How Should the President of Israel be Chosen?

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Dr. Ofer Kenig explores several aspects of the institution of the presidency in Israel and other parliamentary democracies, focusing on whether the institution of President necessary, the methods of electing the President that are employed in different countries, and whether an open vote or a secret ballot is a common practice.

The status of the presidency in the eyes of the Israeli public has been significantly undermined over the past decade. The fact that the two last presidents, Ezer Wiezman and Moshe Katzav, have come under criminal investigation contributed to this devaluation. Their terms in office apparently left Israeli citizens with a bad taste in their mouths, to the point at which there have been debates regarding the very need for the institution of the presidency.

Some people claim there is no need for a President, since the role is almost totally devoid of any real substance. Those who hold this opinion think that the symbolic roles of the president of Israel could be divided between the prime minister and the Speaker of the Knesset. The right to grant pardons could similarly be allocated to a committee chaired by a judge.

Although these are serious arguments, certain counter-claims may be proposed:

  1. The President of Israel serves as a unifying force that is above day to day party politics. In Israel, where society is so polarized and divided, a person who holds the position of Head of State and represents all the citizens without any linkage to party politics is of significant value.
  2. Cancelling the presidency and transferring some of its powers and responsibilities to the prime minister would simply place an even heavier burden on the prime minister. We should not ignore the busy schedule of Israeli prime ministers; adding additional functions—even functions that are purely symbolic—is likely to further impair the prime ministers' ability to govern.
  3. Almost all parliamentary democracies, of which Israel is one, make some kind of distinction between the head of state and the chief executive, the head of the executive branch. Those democracies ascribe great importance to the distinction between the head of the executive branch and the head of state, who is usually a symbolic figurehead who is not involved in party politics.

Parliamentary democracies have two types of head of state: monarchs and presidents. In a presidential system of government, in contrast, there is no monarch, and the head of state is also the head of the executive branch. One of the fundamental characteristics of a presidential system is the election of the president by direct vote by the entire electorate or by an electoral college that reflects the will of the electorate, as is the case in the United States. This electoral model is necessary since in such systems of government, the election of the president is the most significant decision undertaken by that country's political system.

In parliamentary systems, in contrast, direct election of the president by the entire electorate is not necessarily so critical, since the function of the president in such democracies is mainly symbolic. In some countries, the president is elected indirectly (by the parliament or another organ), while in others the president is elected by the entire electorate. In the case of a monarchy, there are no elections for king or queen, by definition.

Heads of State in Parliamentary Democracies

Monarch President Chosen
by the People
President Chosen
Australia Austria Italy
Belgium Ireland Germany
Great Britain Bulgaria India
Denmark Lithuania Hungary
Holland Slovenia Turkey
Japan Slovakia Japan
Norway Poland Israel
New Zealand Portugal Latvia
Spain Finland Czech Republic

Generally speaking, presidents who are elected directly by the people have broader powers. In the past¸ therefore, parliamentary regimes with direct elections for the president were used to be called "semi-presidential." Today, however, this classification is less common, particularly in light of the fact that there has been erosion of the powers of presidents over time, and they almost always detach themselves from political involvement.

Direct Elections by the Entire Electorate

Almost all presidents who are directly elected by the people must get an absolute majority (over 50%) of the votes. However, since such a majority is not always achieved in one round of voting, a system is necessary to determine who will be elected when an absolute majority is not received.

There are two principal systems for deciding in such cases:

  • The majority-runoff system is the most common system. In this method, if no candidate receives an absolute majority, a runoff is held between the two leading candidates. The winner of this second round of voting is elected president.
  • The alternative vote system is less common. This system is used for presidential elections in Ireland. In this system, each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes, there is then a second count. This time, the candidate who received the least number of votes is eliminated, and the votes of his or her supporters are distributed among the candidates they chose in second place respectively. This process continues until one of the candidates achieves a majority.

