Analysis: 2 elections that illustrate Labor's decline

The primaries have proved that its membership is an amalgamation of special-interest groups.

labor candidates 88 (photo credit: )
labor candidates 88
(photo credit: )
The fact that Labor is fielding the no-hoper candidate in Wednesday's presidential race is probably the second-best indication of the dismal current reality in the former "party of government." The only better illustration would be if Shimon Peres were finally to manage to win the treacherous Knesset vote - having defected from Labor a year and a half ago. In every presidential election since independence, Labor fielded a leading candidate, going on to win the vote in all but the traumatic 2000 Moshe Katsav-Peres contest. Colette Avital, with her respectable diplomatic and parliamentary background and as the first woman to run for the job, is a worthy contender. But the fact that she is almost certainly destined to end in third place, behind Peres and Reuven Rivlin, is stark evidence of Labor's decline. As this article is being written, the second round of the Labor leadership primary is still too close to call. But whether it falls to Ami Ayalon or Ehud Barak, the job of restoring Labor to a credible alternative for national leadership will be an uphill struggle. Even before he addresses the public's concerns, the new leader's first priority will be to put his own house in order. He will be the ninth new chairman in the last 12 years; in the same period, the Likud has had only Binyamin Netanyahu (twice) and Ariel Sharon. Labor's constitution, furthermore, will leave him with very little room to maneuver in coalition talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Ayalon and Barak both gave their own form of a commitment not to stay in an Olmert government for long, but the party leadership does not include a carte blanche to pull out of the coalition. Any such decision would have to be brought to the central committee, which would likely oppose a return to opposition. Neither is the new leader free to build his own ministerial team. Ayalon had promised, if victorious, to make sure that his allies, Avishay Braverman and Amir Peretz, each took a seat at the cabinet table and to offer a spot to Barak. But any attempt to unseat one of the incumbent Labor ministers will lead to more bloody battles in the central committee. Barak gave no public promises, and the more powerful Labor ministers are his supporters anyway. But leaving Ayalon, Peretz and Braverman out of the cabinet would create a resentful inner opposition to his rule. Even if the new chairman manages to cobble together a new coalition agreement and appoint the ministers he wants, any period of inner-party calm will be limited at best, since for all intents and purposes he is only a temporary chairman. Labor rules mandate another primary to select a leader for the next general elections. A dozen potential candidates will be waiting for the new chairman to slip up, so they can launch their own campaign. Only if the party somehow manages to overcome all this potential internecine strife, and unite somehow around one leader, will it be able to face the deep damage these primaries have caused its public image. Labor has won elections only when it convinced voters that it was the natural party of the urban middle-class. The primaries, though, have proved that its membership is an amalgamation of special-interest groups, none of them attuned to what really bothers the mainstream voter. The new chairman will have the unenviable task of keeping these groups satisfied in order to remain in office, while proving to the general public that they are not the real Labor Party. When the Labor MKs enter the voting booth today to choose a new president, the next general elections will be the main thing on their minds. After Avital inevitably drops out in the first round, they will be faced with a difficult choice between Peres and Rivlin. Their vote will probably decide the final outcome. For some it will be a personal dilemma. Peres is closer to their political beliefs and after all, he was the quintessential Labor Man for six decades. But then in November 2005 he betrayed them by jumping ship to Kadima. This will be their chance to take revenge. It's hard to imagine Peretz, whose leadership of the party was fatally undermined by Peres' defection, voting for him now. What's more, while Rivlin is an ideological rival, he went out of his way as Knesset speaker to prove he can transcend party divisions, making friends with many Labor MKs. Personal considerations aside, the vote will be a tactical one. Likud and Kadima are Labor's main rivals in the next elections. More than anything, the presidential result will be a boost to the morale of the victor's party. A Rivlin win might prove a deathblow to Olmert's chances of survival and Kadima's already much dwindled fortunes, but it would also be a significant gain for a resurgent Likud under Netanyahu's leadership. Paradoxically, if a majority of Laborites award Peres his long sought victory, it could be a sign that Kadima is already so discredited as to be unsalvageable anyway. So why not allow Shimon a last moment of glory.