Farewell Elections, Hello Government

Ofer Kenig, Israel Democracy Institute, April 10, 2019


With permission, read full article at Israel Democracy Institute.

After an exhausting and polarizing election campaign, the people have spoken, and we’re now entering the next stage of the political lifecycle: forming a new government. Over the coming days, the president of the state will consult with representatives of all the parties elected to the Knesset, and will decide who to charge with the task of forming the government. This will mark the beginning of a process that will conclude with the swearing in of Israel’s 35th government. What are the rules governing this process, and what can be learned from a historical and comparative perspective?

The 2019 Knesset elections are over. A lengthy election campaign has come to an end, and now the political system switches gear, as the process of forming a new government begins. The State of Israel belongs to the family of parliamentary democracies, in which the executive branch (the government) draws its authority from the legislative branch (the parliament), and so– requires its confidence. Thus, the question of who will serve as head of the executive branch—the prime minister—is not decided directly by the voters (as is the case in presidential regimes, or as occurred during the period of “direct elections” in Israel), but depends instead on a process of bargaining among the various factions elected to parliament. In democracies with “first-past-the-post” electoral systems (such as Canada or Britain), the winning party usually holds an absolute majority in parliament, and thus– forming a government is relatively simple and quick: the leader of the party with a parliamentary majority forms the government and becomes prime minister. However, in most parliamentary democracies (including Israel), no single party holds most of the seats in parliament, and thus the process of forming a government is longer and more complicated. The first stage in this process concerns who should be charged with attempting to form the government.

Awarding the Task of Forming the Government

In Israel, the authority to choose who will be asked to form the government rests with the president. However, the wording of the legislation on this matter is somewhat vague: it does not provide the president with clear guidance on how to perform this important task, leaving considerable room for the president’s own discretion. At the same time, it is clear that the rationale for consulting with faction representatives is to help the president identify who has the best chances of forming a government, and for this person to be charged with the task of doing so. Other factors, such as which faction garnered the highest number of Knesset seats, or which of the candidates for prime minister was given the highest number of “recommendations” by other faction leaders, also influence the president’s decision making, but are not binding.

It is true that, in most cases, the leader of the largest faction will in any case have the greatest chance of forming a government,1 but this is by no means the only possible outcome. In the 2009 elections, Kadima won one seat more than the Likud (28 to 27), but President Shimon Peres awarded the task of forming the government to the head of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, after evaluating during the consultations that Netanyahu had the greater likelihood of forming a coalition.

A similar model, which is being advanced by the Israel Democracy Institute, proposes that the head of the largest faction will automatically be declared prime minister, with no need for a vote of confidence from the Knesset. The knowledge that this will be the case will incentivize the electorate to vote for the larger electoral lists, and incentivize politicians to join such lists, which will lead to the formation of two main political blocs, as was the case up until the end of the 1990s.

Coalition Negotiations

Once the president formally awards the leader of one of the factions the task of forming a government, a 28-day time limit is set for this task to be completed, but if needed he or she may request a 14-day extension from the president. If he or she is unable to form a government after this extension, the ball goes back to the president’s court, who may now ask another Member of Knesset to try to form a government. This time, the allotted time is 28 days, with no possibility of extension. If this MK is also unsuccessful, then a group of 61 Knesset members can ask the president to give the task to a third candidate. In this case, a period of 14 days is granted, after which, if no government has been formed, early elections are announced.

Historically, in almost every case, the first MK charged with forming a government has succeeded in doing so.

The period of time taken to form a government in Israel has ranged between 20 and 100 days. Compared to other countries, this is not unusually long. Belgium is the record holder: no fewer than 541 days passed between elections in June 2010 and the swearing in of a new government in December 2011. In Germany, the previous national record was broken following the 2017 elections, when it took Angela Merkel 171 days to form her fourth government. In Sweden too the results of the last elections (in 2018) were inconclusive, making it difficult to create a government, and four and a half months passed before agreement on a new government could be reached.

Time taken to form governments in Israel (No. of days following elections)

How Many Factions Are Included in the Coalition?

