From polling booths to coalition: How the new government takes shape

Learn how votes are translated into 120 Knesset mandates.

ballots 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ballots 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
By early Wednesday morning, the bulk of votes cast in the general elections will have been counted and the general composition of the 17th Knesset should be clear. Nevertheless, over the next two days, Central Election Committee workers will be busy counting the votes of those who for one reason or another were unable to cast their ballots at the regular polling stations dispersed throughout the country. These votes could still have an important impact on the final outcome of the election. They include the ballots of soldiers in the regular and professional army and the reserves, policemen, prison guards, prisoners, seamen, Israeli representatives posted abroad and people in hospitals. They voted on Election Day or the days preceding it in special polling stations located in their places of work or residence. In accordance with the Knesset Elections Law, these voters inserted their ballot slips into an official envelope just like regular voters, and then placed that envelope into a second one. The secretaries of the special polling stations registered on the outer envelope the name of the voter and other identifying features such as his identification card number. After the last of the special polling stations closed on Tuesday night, the double envelopes were brought to the Central Election Committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem. Starting Wednesday morning, CEC officials were due to check the names of the voters listed on the outer envelope against the voting lists in their home polling stations to verify that they had not voted twice. After ensuring that the vote is legitimate, the officials will discard the outer envelope and deposit the inner one, containing the ballot slip, into the general pool for counting. The counting process is expected to end some time Thursday. According to CEC spokesman Giora Pordes, the total number of votes cast in double envelopes should be equal to the number of votes required to win three or four mandates. Therefore, they could have a crucial last-minute impact on the final election outcome. Converting the Votes into 120 Knesset Mandates In translating properly cast votes into mandates, the first thing that must be determined is the "threshold," that is, the minimum number of votes that a party must receive to gain representation in the Knesset. The Knesset has passed a law setting the threshold at 2 percent. Therefore, a party must win at least 2 percent of all the properly cast votes to gain representation. Votes that are not cast properly are discarded from the beginning and play no part in the calculation of the mandates. All the votes received by parties that do not pass the threshold will also not figure in any further calculations. They are, therefore, "wasted" votes. The total number of properly cast votes received by all the parties that exceeded the threshold is divided by 120 (the number of Knesset seats) to determine the numeric equivalent of one mandate. The surplus votes remaining to each party after the final mandate has been accounted for are not considered in this first round of the calculations. Because of the surplus votes that each party receives and that are not taken into account in the first round of calculations, the number of mandates allocated in this round will fall short of 120. The question is, how are the remaining mandates distributed? In the second round of calculations, an "internal index" is established for each party, or for each pair of parties that has made a reciprocal vote-sharing agreement before Election Day. The internal index is determined by dividing the total number of votes the party has received, or the pair of parties has jointly received, by the number of mandates allocated to it in the first round, plus one. For example, if a mandate is estimated at 25,000 and a party or pair of parties receives 115,000 votes, the internal index will be the result of 115,000 divided by five. The remaining votes are distributed to those parties which have the highest internal index. The calculation is made one mandate at a time until all the mandates that were not distributed in the first round have been allocated. When a pair of parties receives one extra mandate, the mandate will be allocated to the party which has the higher individual internal index between the two. Forming the New Government According to the Basic Law: Knesset, the results of the election must be published in the government gazette, Reshumot, within eight days of Election Day, that is, by April 5. The new Knesset will convene for the first time at 4 p.m. on the Monday of the second week following the week in which the results were published. Meanwhile, within seven days of the publication of the results, President Moshe Katsav must assign a member of the new Knesset with the task of forming a government. Before doing so, he must consult with representatives of the factions that have been elected to the new Knesset. The law does not clearly stipulate which MK should be chosen to form the new government. The only condition is that "the MK has notified [the president] that he is prepared to accept the task." The nominee has 28 days to form a new government. The president may extend the time allotted by up to 14 days. If the nominee fails to form a new government by deadline, if he announces before that time that he is unable to do so, or if he presents a government to the Knesset and fails to win a vote of confidence, the president has three days to either assign the task to some other MK or to inform the Knesset speaker that he sees no possibility of forming a government. Before the Knesset is dissolved, a majority of its members may request in writing that the president to assign the task to a specific MK who must also give his assent in writing. In such a case, the president is bound to assign the task to that MK within two days. If an MK who has been assigned the task of forming a government succeeds in doing so, he will become its head. However, his government must win the confidence of the Knesset in order to assume power. Until a new government is installed, the present caretaker government headed by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will remain in power. But it is almost certain that in the interim period before a new government is formed and sworn in, Olmert's official status in the outgoing government will change. Instead of serving as acting prime minister, he will become interim prime minister. The change, however, will only be a formality since by then the president will have assigned either him or another MK with the task of forming a permanent government. According to the Basic Law: Government, Olmert was appointed acting prime minister after Sharon became "temporarily incapacitated," following his second stroke. However, the law states that after 100 days of incapacitation, the prime minister is to be considered permanently incapacitated and the cabinet must appoint an interim prime minister from among its members who is an MK and belongs to the prime minister's faction. The 100 days will expire in less than two weeks, while Olmert still heads the caretaker government. The interim prime minister holds that position until a new government is formed or parliament is dissolved.