Elections, Israeli Style

They're colorful. They're intense. They're like a carnival. They're democratic.

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It's Friday afternoon, and Tel Aviv's Arlozoroff and Namir intersection is decked out in a rainbow of banners. As dozens of cars surge through the gateway to Israel's metropolis, animated political activists dance their way through the traffic, shoving bumper stickers in the faces of curious weekend motorists. 

It Must Be Election Time

It must be election time again in Israel. Welcome to the war of the road junctions, where squatters from political parties of all shapes and sizes appraise every corner as potential real estate for their political grandstand. This is the homegrown brand of drive-through grass-roots campaigning, a microcosm of the carnival atmosphere that is Israeli elections.

A month prior to Election Day, Israeli election campaigns ramp up their campaigns. Under Israeli law, elections must occur at least once every four years in the fall. But since the country's parliamentary system allows both the prime minister and the legislature to call for early elections, politicians rarely wait that long. There is no set electioneering season.

israeli style electionsThe campaigns are brief compared to the year-long run up to presidential balloting in the United States. Six months is considered an eternity. More often, campaigns are held within three to four months. The tight schedule makes the spectacle all the more intense.

At stake is control of the Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament. On Election Day, every voter casts one ballot, selecting among about two dozen parties. A party's Knesset size is based on a percentage of votes. The leader of the party that gets the most votes forms the government and becomes prime minister.

Often it's the smaller parties that are the kingmakers in Israeli politics, holding the swing votes that can make or break competing alliances in the Knesset. It takes only 2 percent of the total vote, to get into parliament. The low election threshold ensures that voters get a smorgasbord of parties specialized to almost every constituency.

Democracy in Action

Forget about war and peace. For the religious voter, there's Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Ultra-orthodox, and Sephardic (Mediterranean) Ultra-Orthodox options. Secular Jews choose among parties of socialist bleeding heart doves or laissez-faire capitalists. There are four parties that target the county's 20 percent Arab minority. The Green Leaf party promises marijuana legalization. The same for gambling with the Casino party.

Before going to the voters, parties put their own house in order. For the junkie, it's the height of political inside baseball. Like-minded parties flirt with merging their candidates into one list. Political rebels threaten jumping ship and forming new parties.

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.