On December 27th, 2008, just weeks before the general elections scheduled for February 10th, 2009, the IDF launched "Operation Cast Lead," a large scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. The duration of this military operation and its impact on the imminent elections were unclear. Would the elections be postponed because of the war, or would they be held as scheduled? This article by IDI researcher Dr. Dana Blander discusses the issue of elections during times of war from an historical-legal perspective, drawing on Israeli historical precedents and the experiences of other democracies to contextualize the possible scenarios which could occur.
Postponing the Elections
In Israel's political history, there have already been cases in which elections were deferred because of a war. Israel's Declaration of Independence announced that the government's election institutions would be in place no later than October 1st, 1948. However, when Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, realized that the date was unrealistic in light of the ongoing War of Independence, he declared that the war effort was indeed more important than the elections: "We may be unable to fulfill all our democratic obligations and we will be compelled to disregard some of them because of the great urgency of winning the war for our existence and national freedom." (Ben Gurion in a speech to the National Council on May 4th, 1948; see Medding 1988: 72). The Provisional National Council decided to postpone the first general elections, which were held almost four months later on January 25th, 1949. Although the war was still raging when the infant state went to the polls, ceasefire talks were already underway at Rhodes and the end of hostilities was in sight.
The elections for the Eighth Knesset were also postponed. While Election Day had originally been scheduled for October 30th, 1973, it was delayed until the end of December due to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. At that time, Basic Law: the Knesset did not allow an extension of the government's term in office and in order to postpone the elections, the Knesset had to legislate a special law.
Legal Aspects of Postponing Elections
Israel's Basic Law: The Knesset (Article 9) states that a standard Knesset term lasts four years. However, this term may be curtailed or extended under special circumstances. According to Article 9a of the law (amended in 1992):
"The Knesset shall not extend its term unless a majority of 80 Knesset Members are in favor of passing a law that calls for such an extension; this extension shall be granted only under special circumstances, which prevent the elections from being held on their scheduled date; the extension shall not exceed the time required by the special circumstances; the law calling for the extension must specify a new election date."
The Basic Law: the Knesset states two conditions for extending a Knesset's term and, thereby, postponing elections; the support of a greater majority of 80 Knesset Members and "special circumstances." These conditions are intended to prevent a situation in which elections may be postponed indefinitely under circumstances that are not exceptional, and to avoid compromising the democratic principle of holding general elections at predetermined regular intervals.
Despite the amendments that have been made to Basic Law: the Knesset, it remains unclear whether or not the upcoming 2009 elections will meet the necessary criteria for deferment. To begin with, the elections have already been scheduled early in accordance with Basic Law: the Knesset following the resignation of the Prime Minister and the ruling Kadima party's inability to form a new government. The current Knesset did not officially agree to disband and it has not served its full four-year term. Therefore, if it is necessary to postpone the elections in this case, a regular law will suffice, which does not require "special circumstances" and a 2/3 majority vote. However, the postponement of the elections by "regular law" seems unlikely since the Knesset's legal advisor has already declared that special circumstances and an 80 member majority will be required in this case. A broad consensus in the Knesset would also guarantee that such a decisive matter as postponing the elections remain unaffected by personal or political considerations.
A Global Perspective: "Khaki Elections" in Britain and Canada
Although western democracies do not often postpone elections, wars occasionally lead to their deferment for extended periods of time, and some countries have held elections during or immediately following a war.
"Khaki Elections" is a term used to describe elections that were held during or after a war and were directly influenced by the outcome. In 1900, the British Conservative Party's victory was undoubtedly influenced by the Second Boer War, fought in South Africa between 1899 and 1902, while the Conservative Party's defeat in 1906 was related to the large number of casualties of that same war.
In the elections that followed the First World War (1918), the head of the wartime coalition government in Britain was victorious. During the course of the Second World War, no elections were held in the UK and the elections that followed the war were the first in ten years. In contrast to the outcome of the elections following the First World War, it came as a surprise when the Conservatives headed by Winston Churchill—who had served as Prime Minister throughout the war and had led the UK to victory—lost to the Labour Party, headed by Clement Attlee.
It is customary to categorize the Canadian elections of 1917 as "Khaki Elections" as well; held during WWI, the soldiers' ballots were decisive.
Although most western democracies are not accustomed to simultaneously dealing with elections and wars, the frequency of both elections and of wars has made the combination regrettably familiar in Israel. Nevertheless, the Knesset has only postponed the general elections once (in 1973).
The outbreak of "the Gaza War" immediately after the decision to conduct early elections has created unique circumstances that call for either a wartime election or the deferral of the elections. This is not a simple "technical" issue. The war may have far-reaching political consequences, strengthening some candidates and weakening others. In addition, due to the ongoing hostilities in the south, political discourse and campaigning has all but come to a halt. This is highly unusual and problematic in a pre-election period. The political parties, the Knesset and the current government must carefully consider the implications of holding and not holding the elections on schedule, and as a democracy, it is befitting that the Israeli public be consulted prior to making a final decision.
Dr. Dana Blander is an IDI researcher focusing on democracy in the 21st century. She is also a member of the IDI website staff.