Israel's launch of Operation "Pillar of Defense" just before the elections for the 19th Knesset scheduled for January 22, 2013, is reminiscent of the launch of "Operation Cast Lead" weeks before the elections of 2009. The lack of certainty regarding the duration and scope of the operation raises the question of a possible postponement of the January elections. In the following update of an article published in 2009, Dr. Dana Blander discusses elections during times of war from an historical-legal perspective, drawing on precedents in Israel and other democracies to contextualize the possible scenarios that 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 representatives to the government's institutions would be in place no later than October 1, 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 4, 1948). The Provisional National Council decided to postpone the first general elections, which were held almost four months later on January 25, 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 30, 1973, it was delayed until the end of December, due to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. At that time, the 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.
The question of postponing an election arose again in 2008, when "Operation Cast Lead" was launched on December 27, 2008, just weeks before the general elections scheduled for February 10, 2009; in the end, however, it was decided to hold the elections in time. Israel's launching of Operation "Pillar of Defense" just before the elections for the 19th Knesset, which are scheduled to take place on January 22, 2013, gives a sense of déjà vu to that period. Although the amount of time between the military operation and the elections is a bit longer in 2012 than it was in 2009, the lack of certainty regarding the duration and scope of the operation raises the question of whether the January Knesset elections will be delayed on account of the military action.
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.
In the current situation, the date of the elections was brought forward by the Knesset, which approved a bill to dissolve the 18th Knesset and set a new date for elections for the 19th Knesset (January 22, 2013) by a majority of 100 MKs. When the possibility of postponing the elections was raised during Operation Cast Lead, the Knesset's legal adviser felt that extenuating circumstances and a special majority of 80 Knesset members would be required to postpone the elections (in accordance with Article 9a of the Basic Law, cited above). At the moment, since the question of postponing the elections on account Operation Pillar of Defense is still theoretical, the Knesset's legal adviser has not yet been asked to render an opinion on this matter. However, it would seem that a broad consensus would be required to ensure that a matter as essential to democracy as the timing of the elections is not influenced by narrow personal considerations or party interests, especially since the law to bring forward the elections was approved by a large majority of the members of Knesset.
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).
While it is not common for democracies to hold elections in the shadow of war, in Israel—a country rife with both wars and elections—the juxtaposition between wars and elections is not uncommon. Even so, however, there has only been one time in the past when the Knesset had to postpone elections due to a war (in 1973).
The decision whether to delay this vital democratic process on account of the military operation or to hold the elections in the shadow of the military operation is not simply a technical issue. The war may have far-reaching political consequences, as it may strengthen some candidates and weaken others, and could impact the choices of the voters. In addition, war results in a suspension of day-to-day politics and of the electoral campaigns of the parties. This limits the public and political discourse that usually takes place before the elections and may change the nature of the elections. Instead of focusing on domestic issues and on a social-economic agenda, public discourse is being overshadowed by the security issue. Thus, even if the elections take place as scheduled, the very fact that they were held in the shadow of the military operation will have an impact on the issues that are highest on the public agenda and on the results of the elections.
Dr. Dana Blander is an IDI researcher focusing on democracy in the 21st century. She is also a member of the IDI website staff.