The word from the Prime Minister's Office is that Ariel Sharon
is to re-sponsor his bill obliging political parties to choose their Knesset
candidates by holding primaries. Last year an almost identical bill dealing with the election of party lists as distinct from party leaders was submitted by Labor, which copied verbatim a previous bill proposed by Sharon, but from which he had backtracked.
We don't know what has caused Sharon to push, then shun, and now readvocate indistinguishable bills.
He first espoused Knesset primaries after Naomi Blumenthal
was accused of paying one night's hotel bills for 10 Likud
central committee members on the eve of the 2003 internal elections in which only the 3,000 party central committee members were eligible to vote. The facile antidote was to throw the whole process open. This logic is akin to declaring that if some representatives are ethically wanting, representative democracy should be abolished in favor of town meetings clearly impractical, though superficially enticing as the democratic ideal.
But this ideal is as deceptive as many populist cure-alls. Primaries seem like the perfect democratic means to deprive smaller elected forums of decision-making clout, potential for foul-play and manipulation. Opening the decision to hundreds of thousands of voters so goes the thinking must be a better choice than the old smoke-filled rooms.
Yet, the hype notwithstanding, primaries are likely to infect Israel's
body politic with maladies no less pernicious. They don't even assure mass voter participation. The American experience shows consistently diminishing turnouts.
Additionally, primaries especially for dozens of Knesset slots often involving different categories like national, local and sectarian are extremely costly. Cash-strapped parties could be pushed into bankruptcy, increasing temptation to foot bills illegally (as with Barak's bogus nonprofit organizations or Sharon's questionable loans for the 2001 Likud primaries).
The complexity of choosing multiple candidates in multiple categories invites deals, blacklists and the registration of counterfeit members. Labor's recent membership drive, the preliminary move towards its upcoming primaries, provides a case in point. A staggering one third of its rolls were shown to be comprised of fraudulent members, mobilized to skew the vote in favor of given candidates.
This is no new phenomenon. The most memorable of these instances occurred in 1999 when Sofa Landver beat Adisu Messale for Labor's "immigrant" slot by astonishingly "winning" a landslide in Druse villages where she was a total unknown.
Such hanky-panky emerged with Israel's very first Knesset primary, introduced in 1977 by the erstwhile Democratic Movement for Change.
Incredibly, thousands of elderly Druse flocked en masse to its reformist cause, registered and won eligibility to vote in the primaries. The seeds of the DMC's demise were sown at its birth.
Rather than coerce parties to adopt internal processes imposed from above, we feel each party should opt for the methods it considers most suitable and exercise its own common sense rather than be subjected to trendy dictates. And where a primary system is used, eligibility should hinge on minimal membership period requirements. This would instantly disqualify fly-by-night enrollees.
Beyond that, the public will punish at the polls parties it judges delinquent. That's what democracy is about.
At the same time, however, we should remember that the structural ailments of our political system cannot be addressed through tinkering with internal party procedures. Regardless of how party lists are chosen, the more fundamental problem is that those elected to represent us are not beholden to any particular constituency, only to their base among the activists in their own party.
For this reason, the need for comprehensive electoral reform introducing some form of constituency-based, district voting system should be brought from where it has been simmering in the background on to the front burner. Such systems are not immune from corruption either, but at least the sense that voters do not have a single MK who is directly responsible to them would be alleviated.