And the Winner is...

On the Need for Rules that Would Give the Leader of the Largest Party the First Right to Form the Government

According to Israel's Basic Law, following general elections the president appoints a Knesset Member to form the new government. The president usually turns to the leader of the largest party. In the wake of the 2009 Israeli general election, Benjamin Netanyahu was chosen, although he did not lead the largest party. In this article, IDI Researcher Dr. Dana Blander proposes the establishment of a clear set of rules which would automatically give the leader of the largest party the power to form the incoming government, obviating ambiguity surrounding the selection process of the Prime Minister.

Today, the process leading to the formation of an Israeli government is conducted according to the regulations stipulated in Israel's Basic Law: The Government (Article 7). The law states that following the elections and upon consultation with the parties in the Knesset, the president appoints a Knesset Member who accepts the responsibility of forming the new government. While the law does not require the president to appoint the candidate who received the most recommendations, it is customary to choose the person whose chances of forming a government are the highest. In practice, the president usually turns to the leader of the largest party although the law does not require him or her to do so.

In the wake of the 2009 election, Tzipi Livni was the leader of the party that received the largest number of votes—Kadima. Nonetheless, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu was given the opportunity to form Israel's next government due to his greater chances of success. He leads the right-wing parties, which won the majority of the seats in the incoming 18th Knesset, and is therefore more likely to fuse the necessary Knesset majority.

There has been only one other case in which the president appointed a coalition-builder whose party was not the largest. In 1990, Yitzchak Shamir, leader of the Likud party (38 seats), was chosen to form a government despite the fact that the Labor party had won 39 seats. This was the only instance in Israeli history that the president had to call upon two candidates to form the government—following Shimon Peres'  unsuccessful initial attempt, Yitzhak Shamir eventually succeeded in forming a narrow government. The short-lived double ballot system in the 1990s led to another case in which the Prime Minister was not, in fact, the leader of the largest political party. In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu received enough votes to become Prime Minister, while his Likud party received only 32 seats in the Knesset—less than the Labor party's 34.

In order to obviate the ambiguity surrounding the selection process of the Prime Minister, and in order to increase the elected Prime Minister's chances of forming a government, IDI has been promoting the establishment of a clear set of rules that would automatically give the leader of the largest party the "right of first offer" to form the incoming government.

According to IDI's proposal, once it becomes clear which party has won the largest number of Knesset seats, the party leader will automatically become Prime Minister and will immediately begin forming the next government. This system will eliminate the need for the president to consult with the political parties in order to designate the preferred candidate because the president will only be required to select a candidate to form the government if the leader of the largest party proves incapable of doing so. Turning to the leader of the largest party is indeed the norm in other parliamentary democracies, and although not always dictated by the law, it is firmly rooted in many states' political cultures.

The Advantages of the Proposed Reform ("First Right Proposal")

These changes will allow:

  • The country to move forward with a sense of clarity and direction immediately following the elections: Knowing the identity of the incoming Prime Minister from "Day 1" contributes to the stability of the electoral system; it may serve to prevent instances of political bribery and blackmail, which have become the norm in coalition negotiations, and to increase public confidence in the Prime Minister.
  • Greater maneuverability for the elected Prime Minister: The confidence that he or she will remain in the position of national leader regardless of the coalition's composition will provide the incoming Prime Minister with greater maneuverability to conduct coalition negotiations.
  • The strengthening of the larger parties: Voters will be encouraged to vote for the larger parties in order to ensure that the candidate of their choice is elected Prime Minister. As opposed to the double-ballot system, which eventually led to split votes, this reform will consolidate the votes and will empower both the largest party and the Prime Minister.

Response to common criticisms of this reform

  • The power of the smaller parties will be jeopardized. Today, the support of the smaller parties' is a crucial factor in the president's selection of the new Prime Minister. Although the proposed reform will reduce their influence, the small parties will still retain political leverage by supporting the candidate of their choice prior to the election, and by negotiating with the Prime Minister-elect thereafter.
  • There is no guarantee that the leader of the largest party will indeed be able to form a government. A situation in which the Prime Minister-elect is unable to form a coalition, despite leading the largest party, would necessitate another national election. However, even if the "first right" goes to the leader of the largest party, other candidates would be allowed the opportunity to form the government if he or she fails.

Calls for electoral reform have often been heard in Israel, particularly in times of political ambiguity and doubt. In this article, we have outlined one measure that aims at obviating the ambiguity surrounding the designation of the Prime Minister-elect by making a minor change in the existing electoral system.

One advantage of Israel's parliamentary system is that in the event that one candidate fails to form a government, other options still exist—as there are numerous candidates who could be chosen to build the government and a variety of potential coalitions that could be formed prior to holding a second national election.

On the other hand, the direct vote for Prime Minister destabilizes the electoral system and leads to a dead end—namely, to candidates who are elected Prime Minster by the voters, but who are unable to form stable governments. This situation often leads to either another election or to an ineffective term in office. A situation in which the  Prime Minister who does not command the support of a Knesset majority is potentially dangerous to the functioning of Israeli democracy. The parliamentary system minimizes the chances for this kind of scenario and increases the probability that the Prime Minister-elect will receive the support of the majority in the Knesset. 

Dr. Dana Blander is an IDI researcher focusing on democracy in the 21st century. She is also a member of the IDI website staff