The Presidential Elections: The Rules of the Game

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Who elects the president? What are the candidacy requirements? What majority is needed to win the election and how is it obtained? As the 2014 presidential elections near, Dr. Ofer Kenig explains some of the basics.

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In a few weeks, the Knesset will be electing Israel's 10th president. The upcoming elections are generating considerable interest both among Knesset members and in the media, although broad sections of the Israeli public are quite indifferent to the matter. Previous articles in this series focused on the institution of the presidency and presidential powers, reviewed the presidential candidates of past years and analyzed the dynamics of the 15 presidential races held in Israel to date. This article will focus on the rules of the game for electing the President of the State of Israel, exploring three main questions: Who elects the President? What are the candidacy requirements? What kind of majority is required to win the election and how is it achieved?

The issue of who should have the right to elect the President of Israel is periodically the subject of public debate. Three possibilities are generally put forward:

  1. Leaving the right to elect the president in the hands of the 120 members of the Knesset (MKs)
  2. Granting the right to elect the president to a more inclusive body
  3. Adopting direct elections of the president by the entire electorate.

The current method practiced in Israel, whereby presidents are elected by the 120 MKs, was developed in the early days of the State as part of the process that led to Chaim Weizmann’s election as the first President of Israel. The discussions leading up to the adoption of that process focused on whether there was a need for a president at all and on the powers that the president should have. The issue of defining the electoral body was hardly raised, and it was almost by chance that the precedent of having the members of the legislature elect the president was set.

The fact that this precedent was an almost ad-hoc decision, however, should not be seen as an indicator that the election of a president by parliament is an exceptional practice in democratic countries. A comparative glance shows a correlation between the power of the president and the body that elects the president: the broader the powers enjoyed by the president, the higher the likelihood that the president is elected by a more inclusive electoral system. It is clear that in countries with a presidential or semi-presidential system of government, where presidents head the Executive Branch and serve as the nation’s political leaders, they are elected in direct elections by the entire electorate.The indirect system of presidential election through the Electoral College in the United States is exceptional. For a discussion on this system, see Tuttnauer, 2012 (Hebrew). To a large extent, in these countries, presidential elections overshadow parliamentary elections, since they determine who will actually lead the country. It is, therefore, inconceivable that the election of a president in such a system of government would be entrusted to a small exclusive body.

On the other hand, in countries with a parliamentary system where presidents are defined as the head of state but their actual political influence and powers are less than those of the prime minister, the decision as to which body will elect the president is not so clear-cut. In many countries, as in Israel, the president is purely a symbolic and ceremonial figure. In other cases, the president has slightly broader powers (many presidents, for example, have the title of head of the armed forces, while others officially appoint prime ministers and cabinet ministers). However, in these cases as well, it is clear that the political leader of the country is the prime minister. As noted, researchers point to a correlation between the electoral system and the level of the presidential powers: the broader the presidential powers, the greater the likelihood that the president will be elected in direct elections by the entire electorate.

The table below shows three types of presidential electoral systems in parliamentary democracies. Most of the countries grant the right to vote for president to the entire electorate. The rationale behind this system is clear: in democracies, the people are sovereign and should therefore have the right to determine who will serve as the head of state, even if the position is largely ceremonial. It is worth noting two countries that have recently reformed the way their presidents are elected: The Czech Republic, where presidents were elected by the members of parliament in the past, has extended the right to all citizens; this is how the incumbent Czech president was elected about a year ago. The second country to take a similar step is Turkey, where the president has been elected by the members of the parliament in the past; in August 2014, for the first time, the president of the Turkish Republic will be elected by means of direct elections by the entire electorate.

Who Elects the President in Countries with Parliamentary Systems of Government?

The Entire Electorate A Special Electoral Body The Parliament
Austria* Germany Estonia
Bulgaria India Greece
Czech Republic Italy Hungary
Finland   Israel
Ireland      Latvia
Lithuania   Malta

* Note that some scholars classify Austria and Portugal as semi-presidential regimes.

In contrast, some countries have decided to entrust the election of the president to the members of parliament. Even though this means that there is a fairly small electoral body (comprised of a few dozen or a few hundred members at most), there is no foundation for the claim that this method is flawed from a democratic point of view. It is an indirect, mediated form of democracy, as we must remember that members of parliament reflect the will of the citizens as expressed in the most recent general elections. There are five parliamentary democracies in addition to Israel where presidents are elected by the parliament.

Between the two models described above, there is a third model, in which the president is elected by a special body that is broader than the parliament. In Germany, for example, the president is elected by the Federal Convention, which is made up of the members of the Bundestag, the lower house, and an equal number of representatives chosen by the legislatures of the Länders, Germany's states; the most recent Federal Convention numbered 1,240 members. In Italy, the president is elected by a body that includes the members of both houses of parliament (some 950 members) and three representatives from each of Italy's administrative districts (about 60 representatives). In India, the president is elected by a body that is made up of the members of both houses of parliament and the members of the legislative councils of the approximately 30 states that make up India; this comes to approximately 5,000 delegates in total.

