Ofer Kenig

Are open primaries the answer?

The pros and cons of a system that would let every interested citizen take part in choosing party leadership

The volatile Israeli party system, together with several recent political developments, lately brought the idea of holding open leadership primaries to Israel.

On the center-right, the firm grip of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Likud’s leadership forced out prominent Likudniks such as Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Kahlon and recently Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. Many assume that the only chance of bringing an end to Netanyahu’s reign – and by default to Likud’s turn to the nationalistic right – is by challenging him with a center-right political platform. Here lies the important question: Who will lead this platform? Taking into account that all three personalities mentioned above (and perhaps a fourth, Gabi Ashkenazi) have leadership aspirations, how can the leadership issue be settled?

On the center-left, the Labor Party desperately seeks a kind of a restart. More than 15 years have elapsed since the last time a Labor prime minister was in office. Voices within the party call to reach out beyond the party’s electorate. The launching of the Zionist Union ahead of the 2015 elections was a step in the direction, but not a sufficient one. The vision is to establish a “Democratic Party” of sorts, which will host the Labor, Yesh Atid, Meretz and Ha’Tnua parties under one umbrella.

Who will lead this platform? Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, Shelly Yachimovich, Amir Peretz (and some speculate Benny Gantz), all regard themselves as prime minister material. How can this leadership issue be resolved?

In both cases a possible answer for the leadership question is conducting a broad inclusive contest that would be open to every interested citizen, so called “open primaries.” Potentially, such a step has promising advantages: the damaging influence of vote brokers will be diminished; the excessive power of organized interest groups will be neutralized; and most importantly, it could create a “buzz” that would bring many citizens to participate in an important political process from which the vast majority of Israelis have shied away in the past. Only about 120,000 citizens participated in the last leadership elections in the four “democratic” parties (Likud, Labor, Jewish Home and Meretz). This corresponds to only 2 percent of the electorate! In the United States, almost 60 million people participated in the 2016 presidential primaries in the two parties, more than one-quarter (25%) of the US electorate.

Indeed, the positive effect of open primaries was recently demonstrated in several cases. In France, the left conducted primaries in 2011 to select its presidential candidate. Nearly 3 million citizens participated in the process. In Italy, the left coalition conducted several open primaries in the last decade, attracting the participation of between 3 million and 4 million citizens. The Liberals in Canada also adopted inclusive primaries in 2013, selecting Justin Trudeau as their new leader. The process was perceived as a great success and the party won the general elections two years later. In all of these cases the adoption of primaries broadened the party’s support base and created a substantial momentum for its electoral campaign.

However, when considering the adoption of open primaries, one must also take into account their potential challenges and dangers, which can be seen in the case of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom.

In 2015, Labour conducted a leadership contest that, for the first time, was open to every supporter. Apparently the move was a massive success; more than 200,000 citizens joined the party as supporters or members.

However, concerns about the motives of many of these newcomers were raised. Claims that supporters of radical parties (and even Conservatives who wanted to weaken Labour by having it led by a fringe candidate) registered to participate in the primary in order to support the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn. For many within the party establishment, the extremely inclusive process allowed a “hostile takeover” of the party by “far-left infiltrators” who do not share the values of the party and are far from representing the party’s electorate. The eventual victory of Corbyn created a deep rift within Labour, a rift that was reflected last week in an overwhelming vote against him by his fellow MPs. Corbyn, from his side, refused to resign, saying his legitimacy stems from the tens of thousands of citizens who voted in his favor.

The Labour case demonstrates the dangers of adopting open primaries, from a potential rift between the widely-elected leader and his/her fellow MPs to a “takeover” of the party.

Within the Israeli context, one should weigh the promises and potential benefits of open primaries against the challenges and threats they pose. Specifically in Israel one has to take into account all-too familiar pitfalls of broad contests of any kind – irregularities of the electoral process, shallow campaigns with no real debate and under-the-radar fundraising. Beyond that, an independent and effective oversight body must operate to ensure a proper election process. If we could ensure these best practices, then open primaries might just be possible in the Jewish state.

Dr. Ofer Kenig is a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Political Reform project. Join IDI for a dialogue on July 26 on the subject of open primaries, featuring Tzipi Livni.

About the Author
Prof. Ofer Kenig is a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute and a Senior Lecturer in Ashkelon Academic College. He recently co-authored the book, "From Party Politics to Personalized Politics."