Civil Fights: Lessons of the election

The outcome showed the price of disregarding one's voters and the power of uniting behind a single party.

February 18, 2009 21:15

Can anything good be said about electoral results that ensure prolonged and extortionate coalition negotiations followed by an unstable, dysfunctional government? Surprisingly, yes - if the lessons are learned. On the Right, the results were an object lesson in the perils of short-changing democracy. And on the Left, they were an object lesson in what responsible voting can accomplish. Three rightist parties - Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union - all lost seats by scorning their voters. In Likud's case, the drop was particularly dramatic: It shrank 25 percent in a mere two months, from a high of 36 seats in a poll taken the day after its primary to 27 seats in the election. All these seats clearly migrated rightward, since the overall rightist-religious bloc did not shrink. And that is the key to understanding what happened. Likud's primary produced a list attractive to rightists; hence many who had deserted the party in 2006 initially returned. But then, in a disgraceful and anti-democratic move instigated by chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, party institutions reordered the slate's reserved slots three days after the primary to demote some of the hawks and promote left-leaning candidates, as Netanyahu wanted a "centrist" list. And disgusted rightists, unwilling to support a party whose leader so clearly did not want them, jumped ship. What is noteworthy, however, is that primary voters, with the "wisdom of crowds" that has made on-line betting sites such accurate predictors, read the political map more accurately than Netanyahu. He thought the battle was over the Center, so he wanted a list that would appeal to Kadima voters. But the battle turned out to be over the Right - and primary voters had given him precisely the list he needed to win it. Thus had he honored their will, he would now head a larger, stronger faction and be better placed to form a stable, functional government. Instead, he woke up only belatedly, as Likud's edge over Kadima in the polls steadily narrowed even though Kadima was also shrinking. He then tried to break right, but it was too late: Rightists refused to vote for someone who had shown them the door just two months earlier. Hence he is now in an impossible situation: Instead of being the obvious candidate to form a government, Tzipi Livni is in position to challenge him, enabling smaller parties to launch an extortionate bidding war. THE WOES of Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union, in contrast, stemmed from not giving their voters a say at all. When several small rightist parties decided to merge into Habayit Hayehudi, some politicians wisely urged that its leader and Knesset slate be chosen via primaries. But the majority preferred appointing a council of public figures to choose both leader and list. The result was almost inevitable: Some politicians and factions felt slighted by their low place on the resultant list; they also disliked the chosen leader. So they broke off and ran as National Union. Voters, disgusted with this petty quarreling, then punished both parties: The combined factions won only seven seats, down over 20% from nine in 2006. And they were spared the far greater losses predicted by early polls only because Netanyahu made their voters so unwelcome in Likud. Yet this disastrous split, which nearly resulted in both factions failing to enter the Knesset, would never have happened had the list been chosen by primary rather than fiat - because while it is possible to accuse a public council of discriminating against you, and hence your voters, it is not possible to accuse the voters themselves of doing so. The voters' decision is unappealable. That is why not a single Likud politician quit over his placement on the list, though many were equally unhappy. And in fact, National Union's politicians clearly did deserve better than the public council gave them, since it ultimately won four seats to Habayit Hayehudi's three. FINALLY, THERE is the lesson of Kadima. According to pollster Rafi Smith, fully 40% of Kadima's voters chose it just days before the election. They came overwhelmingly from the Left: Smith says Kadima took one-third of Labor's voters and even more of Meretz's. And they came for one reason only: As the gap between Likud and Kadima in the polls narrowed, leftists realized that supporting Kadima offered their only hope of forming the next government. So they held their noses and did so. As one such voter told Ha'aretz: "For years I've voted Meretz, but this year, since I'm no great fan of Netanyahu, I decided to vote for Tzipi Livni. I think her party is atrocious, it has terrible people in it, but I had no choice... she's the only answer to Netanyahu." The results are unfortunate: a Netanyahu-Livni stalemate in which neither can easily form a government. But given that Netanyahu had for months appeared unstoppable, it was a stunning achievement, and it very nearly succeeded. Had Kadima beaten Likud by somewhat more than a mere one seat, Livni's claim to be the people's choice might have been convincing. Rightists, who saw the same polls, could have prevented this outcome by holding their noses and voting Likud, thereby ensuring its ability to form a government. But they preferred to risk losing the election rather than sacrifice their ideological purity. And in fact, rightists did lose, despite their bloc's overall victory. Because even if Netanyahu manages to form a coalition - which is still uncertain, given Kadima's ability to play spoiler - a government comprising six separate factions, with often clashing agendas and no one party large enough to dominate, will be too dysfunctional to do anything useful and will ultimately collapse prematurely. And that will bring the Left to power on a wave of disgust with rightists' inability to govern. These, then, are the election's lessons: Give the voters a say, honor their will after doing so, and unite behind a party that could actually form a government instead of dissipating your electoral power among numerous small factions. And if Israelis learn them, our political system may even start producing governments capable of governing.

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