Israel elections 101: The vote is in, how is the prime minister chosen?

In the voting Tuesday, Netanyahu's Likud party overtook the Zionist Union. But Israelis don't directly elect a prime minister, so here's what happens next.

Oded Balilty/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Likud party supporters react to exit poll results at the party's election headquarters In Tel Aviv, Tuesday, March 17.

Israelis went to the polls yesterday in national elections to fill the 120 seats in the Knesset, or parliament, with most all the drama in this election revolving around whether Benjamin Netanyahu would win a fourth term as prime minister or have to step aside.

In Israel’s parliamentary system, the voters do not directly elect the prime minister or individual representatives. Rather, each party publishes a list of their candidates in descending order of priority, and voters cast a ballot for the party rather than a candidate. (Multiple parties are allowed to form a bloc for the purpose of the election.)

The more votes a party wins, the more candidates it sends to the Knesset. This year there were 25 party lists with 1,280 candidates.

To determine which new Knesset member will be prime minister, here’s what happens next:

The president’s big moment

The president of Israel, whose post is largely ceremonial, has one very important political function. It’s his job to select one of the elected candidates to form a new government that can command at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. If that candidate succeeds, he or she becomes prime minister.

Because there are so many parties in Israel, rarely does any one party win a majority of seats on its own. And even when a party wins the most votes by a clear margin, it may have more difficulty finding coalition partners than a smaller party with more allies.

So the president generally invites each party leader to present his or her preferred choice for prime minister and then makes his decision. Traditionally the president has tapped the leader of the largest party, but on several occasions he has tapped a leader seen as having more coalition partners. He can also suggest forming a unity government, though the parties can decline to comply.

What's the timeframe for forming a coalition?

The candidate tapped by the president to be the next prime minister has 28 days to form a majority coalition. The president can extend that deadline by 14 days if necessary.

If the first candidate falls, the president can tap someone else, who will have 28 days with no extension.

How are the votes tallied?

Israeli elections are governed by proportional representation, rather than a winner-takes-all system like the Electoral College used in US presidential elections. If a party wins 5 percent of the national vote, it will get 5 percent of the Knesset’s seats, or six seats.

But in real life the math is more complicated. Rarely does the number of votes secured by a party translate into an exact number of seats. So even if a party wins an additional two-thirds of a seat, it doesn’t get to keep it. Instead, those “surplus votes” are put into a pool and reallocated based on several factors, including agreements among parties with similar interests.

What’s different about these elections?

Here are several key developments to watch for:

Decline of the grand old parties: When the largest party gets only 30 votes or less, upstart parties can wield outsized influence over the coalition-building process and lead to a highly fragmented or even deadlocked Knesset. Whereas Labor and Likud once won nearly 80 percent of the vote, this year polls indicated that their combined strength would be less than half that.

Arabs on the rise: For the first time ever, politicians from Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority could become the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, depending on turnout. 

Women as religious candidates: About a quarter of the Knesset’s seats are held by women, but none of them are from ultra-Orthodox parties, which ban women from running. This year a group of haredi women launched a campaign for female representation, urging a boycott until the policy was changed, and a few formed their own party, B’Zhutan.

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