One piece of political news that probably went unnoticed to most, especially among all the coalition-negotiation rumors, was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering cancelling the Likud’s primaries.
An article about this was first published on Jan. 28th, just after the Knesset election on Israel’s Walla news site. Then, over the last few days it sprung up again in Ma’ariv/NRG and Yediot. Another Feb. 10 article in Ma’ariv claims that the Prime Minister intends to have the primaries cancelled before ministers are sworn into the government – that is, potentially in a matter of weeks.
To most people this is just internal party politics, but it’s really not. It directly affects the democratic nature of the State of Israel. In Israel, voters do not choose individual candidates, they choose slates. In effect, there are 120 legislators, but not a single representative. The candidates themselves are chosen via internal party processes – sometimes by a committee – a larger “central committee” or a smaller secretariat or selection committee – sometimes by the chairman, sometimes by the membership in an open primary. Those primaries are the only opportunity a citizen has to vote for an actual legislator, the only time a legislator directly faces a citizen and is held accountable for his record.
Unfortunately, only a few parties hold primaries. Likud and Labor do. This past election cycle, the Jewish Home held primaries, but only half of its list was chosen in the primaries, the rest by the central committee of T’kuma/the National Union. Kadima held primaries for its chairman, but cancelled its primaries for its list because it was expected to only get a maximum of 3 seats (in the end it got two). In total, about 42-3 Members of Knesset were chosen in primaries, meaning about 1/3rd of Knesset Members were chosen by actual people and not by party bosses. Even more unfortunate, is the fact that only a small percentage, something like three percent, of the public is eligible to vote in a party primary, and even less actually do vote.
But still it’s a start. If Israel won’t change over to a district-based electoral system (one representative per district), the only hope for the Members of Knesset being chosen by the people is through the primaries.
The alleged reason for cancelling primaries is, reportedly, that there are those who believe that the Likud’s list was too right-wing and that cost it votes and at the same time, not all party members voted for the party. Or in other words, the “settlers” registered to the party to push candidates like Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Moshe Feiglin. The problem with that allegation is that there are many factions within the party who behave this way (like unions and members registered by vote contractors); there probably was a higher voting rate among settlers who were registered for the Likud then those who weren’t; and of the 11 seats the Likud-Beytenu list lost from its prior standing the Knesset, seven mandates worth of votes went to the right. Any internal party player, especially the Prime Minister knows all this.
It is true though that the primaries are intensely manipulated – by the various factions/MKs/branch chairmen/vote contractors (vote contracting, as I have explained elsewhere refers to the practice of registering people to the party and then kind of bargaining with their votes for personal gain). This is a huge problem. But this manipulation can only take place because so few people are registered to the party. Many of them are registered by internal players, who can trade on their votes.
If, on the other hand, a million or 500,000 people instead of 120,000 were registered to the Likud, and those people were registered by the party itself and not for any specific internal party player, it would be too hard for any vote contractor or even group, such as a union, to register and control the numbers necessary to manipulate the system. Vote contracting in its current powerful form, would be a thing of the past.
That would require an immense registration effort by the party over several years. That is very possible. In Israel, however, long term solutions, are not the preferred solutions. It’s easier and more seductive to maneuver one’s way to power, which in this case may mean canceling the primaries and concentrate power in the hands of an even smaller group of people.