The Big Loser in Local Elections? National Parties

In the past few years local initiatives are filling the vacuum that the national political parties are leaving behind and the results show

Mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch and his wife Dina arrive to cast their votes at a polling station during the municipal elections in Jerusalem, October 30, 2018.
Oded Balilty,AP

The results of the municipal elections brought good news to most Israelis. Three results stand out. The election of Einat Kalisch Rotem as mayor of Israel’s third largest city, Haifa, beating longtime mayor Yona Yahav. The victory of Aliza Bloch over Moshe Abutbul, who during his tenure as mayor tried to impose an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle on the residents of Bet Shemesh. And a task force of volunteers not affiliated with any national political party, but with a grassroots local movement, headed by Ofer Berkovitch, which was able to gain the largest number of seats on Jerusalem’s city council and make it to a runoff vote for the mayor of Jerusalem.

Although the Labor Party may try to claim some of the credit for Kalish Rotem’s astounding victory in Haifa, and Naftali Bennett may claim some of the credit for Bloch’s victory in Bet Shemesh, there is little doubt that both these victories are the result of the mobilization of independent voters in support of the winning candidates. These were victories achieved primarily by local independent initiatives, having little to do with national political parties.

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This is most certainly true for the results in Jerusalem. Berkovitch ran an independent grassroots campaign, opposed by all the traditional party blocs. His achievement is the most impressive, regardless of whether he wins the second round or not. Local initiatives are filling the vacuum that the national political parties are leaving behind.

What does all this say about the relationship between national politics and municipal politics? Is there no room for the national political parties in municipal politics, and must they inevitably give way to local initiatives?

It is often said that there is little relation between the problems facing a municipal administration and those facing a national government. This is particularly true in Israel where national politics is almost completely dominated by issues of national security, which may have little bearing on running a city. So why not leave municipal politics to local initiatives and leave national political parties out of it? Well, by the looks of it, it seems to be going that way.

But actually there is no reason why national political parties should not see in effective local government an important issue on their agenda and give it the appropriate priority in their platforms and activities. There are no more than three national political parties in Israel – Likud, Labor, and Habayit Hayehudi led by Naftali Bennett (Meretz is no more than a niche party). All three have failed in recent years to deal adequately with municipal governance, and the results are there for all to see.

Effective involvement of the national political parties in municipal politics requires a clear demonstration of party leaders’ determination to achieve this goal. It means involvement in the selection of candidates for municipal office and the imposition of party discipline in mobilizing the support of the party’s membership for its candidates. Zeev Elkin’s failure in his run for the mayoralty of Jerusalem is a glaring example of a failure to do that. Instead of providing all-embracing support for a candidate who might have been seen by the average Likud member in Jerusalem as an ideal candidate – a leading successful Likud member in successive Likud governments – uncontrolled squabbles among the local Likud leadership dissipated much of his potential support. The loser was not only Elkin, but Likud in Jerusalem.

It is no accident that in most democracies national political parties are deeply involved in the contest for local governance. They also serve as a breeding ground for future national leaders. They serve as a link to the top. In Israel that link seems to have disappeared in recent years. That seems to have produced some promising results this year. Is it going to stay that way?