Race to the Top

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Everything you wanted to know about the Labor Party primaries but didn't know who to ask.

The primaries to lead the Labor party will be held on Tuesday, July 4th and the results will be determined by 50,000 eligible members. The race has attracted a record-breaking number of candidates, in stark contrast to both the low levels of support that the party has generated (according to opinion polls) and the limited interest the Israeli public has shown in the race. This will be the ninth leadership race since the primary system was first adopted by the party in 1992.

This overview will examine the race and the primary election system from four perspectives: participation, competitiveness, fairness and public interest.


Labor was first to adopt the primary system in the early 1990s. The adoption of primaries was considered to be a high watermark in the internal democratization process of Israel's political parties. Among other things, primaries aimed to do away with behind-closed-door-deals and encourage greater citizen involvement in party proceedings. This system permits members of the public to enroll as party members, and participate in elections to determine both the leader of the party and list of candidates for elections to the Knesset. When compared to other internal party systems, such as a list being drawn up by the party head (Yesh Atid, Kulanu), by the party elite (Shas, UTJ) or the party's internal institutions (Meretz), it is obvious that the primary system is more inclusive and comprehensive.

However, it should be noted that the actual number of party members who participate in party primaries is far below the potential turnout. For example, in the Likud primaries held ahead of the 2015 general election, 50,000 votes were cast, compared to 985,000 citizens who voted for the party. In other words, only 5% of all Likud voters participated in the primaries. In the Labor party, the the phenomenon is similar. There are 50,000 eligible voters in the primaries but, based on previous contests, only some 35,000 are expected to participate, meaning that only 4.5% of people who voted for the Zionist Camp (around 800,000) in the last election voted in the party primaries (see Figure 1).


*In the last elections, the Labor party ran on a joint list with Hatnuah together known as "The Zionist Union" and won 24 seats, five of which are held by members of "The Movement," Tzipi Livni, Yoel Hasson, Ksenia Svetlova, Eyal Ben Reuven and Yael Cohen Paran.

Thus, those parties that have implemented this system have difficulty convincing their voters to register for the party and take part in the primaries. This failure may be explained by a lack of interest, citizens' reticence about being officially affiliated with a party, or simply a refusal to pay membership dues. Another important reason is the negative public image of the primary system. What began as a great promise for a more open, transparent and democratic method of holding elections has developed into a system that seems to be controlled by bloc voting and brokered deals. Moreover , minority groups have been imbued with a disproportionate amount of power, which has led to elected officials becoming overly dependent on vote brokers and lobbyists.

Because of these negative features, many citizens refrain from registering - and thus a self-perpetuating cycle has been created: the greater the number of reports about the failures of the system, the more the public faith in the primaries is weakened. And with people not registering, the relative power of vote brokers and organized bloc voters has only increased.

The parties' inability to convince people to register, coupled with the flaws in the system, have led to a proposal to adopt open primaries. This move will remove the current barriers to participation, by permitting citizens who have not registered to vote in the party's internal elections. Proponents of this system view it as a great opportunity for positive change and it has already been implemented by political parties in several countries over the last few years. In some cases, the open primaries were a great success which saw millions of voters participating in a "celebration of democracy." Moreover, they served as a springboard for successful electioneering in national campaigns, by creating enthusiasm and positive momentum. During the current leadership race within the Labor party, Isaac Herzog came out in favor of open primaries, declaring that if reelected, he will work to implement this system prior to the general elections to choose a prime ministerial candidate to head a center-left bloc. 


Like participation, another central component of the democratic process is competitiveness. Whereas competition is a precondition for general elections (imagine the US elections with only one candidate or a single-party campaign for the German parliament), this is not the case in internal party elections. For example, since 2007, there has been no real competition in the Likud for the position of party head. Benjamin Netanyahu is the near-undisputed leader and even when a leadership race is held, it attracts junior candidates and the elections are merely a reelection formality. An additional example of this lack of competition was seen in the recent primaries for the head of the Jewish Home party held in April 2017. It is doubtful whether the public was even aware of that vote.

In stark contrast to these examples of a near-total lack of competition, the Labor party has a record of "devouring its leaders." Whereas only two people have headed the Likud since 1993, with the incumbent standing for reelection always beating his opponents, the opposite is the case in the Labor party. Since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, eight different leaders have headed the Labor party and whenever the incumbent leader stood for reelection, he or she was roundly defeated. In 2002 Benjamin Ben-Eliezer lost to Amram Mitzna; in 2005 Shimon Peres lost to Amir Peretz, who himself lost to Ehud Batak in 2007; and in 2013 Shelly Yachimovich lost to Isaac Herzog.

It is still too early to know whether Herzog will follow this "tradition..."

