Primary problems

The state comptroller has leveled fines on no fewer than 50 MKs for assorted infractions of party primary regulations.

Knesset 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
Knesset 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
The state comptroller has leveled fines on no fewer than 50 MKs for assorted infractions of party primary regulations.
Left and Right, no party emerged unscathed, though proportionally the worst offender was Bayit Yehudi; seven of its 12 MKS were censured.
Most prominent among them is party chairman Naftali Bennett who was handed the heaviest penalty – NIS 65,000 – for the “unusual severity” of his exceeding caps set on the contributions that any single candidate may amass on the campaign trail.
Bayit Yehudi offers a cogent illustration of a widespread predicament. Its 2012 primary, which came under the comptroller’s scrutiny, was the party’s first-ever primary contest. None of its politicians had previously run in any internal party race. Overnight, though, they appeared to have fully mastered the system’s inbuilt deformities.
Superficially, primaries appear to be the ultimate antidote to behind-the-scenes political collusion, as they ostensibly deprive small elected or non-elected forums of clout, theoretically reducing the likelihood of foul play and manipulation. Committee members can be prevailed upon – perhaps even bribed – while tens of thousands of voters cannot be bought off.
But reality belies the hype. To begin with, primaries do not always work. The American experience has shown that sometimes diminishing portions of the electorate bother to participate.
Secondly, primaries – especially for dozens of Knesset slots – are expensive. They can drive already cash-strapped parties into bankruptcy, increasing temptation to raise funds illicitly – both at home and abroad.
The complexity of voting for multiple candidates invites deals, blacklists and the registration of counterfeit members.
The still most memorable incident came from Labor’s 1999 Knesset primary, in which Sofa Landver beat Adisu Massala for the “immigrants’ slot” by winning thousands of Druse votes.
The primary system went awry from its debut in the Israeli arena, when the now-defunct Democratic Movement for Change first introduced Knesset-list primaries in 1977. In retrospect, it surely was the harbinger of anomalies to come.
Unexpectedly, the DMC’s reform appeared inordinately popular in the unlikeliest places, such as Druse villages, where octogenarians seemed compellingly attracted to lofty DMC clean-politics ideals. They turned out to be Trojan horses.
Candidates eagerly registered thousands of Druse supporters and/or clan members into the party rolls and paid their dues. The well-intentioned DMC was riddled with fraud that no amount of weeding out could correct.
The massive participation of the Arab sector in Labor primaries is another lasting legacy of the same defect. The massive enrollment of Arabs in Labor’s rolls is not later translated into votes in the general election.
But worst of all is the fact that primaries are socially regressive. They are programmed to discriminate against anonymous candidates and those who cannot afford publicity drives to make themselves household names. To do well in nationwide primaries one has to be either rich or famous. Connections with the moneyed elites – either here or overseas – are prerequisite.
Yesteryear’s rise of unknowns, as occurred especially in the Likud of the 1970s, would be impossible if these candidates had to vie against well-heeled celebrities in primaries.
Primaries seem fair, but they tip the scales against new challengers in the political contest.
In politics especially things are rarely what they seem.
Israel experimented with direct prime-ministerial elections on the assumption that they would encourage the creation of large political blocs.
Instead, the double-ballot resulted in further fragmentation to the extent that the old system appeared worth reviving.
Not all that is old is necessarily bad. Labor’s much maligned appointments committees sagaciously produced some of its best candidates lists. The Likud’s erstwhile system of “sevens,” in which candidate panels were elected and ranked in a phased process that defied too many dirty tricks, introduced energetic newcomers.
The inescapable truth is that there are no instant facile solutions. The primaries, most of all, are no magic formula.
Each party must be left free to opt for a system it deems best, to exercise common sense rather than be legally coerced to follow trendy or opportunistic dictates, of which the primary system is a sad example.