Critical Currents: Primary blues

The internal party selection process has begun. For the next six weeks, political aspirants will pull out all plugs in a desperate scramble to secure a safe place on their respective party lists.

The internal party selection process has begun. For the next six weeks, political aspirants will pull out all plugs in a desperate scramble to secure a safe place on their respective party lists. As in the past - the major party reshuffle notwithstanding - carefully crafted rules will be bent, events will be used to promote personal ambition, and personal vendettas will be played out. Sadly, if past experience is any measure, the deeds and misdeeds of this most vicious phase in Israeli politics will haunt the public arena for years to come. Instead of floating populist notions of transforming Israel into a presidential democracy or advocating sweeping and impracticable electoral reforms, it may be useful to expend more effort in pinpointing the weaknesses of current selection procedures. On that basis, it may be possible to redesign the means by which parties choose their Knesset representatives. For the past two decades, most parties have opened the candidate selection process to some form of democratization. Labor is the only one to hold primaries among all its members (numbering over 110,000 today). In most other parties elected institutions - conventions, councils and central committees varying in size from 170 (Shinui) to 3,000 (Likud) - choose the list. Candidates must reach each and every one of these voters either directly or indirectly. Success in internal elections depends less on objective qualifications or past performance than on resources and connections. Even novices running for the first time know that they must have at least three essential tools in their arsenal: organization, media visibility and money. Organization provides the means for approaching individual voters. Without a campaign headquarters, a minimal staff (paid or unpaid), a manager, and often a strategist and a spokesperson, it is impossible to recruit activists or establish local branches. The greater the number of volunteers, the larger the possibilities of effective canvassing during the campaign and of mobilization on election day. Needless to say, candidates backed by organized groups enjoy a distinct advantage (as the victory of Amir Peretz demonstrates). Media exposure is crucial to convey name recognition, to maintain public visibility, to assert standing. Incumbents have a distinct advantage in the battle for the frame. So, too, do high-profile newcomers (Shelly Yachimovich, Avishay Braverman and Pnina Rosenblum), who have aroused the ire of many an aspirant shunted to the sidelines by a star-studded cast. Most candidates, however, devote inordinate efforts - and stoop to outrageous gimmicks - to gain the public eye. Organization and media attention can be bought. The amendment to the Elections to the Knesset Law passed last week raised the ceiling of permissible expenses in internal elections to NIS 400,000 (and placed all expenditures under the direct scrutiny of the Comptroller-General). For people of means these sums are not prohibitive. But most candidates are forced to raise funds both at home and abroad. They often make up the difference between contributions and actual costs (of producing and mailing brochures, hiring professional help and covering phone and transportation expenses) by mortgaging their homes, breaking their pension funds, and taking out loans. The linkage between wealth and power is institutionalized in the process. THESE ARE necessary but hardly sufficient prerequisites for victory. Alliances and deals are the stuff of most internal party contests, parlayed by vote contractors and power brokers. These individuals secure votes for their preferred candidates and issue widely circulated blacklists. Those who survive the primary season inevitably develop a thick skin. They also accumulate a series of obligations - not necessarily to the party or to a particular ideology, but to their backers, who develop (often unreasonable) expectations. This dependence cannot but affect judgment and priorities once in office. The alternative to internal party elections is a prearranged list. This method, once the norm, is still common in the haredi parties, where rabbinical councils set the list, reflecting the relative power of their members. Kadima has reverted to the same system with a twist: Ariel Sharon has constituted a committee of one - himself - to carry out this task. Albeit less overt, this procedure is as ugly and emotion-ridden as its more open counterparts. While it ensures a modicum of party cohesion, it breeds total dependence on the patron in the long run. When the 17th Knesset is inaugurated, it will have many new faces (the average number of newcomers in each elections is 34) alongside those incumbents who manage to retain their seats. Many Knesset members will bear the scars of the contests they conducted to gain office. It is doubtful that they will be improved by the experience, or if the country will be well served as a result. It is possible to find a better way to conduct the candidate selection process and avoid its detrimental consequences. Many parliamentary democracies allow the voters to indicate their personal preference on the ballot itself; others combine selection committees with party member approval. A major overhaul, involving strict limits on internal party competition and stringent implementation of these guidelines is critical. This is the only way that qualified and competent citizens will venture into the political arena and hopefully improve its performance.