Shinui's lessons for Kadima

Shinui was among the parties holding internal elections yesterday to determine its list of candidates for the Knesset in the coming elections. Though current opinion polls suggest that several other parties, including the Likud and National Religious Party, may lose seats, perhaps the most dramatic casualty of our current political realignment is Shinui, which is expected to drop from its current 15 seats to five or below in the next Knesset. At first glance, Shinui's fall is unsurprising given the popularity of its new competitor, Kadima, which can lay claim to being both a centrist and a potential ruling party. While Labor and Likud have both shed voters to Kadima, neither is competing as directly with the party Ariel Sharon founded as is Shinui. Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, Shinui's leader, is not giving up. He claims that once his voters begin to internalize that Sharon is not returning to politics, they will return to Shinui. But this raises the question why Shinui was having such a hard time competing with Sharon. The answer, perhaps, lies indirectly in a disclaimer that appears on Shinui's Web site: "Shinui is not, never has been, and never could be, a political party dedicated to anti-religious views." The site goes on to explain that the party is dedicated to freedom of religion, and therefore has no objection to religious practice but, rather, to undue government support or imposition of it. The party even claims to have religiously observant members, which is not as far-fetched as it may seem. A case can be made that the religious parties, the government's religious bureaucracy, the scandals swirling around the Chief Rabbinate, and certain aspects of the religious-secular status quo, have all contributed to sullying, rather than promoting, Judaism in the eyes of much of Israel's secular majority. Shinui, however, has never really made this case and, its disclaimer notwithstanding, is perceived as anti-religious. Its political appeal - and what, at the same time, repulsed many people - was its self-identity as the anti-Shas. It seemed to exist primarily to counteract Shas's power, and to stand for Shas's exact opposite, on both the religious and economic fronts. Shinui claims credit both for providing critical support for disengagement and for the economic reforms led by Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu. Indeed, in an editorial in its newsletter, the party listed its support for these two Sharon-led policies as its key accomplishments over the past year. Yet these claims raise two other questions: if Shinui so supports Sharon's policies, why did it leave the government? And if Sharon was responsible for Shinui's accomplishments, why not vote instead for Sharon's party? Shinui's downfall was that it failed to do what it set out to accomplish, and its "successes" were not its own. It left the government before what might have been a significant accomplishment - negotiating a compromise over the civil marriage issue with the National Religious Party - had been achieved. Given the history of centrist parties capturing the public's imagination for one election and then disappearing - the Democratic Movement for Change and the Center Party come to mind - Shinui's predicted demise should perhaps be no surprise. The Shinui saga, however, should give us pause at a moment when the public may be poised, even without Sharon, to anoint Kadima, another centrist party, as the ruling party: the first time neither Labor nor Likud has headed a government. The weakness of center parties until now seems to be that the public loses interest in them when they do not deliver on their promises and become riven by infighting. The current weakness of Labor and Likud seems to stem from similar contributing factors, in addition to the fact that neither is perceived to represent the mainstream. So far, Kadima without Sharon has internalized the first lesson, namely that infighting can doom a party, particularly a new one without any loyal base to rely upon. We shall have to see whether it has learned the second lesson, namely that the public will punish parties that either do not announce clear goals or do not achieve them.