the party for which you intend to vote, you need to know and remember the code. So this year, a vote for the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket is with the letters “M, Ch, L,” three letters that have nothing to do with Likud. I’d have picked “L” but in the past that was taken by Yisrael Beiteinu whose leader’s name is Lieberman, thus “L.” Labor’s symbol is “A, M, T” which spells “truth” in Hebrew. To vote for the “Am Shalem” (One People) party, you choose “Tz,” of course. I was particularly entertained by the largely Ethiopian “We are Brothers” party whose commercials repeat the mantra “Vote P-N.” Confused? Buckle up, the list goes on.
Maybe one day, I’ll understand this system. Or, perhaps better, maybe we’ll employ a new system one day that makes more sense. Maybe one day Israel will have an absentee ballot so that people like me who booked trips abroad before elections were called are actually able to vote. I hate not being here to vote this time. But I am also not sure I’d be smart enough to remember the code and which party to vote for.
Either way, Israel is a thriving democracy, with equal rights and equal opportunities for all to express themselves, and be elected. I am proud and grateful to be part of this, and pray that whatever the outcome, our leaders will be guided by wisdom and the tradition of our forefathers to do what’s truly best for us all.