Corrupt primaries? Let’s reform them US-style
One should ask: Why invent the wheel rather than learn from the US primaries and from other countries in which buying votes is negligible or even nonexistent?
Long line at Likud primary Photo: Lahav Harkov
According to an article in Haaretz on November 30, Israel’s political primaries
are “ruled by party hacks,” while concomitantly Yediot Aharonot described how
primary votes were bought by a fictional candidate in the Likud primary and
found that votes could have been bought in Labor primary.
editorial subsequently suggested that the remedy would be having an “arrangement
committee,” that is, a party leaders’ committee, choosing some of its
candidates, with a primary deciding some others. Unfortunately this is a another
failed Israeli idea, much like the 1990s invention of the direct election of the
One should ask: Why invent the wheel rather than learn
from the US primaries and from other countries in which buying votes is
negligible or even nonexistent? The Israeli primaries suffer from two defects:
1. Primaries are held on a different day for each party, hence one can vote in
more than one primary, provided s/he is a registered and duespaying member in
So-called vote contractors enlist primary voters for Party
A among supporters of Party B, because the latter can, after a few days, vote in
the primary of Party B as well – as long as there is someone to register them
and pay dues for them. The vote contractors do it with money paid by
A clear sign that many voters are not authentic party members
are the large mismatches in specific places between the number of party primary
voters and the number of votes the party receives in the general elections;
often the former is twice the latter, or more. Logically the number of party
members should always be much smaller than the number of those who vote for the
party in the general election. If open primaries were held as in the United
States, by the government, on one day for all parties, every citizen could take
part and choose only among the candidates of one party, without having to be a
member and pay dues. Then no vote contractor could use the same people in the
primaries of two parties.
2. Since only registered members vote, their
number is only a small fraction of the number of party supporters, which invites
vote contractors to manipulate voting. At the Labor Party primary 35,000 people
voted, while, according to the polls, over half a million people are expected to
vote for that party in the general election.
If there were
state-sponsored open primaries, instead of a limited number of party members who
sometimes travel many kilometers to vote, there would be polling stations on
every corner, as in the general election, and far more supporters of each party
would vote; closer to the number of voters in the general election.
the 2008 US primaries there were 57 million voters compared to 131 million
voters in the general election, i.e. 43 percent. If 43% of the Labor
supporters voted in the primary, the impact of contractor deals that include at
most 10,000 votes would be negligible among the 200,000 votes. Hence, candidates
would not have paid for votes and the phenomenon would
State-sponsored primaries have other advantages. Such
primaries would make it possible to supervise the funding of intraparty election
campaigning, which would also greatly limit the possibility of buying votes.
Even more important is the possibility that such primaries will combine national
with regional election of candidates.
Experts agree about this issue and
many reformers such as the 1980s “constitution for Israel” movement have tried
to introduce some kind of regional elections of party candidates, beside
national candidates. Regional elections have many advantages, hence they are
held in most democratic countries, not only for the US Congress and UK
Parliament. However, they may suffer from one disadvantage: The possible
manipulation of regional borders by power-holders aimed at achieving supremacy,
often called “gerrymandering” in the US.
Only state-sponsored primaries
can cope with this problem by defining regional borders according to existing
municipal borders and having all parties agree on them.
largely neutralize specific interests. It will not eliminate all possibility of
self-serving manipulations by power-holders, but can reduce them to
HOWEVER, THERE is another major advantage of state-sponsored
primaries: The possibility of introducing regional voting without entering the
constitutional minefield which has bedeviled Israel for 64 years. Like other
basic laws which were introduced in the 1990s (e.g., Human Dignity and Freedom),
a basic law of primaries could introduce regional influences on Knesset
membership and be adopted by a large Knesset majority without touching the
sensitive issue of Knesset member regional elections.
Small parties can
agree to such a law despite their total opposition to the introduction of
regional elections, since they believe such elections will reduce their
Moreover, some Knesset members who are already largely supported
by specific regions (e.g., ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem) will support such a law
since it will ensure their position within their party.
There is another
alternative to state-sponsored primaries, which is used in Norway: party
committees deciding the candidates list but then having party voters choose who
will enter the parliament from among these candidates by arranging their
priority in the list at the polls.
This system’s clear disadvantage is
elimination of candidates unwanted by party leaders. In the recent Labor primary
this system would have meant the elimination of some half of the chosen
candidates. Thus, reforming the primaries is clearly
US-educated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu likes following
many US policies, so why not follow it with our voting system?
The author is a
retired professor of sociology and anthropology.