Competitiveness is not only measured by the survival of the incumbent leader but also by the number of candidates and the margin of votes between the winner and losers (Table 1). Here again, the Labor party "excels" in comparison to other parties (and not necessarily for the good). The current race fields a record number of nine candidates (two of them withdrew towards the end of the campaign) and the average number of candidates for each of the primaries held since 1992 is almost four. In five races, the gap between the winning candidate and the runner-up was below 10%, meaning that it was a closely-fought and highly-competitive race. Labor is also the only party in which a second round was necessary to declare the winner. In the 2007 and 2011 leadership races, no single candidate received the required 40% of votes required to declare victory after the first round. Considering the large number of candidates in the current race, the chances of a second round are extremely high.

Table 1: Competitiveness in Labor Primaries for Party Leader


One of the most salient advantages of the primary system is its transparency: the winners are determined by the number of votes they receive. This is an advantage over behind-closed-doors systems such as decisions taken by the head of the party or nominating committees. However, this advantage is conditional upon the premise that the election process is fair and untainted.

Unfortunately, primaries in the Labor party have on occasion been sullied by wrongdoings in the election process. One of the most common problems concerns registration of eligible voters for the primaries. Reports of thousands of improper registration forms in the present leadership race are nothing new. Six years ago, when Amir Peretz ran against Shelly Yachimovich for leadership of the party, 15,000 registration forms were disqualified, and in 2005, the existence of improper forms was so widespread that the party was forced to postpone the date of the internal elections.

Vote brokers are the source of thousands of application forms that don't list registrants' contact details, duplicate email addresses and phone numbers. This situation, as well ones like it - such as people registering for more than one party or unscrupulous people registering for primaries in a party but not voting for it in the general elections - leads to a considerable skewing of the democratic process and may ultimately produce a result that does not represent the will of party supporters.

A less common situation concerns varying degrees of irregularities at voting stations and during the counting of ballots. As opposed to nationwide or local elections that are organized and supervised by the State and which are allocated the resources to ensure their smooth running, these 'pre-elections' are run by the parties themselves. Thus, the bodies charged with supervising the location of the voting stations, ballot secrecy and vote counting are not only short of the funding necessary for effective supervision, but often have a vested interest in supporting one of the candidates. In some of the previous races there were reports of polling booths disappearing (or burning down), voting irregularities related to proper identification and stations in which more votes were counted than the actual number of people who cast their ballots.

And yet, it is well worth looking at the pluses of the system. The Labor party has instituted control and supervision mechanisms that monitor registration forms, check their validity and disqualify those found to be invalid. The large number of candidates and high degree of competitiveness between them ensures a high level of criticism. The media tends to highlight negative trends but the very fact that they uncover and report on wrongdoings is important in and of itself. As opposed to the perceived view that the primaries are the cardinal sin, some of the most serious corruption affairs were uncovered in non-democratic parties, for example Shas and Yisrael Beytenu.


What is preferable for a political party? An uninspiring, non-competitive election race, which is nothing more than a rubber-stamp for the leader, or a heated, multi-candidate race featuring mutual mud-slinging that creates news headlines? There is no clear-cut answer to this question and it depends on the political context and identity of the chosen candidate. An attempt at comparing the two shows that, in many cases, an open race and a new leader improve support for a party, at least in the short term. If the race is held shortly before general elections it may even create positive momentum that can spill over into the main campaign. This occurred in the first Labor primaries in 1992, when Rabin's victory created a boost that led to his winning the general elections. Additional examples were seen when Romani Prodi (Italy, 2005) and François Hollande (France, 2011) achieved decisive wins in open primaries and then both went on to win in their respective general elections.

It is less common that a race and its results damage the party by causing rifts within it. However, this did occur when Shaul Mofaz beat Tzipi Livni for the leadership of Kadima in 2012 and the party subsequently disintegrated. And in 1993, the tensions between David Levy and Benjamin Netanyahu in the primaries led the former to leave the Likud and set up the Gesher party.
In the current race, even if general support for the Labor party does not increase, it is not expected to cause a dent in public support. The friction between the candidates did not reach explosive levels and did not deviate from the legitimate behavior expected between opponents. The party was wise enough to ensure that the campaign focused on relevant issues and organized many public (and online) debates between the candidates.

If we agree with the well-known phrase that there is no such thing as bad publicity, then the party ought to be satisfied with the media coverage (Table 2). The incident between Erel Margalit and Avi Gabai; Dina Dayan's refreshing and original campaign; and the political experience of Peretz and Herzog have all breathed new life into a sleepy Labor party that has so often been written off for dead.

Table 2: Events During the Final Stages of the Primaries Campaign 


Another aspect that made this race more interesting was the uncertainty about the relative strength of each candidate. For many years, the large polling organizations have not carried out surveys ahead of primary races. Meanwhile, the candidates themselves have paid for such surveys to be conducted, producing completely contrasting results: the only common factor being the narrow gaps between the candidates.

No-one can recall such a close leadership race for one of the major parties. Nevertheless, it has not aroused much public interest. At present, the Labor party (or the Zionist Union) is not considered a rising star in Israeli politics and is not expected to be a serious challenger in the next general elections. It should also be noted that talk of an additional, open primaries race in the center-left bloc to decide who should head such a political entity, means that the current race is somewhat less than the final word.