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Floating voters could swing Israel's upcoming election

Benjamin Netanyahu's rival pulled ahead in polls, but plenty could change before Israel's election Tuesday

Israeli voters head to the polls Tuesday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking a third consecutive term in office. Critics hope rival Isaac Herzog will end Netanyahu's six-year hawkish tenure and replace it with leadership more oriented to social issues. The campaigning has proved fierce, provocative and occasionally chaotic.

Here's what's happening:

Who votes?

All Israeli citizens older than 18 are eligible, 5.88 million people. There is no need to register in advance. Absentee voting is reserved for diplomats, but hospital patients can cast ballots from their beds and soldiers from their posts.

What's on the ballot?

Israel has a parliamentary system of government and a single-ballot national voting system. The prime minister isn't elected directly; voters cast their ballot for the political party they want to see in power.

This time, Israelis will choose from 26 parties running for the Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament. These include veteran parties with traditional right-versus-left agendas or sectarian interests. Others have various agendas, such as empowering ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, economic reform, spreading a Hasidic religious vision, legalizing pot and banning pornography.

Who gets into the parliament and how?

The threshold for landing a seat in the Knesset is now 3.25% of the total vote. Ballots cast for parties making it past that threshold are divided by 120 to determine how many seats each gets.

Who are the main candidates?

On paper, there are 26 candidates for prime minister, but practically speaking, there are two. Netanyahu is seeking his fourth term since 1996 at the head of conservative Likud, which he hopes will win enough votes to form the next coalition. His main rival is Isaac Herzog, who heads the Zionist Union, an alliance of the veteran Labor party and the remains of former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah movement. Herzog and Livni have agreed to serve two years each as prime minister if their party wins the election.

How is the government formed?

In Israel's fractious system, the government is formed by a coalition of parties representing a majority of at least 61 parliamentary seats.

When the final voting results are in, President Reuven Rivlin will consult the leaders of all the parties that won parliament seats to hear who they back for prime minister, and will tap the candidate with the best chance of securing a majority. This would usually be the head of the largest Knesset faction, but exceptions occur. The prospective prime minister will have several weeks to negotiate deals with enough parties to secure a majority and form a government.

Netanyahu has likened coalition-building to solving a Rubik's cube. But of the three governments he's headed, only one made it through a full term without breaking up.

Last year, deep ideological strain frayed relations between members and pulled the prime minister in different directions. In December, Netanyahu's coalition fell apart after he fired two ministers and he called for early elections.

What if the leading candidate can't form a coalition?

The president reassigns the task to a different candidate, even if their party did not win the most votes. That happened in 2009. Livni's then-party Kadima came in first and she was tapped to form a coalition, but she couldn't persuade enough parties to climb aboard. The task then went to Netanyahu, although Likud had won one less seat. He has been prime minister since.

Where do things stand now?

After weeks of running neck and neck, Herzog's Zionist Union has pulled ahead in the polls with Netanyahu slipping. Polls on Friday showed a gap of two to five seats in Herzog's favor, although things could change again by Tuesday.

Israel's right-wing bloc is typically bigger than the left-wing one. But centrist parties can tip the scales either way in joining or backing a coalition, as may the Arab and ultra-Orthodox lists. The political system once was split into two blocs with two main parties as right and left-wing anchors. A "big bang" in 2005 split the main forces three ways, forming a liquid center that's been morphing since.

What's on Israelis' minds?

Israelis have traditionally voted on security and diplomacy issues, mostly for or against territorial compromise with the Palestinians. But Israelis are increasingly concerned with other matters chronically put on the back burner: the high cost of living, socioeconomic justice, affordable housing, LGBT rights, civil liberties.

Can polls be trusted?

The iconic Shimon Peres once likened polls to perfume: nice to enjoy, deadly to drink. Polls are a snapshot of the mood at a particular moment and reflect the latest in Israel's furious news cycle. Still, polls reflect trends and sometimes set them. Voters considering a party wavering in the polls might decide to vote for a sure thing so their vote doesn't go to waste. Or if it's looking pretty certain who the next prime minister is going to be, people feel free to vote for smaller parties.

What can sway elections?

A terrorist attack shortly before the vote, a diplomatic development, a corruption scandal. But above all, it's so-called floater-voters who make the difference.

A surprisingly high number of Israelis remain undecided until close to the election — about 20%. And 5% don't decide until they're in the booth. Last-minute decisions make results unpredictable; a media blackout on polls begins the Saturday before the vote.

Another factor is turnout. After a steady decline, nearly 64% went to the polls in 2012, the highest percentage since 1999. Unlike Americans, Israelis don't have the excuse of being too busy at work. In Israel, election day is a national holiday.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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