Indirect Elections

  • In Israel, the president is elected by the 120 members of the Knesset. In order to be elected in the first round of voting, the candidate must receive the votes of the majority of Members of Knesset (at least 61). If no candidate receives such a majority, a second round is held in which the same majority is required. From the third round of voting and on, it is sufficient for a candidate to gain an absolute majority of the members of Knesset who participated in the vote, rather than an absolute majority of members of Knesset, in order to be declared the winner.
  • In Italy, the body that elects the president is composed of the members of the lower house of parliament, the members of the Senate, and three representatives from each administrative district (a total of over 1,000 voters). In order to be elected in the first round, the candidate must win two-thirds of the vote. If no candidate achieves such support, a second vote is held; in this round too, the candidate must receive two-thirds of the votes. This is also the requirement for the third round of voting. If after three rounds of voting no candidate has been elected, a fourth vote is held and the candidate who gains an absolute majority is elected president.
  • In Germany, the president is elected by a special body called the Federal Assembly. This body comprises the members of the Bundestag, the lower house, and representatives of the legislatures of each of the administrative regions (the Länder). This body comprises over 1,000 members. A candidate must receive an absolute majority in order to be elected. If no absolute majority is achieved in the first round, a second round is held, in which the same absolute majority is required. If after this round too, the required majority has not been achieved, a third round is held in which the candidate who achieves a plurality of the votes is the winner.
  • In the Czech Republic, the president is elected by the members of both houses of parliament (281 members). In order to be elected president, a candidate must receive an absolute majority in both houses. If no candidate achieves this, a second round of voting is held, which also requires an absolute majority. If at the end of the second round of voting no candidate has been elected, a third round is held, in which the votes of the senators and the members of the lower house are counted together. Only the two leading candidates participate in this round.
  • In Greece, the president is elected by the 300-member parliament. Here the voting system is particularly complex and is intended to encourage the parties to band together around an agreed candidate. In order to win, the candidate must achieve a two-thirds majority. If this is not achieved, a second round is held with the same requirement. If after this second round a president has not been elected, a third round is held, in which a three-fifths majority is sufficient. If no candidate receives the required majority in this round, the parliament is dissolved and general elections are held within 30 days. Following these elections, the new parliament again votes to elect a president.

In all the above examples, the ballot is secret. There are practical reasons for such secret ballots in parliaments, since an open vote is very cumbersome when a large number of voters are voting. There are also ethical reasons for secret ballots, as there is a desire to free the voters from political or partisan pressures. Therefore, the bill currently on the agenda, which seeks to amend Israel's Basic Law: the President such that an open vote would be required for the election of the president, is most irregular. While an open vote may be in line with democratic values such as transparency, it must be remembered that the reason for a secret vote is to free Knesset members from pressures and to allow them broader discretion in the decision that they are making.

Beyond the practical considerations of the issue itself, the current bill is also problematic because the motivation behind it is seen as related to specific circumstances and to a specific individual (i.e., it is seen as an attempt to advance the chances for success by one of the candidates), and is not seen as based on issues of principle. An expedited amendment of a basic law based on specific circumstances does not contribute anything to the dignity of the legislature or to the rules of the game. In 1999, the new government initiated a shameful expedited legislative process in which Basic Law: The Government was amended, removing the limitation on the appointment of more than 18 ministers. That amendment was intended to allow the Prime Minister Ehud Barak to increase the size of his government by appointing additional ministers.

Towards the end of 2000 there was another attempt to amend Basic Law: The Government in an expedited process that would remove the requirement that a candidate for prime minister must be an incumbent member of Knesset. This initiative also stemmed from an issue that was related to a specific individual and was intended to allow Benjamin Netanyahu, who was not a member of Knesset at the time, to run in the direct elections for prime minister. That bill came to be known as the "Netanyahu Law" even though he himself was vehemently opposed to it and he demanded that Knesset elections be held in parallel to the special elections. The bill was eventually passed despite the fact that it received considerable criticism on principle, with critics arguing that Basic Laws should not be amended in an expedited manner or for purposes related to a specific individual.

The fact that the Israeli presidential institution was and continues to be in the eye of a storm ensures that the coming presidential elections will be a very significant event. We can only hope that whatever electoral system is used, the members of Knesset will elect a candidate whose talents are appropriate for the office of the president and will help rehabilitate the public image of this role in the wake of the serious damage it has suffered over the past decade.