More democracy needed

Primaries are not perfect. The overall idea of making them more accessible to political hopefuls is a good one.

A sign on a Jerusalem bus proclaims, ‘The Likud is strength.’ (photo credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)
A sign on a Jerusalem bus proclaims, ‘The Likud is strength.’
(photo credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)
Tomorrow, some of the Likud’s 120,000 eligible voters will go to 113 polling places, from Kiryat Shmona in the North to Eilat in the South, to elect their representatives on the Likud’s list for the next Knesset. Next week, Labor and Meretz members will vote in their parties’ primaries as well.
Those are the only parties likely to make it into the next Knesset that hold primaries for all their members. These are the parties that are truly democratic.
Some parties have already held more limited primaries: Hadash and Balad of the Joint List and the National Union, likely to merge with Bayit Yehudi, held votes in their central committees or similar institutions.
But most of Israel’s parties today simply have a leader who determines the list alone, or with a trusted group of advisers. This is a non-transparent process taking place in Yesh Atid, Kulanu, Ta’al, Yisrael Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi, New Right, Gesher and Israel Resilience.
There are also lists appointed by rabbinical decree, like Shas and United Torah Judaism, or the United Arab List (commonly known in Israel by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am), which is chosen by Islamic Movement leaders. Notably, they do not include women.
This is unacceptable. The parties which leave women out are intentionally excluding half of the voting population. There are worthy women in the haredi and Islamic populations who could represent both of these constituencies.
But even parties that attempt to curate their lists to be perfectly diverse – making sure to have Mizrahi candidates, representatives of the periphery, people of Russian and Ethiopian descent, maybe someone Druze and someone physically disabled, etc. – are not truly building representatives lists, nor are they behaving democratically.
The only way to ensure our MKs are truly accountable to the public, and not just to a party leader, is for them to be elected and not just for parties to be voted in to the Knesset.
Primaries are not perfect. Accountability is not as clear-cut as it is in a system of regional representation like in the US, UK, Canada, etc., where lawmakers have to be elected in their districts.
In addition, the campaigns are a great expense for candidates, which limit participation by those who are less financially secure. Primaries also heavily favor the votes of organized interest groups over those of independent party members.
However, those points are easily addressed and are too often used as an excuse for parties to remain undemocratic.
For example, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has repeatedly challenged the Primaries Law passed by the last Knesset that helps fund campaigns through grants and loans. The law is meant to remove financial obstacles so people who aren’t wealthy can more fairly
enter the political system, and so candidates are less beholden to donors.
Lapid focused on the cost of the law to taxpayers and that the money can then be used to pay “the sister of the brother-in-law who suddenly gets a salary as a strategic adviser.” It is possible that the law might be misused and if so, it should be fixed. But Lapid should consider slamming a democratic process when, upon founding his party in 2012, he included a clause in its constitution that allows him to remain its unchallenged leader until 2020.
The overall idea of making primaries more accessible to political hopefuls is a good one – which should ideally be adopted by the rest of Israel’s political parties. Meretz has found what seems to be a good solution to money issues in its first-ever true primary this year, by capping spending for candidates at NIS 120,000.
As for the power of interest groups in the parties, while it’s not always comfortable to see the transportation minister kowtow to cab drivers, some seem to forget that freedom of association is a basic right in democracies.
Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” The same goes for political parties. Primaries are a flawed system, but for now, they are the most democratic, transparent and representative option we have.