Since the incoming government seeks the confidence of the Knesset, and given that no single party has ever enjoyed an overall majority of seats, all of Israel’s governments have been coalitions. The number of factions included in coalitions formed following elections has ranged over the years from three to nine.

Table 1 shows the number of factions in each coalition since 1992, and also presents the relative size of the prime minister’s own faction, an indication of the level of control the prime minister has over the coalition. If this percentage is low, the prime minister’s faction is rather constrained, and needs to maneuver between more coalition partners and pay a greater price to each. This gives the partners greater bargaining strength, and deals a significant blow to the prime minister’s ability to govern effectively and to maintain a stable coalition.

Data on the coalitions formed following elections, 1992–2015

Year Prime Minister Factions in the Coalition MKs in the Coalition Relative Size of the Prime Minister’s Faction
1992 Rabin 3 62 70%
1996 Netanyahu 6 66 49%
1999 Barak 7 75 35%
2001 Sharon 7 78 24%
2003 Sharon 4 68 56%
2006 Olmert 4 67 43%
2009 Netanyahu 6 74 37%
2013 Netanyahu 4 68 46%
2015 Netanyahu 5 61 49%

Government Appointments: Handing Out Ministerial Positions

Many comparative studies on ministerial appointments in coalition governments have revealed indications of a principle of relativity at work. According to this principle, the distribution of ministerial positions reflects the relative size of each coalition partner, such that the larger partners receive more ministerial positions than the smaller partners. Alternatively, balance can be achieved by giving out other jobs, such as deputy minister posts or heads of parliamentary committees.

In Israel, the principle of proportionality generally holds sway when it comes to coalition partners, but the ruling party does tend to gain a larger number of ministerial positions than its relative size in the coalition would imply.

Distribution of ministers in the 33rd and 34th governments

33rd Government (2013) 34th Government (2015)
Faction Seats Ministers Faction Seats Ministers
Likud Beitenu 31 13* Likud 30 13
Yesh Atid 19 5 Kulanu 10 3
Jewish Home 12 3 Jewish Home 8 3
Hatnuah 6 2 Shas 7 2
United Torah Judaism** 6
Total 68 23 Total 61 21

* At the time the government was formed, 12 ministers from Likud Beitenu were appointed. However, the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs was reserved for Avigdor Lieberman, pending the verdict in an ongoing trial against him. After his acquittal, in November 2013, Lieberman was sworn in and joined the government.

** The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties tend not to assume ministerial positions, instead preferring other senior roles such as deputy minister or head of the Knesset Finance Committee.

The total number of ministers serving in the government has risen considerably over the years (see Figure 2 below). The first government, sworn in in 1949, had only 12 ministers. In all the governments up to 1966 there were no more than 18 ministers. A sharp rise in the number of ministers came with the government formed following the 1969 elections, mainly due to this being a broad coalition comprising the two large electoral lists—the left-wing Alignment faction and the right-wing Gahal faction. This government, which was considered a national unity government, included 24 ministers. The national unity governments of the 1980s also had swollen ranks of ministers.

Number of ministers in Israeli governments formed following elections

* The figure shows the number of ministers in governments that were formed following elections. The values are for the number of ministers at the time the government was sworn in, up to a week after the swearing-in ceremony (on occasion, ministers were added several days after the formal swearing-in of a new government).

In 2014, an amendment was introduced to the Basic Law: The Government, limiting the number of government ministers to a maximum of 19, including the prime minister. This amendment was intended to prevent the creation of an oversized and cumbersome government and the establishment of new ministries whose real contribution is questionable, resulting in a waste of public funds. Having a large number of ministers also harms the performance of the Knesset. The greater the number of Knesset members serving in the government, the fewer there are available for the important parliamentary work of serving on committees and overseeing the executive branch.

In practice, one of the first steps taken by the 20th Knesset following its election was to suspend this limitation. Thus, the government that was sworn in on May 14, 2015 numbered 21 ministers, and at one point reached 23 ministers. It will be interesting to see whether Israel’s elected representatives will once again decide to suspend, or even cancel, the restriction that they themselves authorized five years ago.2