A system that corrupts
The establishment of direct prime ministerial elections changed the rules of the game by which Knesset candidates were selected by their parties. Now that the direct prime ministerial elections system has been nixed, the time has come to assess how internal party elections can be improved.
At the Labor Party conference, which resolved not to annul elections for the party's Knesset list with votes cast by all Labor members, one delegate, Danny Cohen, claimed that the decision is illegal, and sponsored by the party's "legal oligarchy." Cohen called on Labor's Central Committee delegates to "restore our strength. Primaries give an outright advantage to elites. New forces should be allowed to rise."
The same day, retired judge Ori Strosman, who until recently served as chairman of Likud's elections committee, disclosed to Yedioth Aharonoth his conclusions about the weaknesses of Likud's internal election system, which endows the party's Central Committee membership with authority to determine its Knesset list. Strosman's reflections were counter-balanced by those of Uzi Cohen, a Likud Central Committee delegate, who expressed sentiments identical to those of Labor's Danny Cohen. "Give members of [Likud's] Central Committee the power to decide the composition of the party's Knesset list, and keep in their hands the power to influence the party's delegates for as long as they serve. That is democracy at its best," declared Uzi Cohen. In Likud, the influence of party regulars who uphold this approach is so great that they have dictated the system by which the party's Knesset candidates are to be selected. In Labor, efforts to confer Knesset list selection rights on the Central Committee were thwarted at the last minute, following Amram Mitzna's election as party chairman.
Danny Cohen and Uzi Cohen represent an increasingly influential stream in Israel's two largest parties. They are ambitious local party functionaries who have their eyes turned to the national political arena. Under the party internal elections systems used in the `50s and `60s, such characters had no chance of holding the state's leadership reins. Under the primaries system, which allows all party members to vote for candidates for the party's Knesset list, these local strongmen find their hands are tied; they lack the financial means to canvass all party members, and they lack media coverage and media profiles. They lobby for internal elections in which only Central Committee members cast ballots, since they have clout and bargaining leverage among their party's Central Committee membership.
Judge Strosman exposed the defects of the system based on Central Committee voting. Though he relates only to what he saw first-hand at Likud, his analysis pertains to structural patterns that are surely in place among other parties. Strosman draws attention to the unacceptable dynamics whereby Knesset list candidates court sympathy among Central Committee delegates; he alludes to candidates promising favors in exchange for support. Warning about the infusion of capital in national politics, Strosman suggests that money has become grease in the wheels in Central Committee elections among various parties. He also warns that Knesset members' dependence upon members of a central committee could breed populist legislation. He says categorically that elections by central committee membership corrupt the political system. To substantiate these contentions, the retired judge reports that persons who were chosen for Likud's Central Committee confessed to him that they invested from NIS 80,000 to NIS 200,000 in lobbying for their spots. Their decision to vie for slots in the party's Central Committee was motivated purely by business considerations: They reasoned that their investment would bear dividends in terms of appointments and other forms of favors.
These contentions are nothing new - a glance at the behavior of some Knesset members in recent years suffices to expose the glaciers of interests upon which they stand. But the analysis has special authority because it is provided by the chairman of the ruling party's internal elections chairman.
The establishment of direct prime ministerial elections changed the rules of the game by which Knesset candidates were selected by their parties. Now that the direct prime ministerial elections system has been nixed, the time has come to assess how internal party elections can be improved. No system is bereft of flaws; but the experience of recent years attests to the excessive power wielded by the central committees of the large parties and warrants a search for alternatives.