Like candidates for other elected public offices, people who wish to run for president must meet certain criteria. Since presidential elections are for the position of "number one citizen," it is reasonable that candidates should have to face more stringent requirements than candidates for other positions. These requirements have a dual purpose: to avoid an excessive number of candidates and to block the candidacy of fringe candidates or of candidates who are totally unsuitable and might compromise the dignity of the process and of the position.

Requirements for candidacy may be divided into two types: eligibility requirements and nomination rules.

The most common eligibility requirements are citizenship, residency, and a minimum age. In Austria, Ireland, and India, the minimum age requirement is 35. In Germany, any citizen who has the right to vote may run for president, as long as he or she is at least 40 years of age. Italy has similar requirements, but the minimum age is 50. In the United States, a candidate must fulfill the following conditions: he or she must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, who has been a resident of the United States for at least 14 years and is at least 35 years old. In Mexico the conditions are even more stringent: a candidate must be at least 35 years of age, a native-born citizen, and must have at least one parent who was also born in Mexico. Candidates must also prove that they have been residents of Mexico for at least 20 years during their lifetime. These requirements are intended to ensure that the candidates have a proven affinity to the country and have had life experience in Mexico.

The eligibility requirements described above, however, only have a minimal effect on restricting the number of potential candidates for president. In order to avoid dozens or even hundreds of people from entering the race, additional limitations have been introduced in the form of nomination rules, which determine who has the right to nominate a presidential candidate. Some countries entrust elected public officials with the sole right to nominate presidential candidates. In France, the candidates must present signatures of at least 500 elected public officials (members of parliament, mayors, and so on). In Ireland, candidates can be nominated either by at least 20 members of parliament or by at least four city councils. Other countries allow citizens to bypass elected officials in nominating presidential candidates. Candidates in Finland, for example, may be nominated in one of two ways: by a political party represented in parliament or by the support of 20,000 citizens. The Czech Republic also has two ways for a candidate to be nominated: by the support of 20 members of parliament or by the support of 50,000 citizens. In Poland, candidates must obtain signatures of at least 100,000 citizens.

In Israel, the most significant obstacle to running for president is not related to the candidate's eligibility. Article 4 of Basic Law: The President of the State determines that "any Israeli citizen who is a resident of Israel, is eligible to be a candidate for the office of President of the State." These are without a doubt very lenient eligibility requirements. A more significant obstacle to the presidency is found in the nomination rules. These are stipulated in Article 6 of Basic Law: The President, which states that only a person who is supported by at least 10 MKs may be a candidate for president. In other words, the MKs serve not only as the electoral body, but also as the body that selects the candidates. Since the 120 MKs are not allowed to endorse more than one candidate each, there can be no more than 12 candidates in total.

Article 6 of the Basic Law also contains a provision that the supporting signatures for the candidates must be presented to the Knesset Speaker two weeks before the election day. This provision creates a situation where a considerable portion of the election campaign is devoted to seeking the "holy grail" of 10 supporting signatures. It similarly leads to a great deal of uncertainty regarding the final list of candidates. Up to two weeks before the elections, the corridors of power and the media are filled with a host of speculation, analysis, and conjecture.

The minimum majority required in order to win the election is not a mere technical detail; rather, in certain circumstances, it may dictate the strategy of the candidates and influence their chances of being elected. There are two main types of majorities: a simple majority (plurality) and an absolute majority.

In some countries a plurality of the votes is required to declare a candidate the winner; in other words, the candidate who receives the highest number of votes and "came in first" is elected. For example, in Mexico, the candidate who receives the highest number of votes is elected president even if he or she has not received an absolute majority of over 50% of the votes. In the last elections in Mexico, held in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto was elected president, after receiving slightly over 38% of the votes. A plurality rule has a significant advantage over an absolute majority since it ensures that there will always be a winner, unless there is an absolute parity of votes, which rarely happens. The clearest disadvantage of plurality is that it may lead to the election of a candidate who is opposed by a majority of the voters. Returning to the example of Mexico, it is possible that the over 60% of voters who cast their votes for the three other candidates who ran in the 2012 elections may have preferred to see any candidate other than the one who won the elections as president.

Because of this drawback, most countries require that the president be elected by an absolute majority of at least 50% of votes plus one vote. There is also an intermediate model between plurality and absolute majority, in which the requirement is for a minimum majority that is less than an absolute majority. In Costa Rica, a majority of 40% of the votes is sufficient for election to the presidency (similar to the practice in mayoral elections in Israel) and in Argentina a majority of 45% is sufficient. Such a majority ensures that the elected president has received the support of a majority of the voters. This is the practice, for example, in Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Finland, and France.

When only two candidates are running for president (or when there is one uncontested candidate), a winner is guaranteed. However, if there are multiple candidates (three or more) and an absolute majority is required, this may result in a situation where there is no victor after the votes are counted. Such situations require a system to resolve the question of who the winner is.

