Recently, we have been reminded of the enormous differences in the representation of women among those political parties that hold internal elections (referred to as primaries). On one end of the scale, we have Labor and Meretz, with equal or almost equal numbers of men and women candidates (not to mention the fact that women are at the helm of these parties), and even cases in which men have been pushed up the candidate list due to their underrepresentation, in accordance with predefined rules.
On the other side, we have the Likud party in which women’s representation has remained low (around 15%) and has hardly changed in 30 years except for a mere increase (from 10% over that period). Of course, the difference could be attributed to the different ideologies of these parties on the Left and on the Right, and to other factors such as the fierce competition at the top of the Likud party, as the result of its having been a ruling party for such a long time. However, the emergence of demands from Likud activists (both men and women) for the inclusion of more women in the candidate list indicates that there too, as in other parties around the world, there is an understanding that something has gone wrong.
An improper use of reserved slots on Israeli party lists
What has gone wrong is the miserly and improper use of the mechanism for reserving slots on the lists. Instead of being deployed as a temporary measure to help women advance (which they will no longer need after several rounds of elections), it has become the focus of bitter competition among women. Questions such as “Which woman will be highest on the list?” are no longer asked in Meretz and Labor.
But in the Likud party, which has limited gender quotas, and mostly in the lower ranks of the list, this is still the subject of discussion. Women ranked in high slots compete against each other, on the assumption that this is what might ensure their appointment as the Likud’s sole (unfortunately) senior female minister in the next government. Newer women candidates, and women from the backbenches, compete for the few slots in which candidates have a reasonable chance of serving as MKs and end up in fierce competition with each other over the few allotted slots.
To appreciate the scale of the problem, it’s enough to note the widely covered and bitter struggle currently taking place between two women Likud MKs over their final slot on the party’s candidate list for the Knesset elections. The message to voters is clear, and is a painful one for those who hold gender representation dear: Which one or two women would you like to see on the list? If you vote for more than one or two, you’ll only harm the chances of your preferred choice – a result that is completely detrimental to the process of expanding gender equality in the party.
So what can be done?
The solution is not straightforward. In a ruling party, candidate slots are very much in demand, and internal politics are different from that in Meretz or Labor, which generally sit on the benches of the opposition. Nevertheless, had Likud adopted a simple proposal put forward by researchers at the Israel Democracy Institute back in the 1990s, the party could now be boasting a much larger number of women candidates, and might not even need a quota system.
The proposal recommended increasing the number of reserved slots incrementally, with each new election (say, by 5% or 10% each time). This would prevent harsh female competition, and would make it easier for male candidates to swallow the bitter pill of having to compete for fewer slots. Despite the fact that Meretz and Labor did not adopt a forward-looking decision of this kind in the 1990s, they did implement it de facto over the years, by raising their quotas for women’s’ representation over the course of several elections.
Just as Netanyahu advanced a proposal in 2006 to go back to holding primaries (from 1996 to 2006, all Likud candidates were selected by the party’s central committee) in order to breathe new life into the Likud, he would do well to advance this forward-looking idea now. Better late than never.
Prof. Gideon Rahat is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and the chair of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Chen Friedberg is a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.