Ofer Kenig

Don’t mock parties’ internal democracy

It’s easy to poke fun at party elections, but do we really want 120 MKs who are chosen by their party leaders?

The startling decision to call early elections – the second campaign within five months, caught the parties in an uncomfortable position. They had not yet recovered from one election campaign before they were unexpectedly facing a new one.  Once again, they have to draw up their strategy, hire advisors, prepare election slogans, recruit volunteers and … determine their list of candidates. Once again. Just five months after they had set their lists for the 21st Knesset.

For those parties which do not operate on the basis of internal democratic procedures, this is no more than a minor inconvenience.  So long as the list of candidates is determined by the party leader or a nomination committee no problems are expected, and the task is an easy one.  However, the parties which do hold primaries to determine their lists (Likud, Labor, Meretz and Zehut) are faced with a tough dilemma. While they have a party constitution stating that the party chairperson and the list are elected in an internal primaries process, their lack of enthusiasm for being dragged into a complicated, expensive, and divisive procedure – for the second time within six months – is easily understood. Especially since it is very likely that the results will not be radically different from the current lists.

In light of this dilemma, these parties are currently faced with internal disagreements. The Likud is awaiting the ruling of its internal judicial body on the agreement to reserve four spots for Kulanu members, and on the decision not to hold elections for the party chairperson. Meretz was divided on the question of who elects the party chairperson and whether to hold new elections for the party list or to leave it as is. In the Labor party, internal quarrels concerning how Avi Gabai’s successor and the party list will be elected have just come to an end.

It’s so easy to jump on the bandwagon and join everyone in poking fun at the few parties which still have internal democratic processes, especially in the case of Meretz and the Labor party which both suffered severe electoral blows. Instead of taking a hard, critical look inwards, and preparing for the forthcoming elections, which are of such critical importance for them, these two parties are busy with boring, procedural discussions and with holding primaries for the job of party chairperson.  It is true that internal party democracy is not lacking in faults: cumbersome procedures, arguments about the rules of the game, factionalism and vote brokers are intrinsic to political parties that elect their lists through primaries. Moreover, while these are preoccupied with internal processes, the other parties are meanwhile already deeply involved in planning their actual election campaigns.

And yet, we should ask ourselves:  Is it preferable to have a Knesset comprised solely of MKs who were appointed by their party leaders or by nominating committees?  I believe that the answer is – No.  Despite all its faults, internal party democracy is a prerequisite to the important functions that parties are supposed to fulfill, such as representing different sectors of the population and carrying out their supporters’ wishes.  And yet, given the fact that parties with dominant leaders at their helm enjoy an inherent advantage in the current situation in which elections have been forced on the political system, would it not be better if the democratic parties would cancel the primaries, just this once?

This dilemma would be far simpler, had Israel adopted the semi-open ballot system.  Under this model, when we cast a vote for a particular party, the ballot slip will also list the candidates chosen by the party.  Everyone who votes for the party can mark one or more preferred candidates. When the votes are counted, those candidates who pass the threshold of a minimum number of individual votes will be pushed up the list. This system would yield a double benefit: It would make it easier for the democratic parties to make a one-time decision not to change the lists chosen five months ago, while at the same time—not giving up on the important principle of voter involvement in selecting MKs. The second benefit would be that those who voted for parties with a dominant leader would also have a say in the makeup of the party lists and thus rebuff criticism about their lack of democracy.  Such a reform would reinforce elected officials’ commitment to their voters and would enhance voter interest in the election process.

Until this model is implemented, we should at least refrain from mocking the parties that do have an internal democratic process.

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."
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