There are two principal methods to determine the victor in such a situation. The most well-known and widespread is the majority runoff. This is the accepted method, for example, in the presidential election systems of both France and Israel. According to this system, if no candidate has received the required majority, a second round of voting takes place between the two candidates who received the most votes. This round of voting definitely produces a winner. In the last elections for the president of France, held in 2012, there were 10 candidates. François Hollande came in first (with about 28% of the votes) and Nicolas Sarkozy came in second (with about 27% of the votes). The remaining eight candidates received lower shares of support. Since no candidate had received an absolute majority, a runoff was held between Hollande and Sarkozy. This time, Hollande received over 50% of the votes and was thus elected president. This was also the system used when direct elections were held for prime minister of Israel.Since each of the three direct elections for prime minister in Israel had only two candidates, no second round was necessary. Benjamin Netanyahu (1996), Ehud Barak (1999), and Ariel Sharon (2001) were all elected in the first round.

Another system is known as the alternative vote (AV). In this system, each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, from first to last. After the votes are counted, if no candidate has received an absolute majority of votes (from among the first preferences of all voters), the candidate who received the lowest number of votes is eliminated from the race. The voting slips of voters that preferred the eliminated candidate are then re-examined and the second preference of each is then added to the first choice votes received by the remaining candidates. It is possible that at this stage one of the candidates will receive the required majority and be declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the lowest number of votes from among the remaining candidates is eliminated from the race, and the second choice of the supporters of that candidate are examined and distributed. This process continues until there is a victor. This is the system used in Ireland, where the last presidential elections (2011) had seven candidates and four rounds of counting before a winner with over 50% of the votes emerged.

Finally, in some countries it is felt that since the president is the head of state and is a figurehead who serves as a unifying force, he or she should be elected by an overwhelming majority that expresses a broad consensus of the nation. In these countries, the president must be elected by a special (surplus) majority, such as the two-thirds required in Greece and Italy. Such a large majority may create a stalemate, and therefore even in this case, there is a need for a system that will result in an elected president at the end of the process. In Italy, for example, the requirement of a two-thirds majority of the votes is valid for three rounds of voting. If after three rounds no candidate has received a two-thirds majority of votes, a fourth round is held, and the candidate that receives an absolute majority (above 50%) is elected president.

In Israel, the presidential election system is a variation on the system requiring a majority in two rounds.The Basic Law regarding the president of Israel was amended during 2013, changing the system that existed until then. Under the previous system, in order to be elected in the first round, a candidate had to receive a majority of the votes of all the members of Knesset (at least 61). If no candidate received such a majority, a second round was held, requiring the same majority. In the third round, it was sufficient for a candidate to receive an absolute majority of the Knesset members who participated in the vote, rather than a majority of all members of the Knesset, in order to be declared the winner. In order to be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority, calculated not on the basis of the number of MKs who actually cast a vote, but on the basis of the total number of MKs (120). Thus, in order to be elected, a candidate must receive at least 61 votes. This requirement is intended to ensure that the elected president has the confidence of a majority of MKs and was not elected because some MKs were absent from the vote (or abstained from voting), or because the votes of those who were opposed to his or her candidacy were divided among a number of other candidates.

If no candidate receives at least 61 votes, a second round of voting is held between the top two candidates. In this runoff, the candidate who receives the highest number of votes is elected president even if the number of votes is less than 61. This system ensures that a victor will be declared after a maximum of two rounds of voting.

A number of questions have been raised with regard to the current campaign for Israel's 10th president. The fundamental question is whether the ceremonial institution of the presidency is needed at all. Assuming that abolishing the institution of the presidency has been dismissed as an option, the remaining questions are who should elect the president and which voting system should be used. One view claims that the members of the Knesset are the most appropriate body to elect the president since they know the candidates, they represent Israel's citizens, and this type of election avoids a large-scale and unnecessarily expensive election campaign. The opposing view argues that this method expropriates the right to determine who will be president—Israel's "number one citizen"—from the people. Those who support the latter view hold that Israel's presidents should be chosen by means of a comprehensive, democratic method that would avoid the political intrigue, deal-making, and voting based on factional allegiance found today, when the president is elected by politicians with partisan political interests.

This article has tried to demonstrate the importance of the rules of the game for the process of electing a president: the question of who elects the president influences the nature of the campaign, its prominence, and its cost, and may even color the decision of candidates as to whether or not to join the race. The requirements for candidacy can significantly cut down the number of candidates in the field. In the Israeli context, the need to obtain 10 support signatures from members of Knesset, which is a very significant threshold, creates great uncertainty until a very short time before the elections and might dissuade high caliber candidates who enjoy popular support from running for the position.

The required majority also determines the nature of the race, the chances of candidates to win, and the degree to which the elected president reflects broad consensus or divisiveness. Past experiences indicate that more than one round of voting is only rarely required in order to determine the next president. Since the new system established in 2013 eliminates the possibility of a situation in which three rounds of voting will be necessary, Israel's 10th president will be elected either in the first round or after a runoff. As of now, it seems likely that the contest will be between a number of candidates and it is very likely that a second round of voting will be necessary.

At the time of this writing, any guess as to the outcome of the election would be a shot in the dark. Not only is it not clear who the final candidates will be (apart from Reuven Rivlin, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Meir Sheetrit who have already obtained 10 support signatures each), but the fact that the ruling party does not yet have its own official candidate creates enormous uncertainty. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer at the Ashkelon Academic College.