Party primaries, though a vital component of the Israeli electoral system, receive little attention from the media and the voting public. In an interview originally published prior to the Israeli general elections in 2006, Dr. Gideon Rahat of the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, today a Senior Researcher at IDI, discusses the candidate selection process within Israel's political parties and explores the pros and cons of local and international models.
One of the most important political processes leading up to Israel's general elections is the selection of a party's candidates. Depending upon the number of votes that the party garners in the general elections, and the higher the member's place on the party list, the greater the likelihood of acquiring a seat in the Knesset.
There are no standard procedures or established guidelines for the selection of candidates. Parties employ a wide range of methods for choosing their representatives. Some parties hold an intra-party primary election, while others turn to a "Nomination Committee" in which the parties' most prominent leaders determine the slate of representatives. Although the selection process within the political parties is an extremely important part of our electoral system, it receives very little public and academic attention in comparison with the general elections.
Dr. Gideon Rahat of the Political Science Department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem agreed to discuss some of the challenges of the system of candidate selection with us:
Q: Can you help us distinguish between the various methods used by Israel's political parties to select their representatives?
A: The most important factor in any selection process is the identity of the selecting body—the selectorate. Some parties rely on only one person (Shas relies exclusively on Rabbi Ovadia Yossef; Kadima turned solely to Ehud Olmert in 2006), other parties refer to a small committee of leading members, and others hold party primaries that include thousands of party members. Generally speaking, one can organize the various systems conceptually, based on their level of inclusiveness. Open, or inclusive, systems allow more people to determine the party's list, while exclusive systems grant all the selection power to a small group of individuals.
Q: Please elaborate on the various party primary systems employed in Israel today (2006).
A: Today, the most inclusive method is the one that has been employed by the Labor Party since 1992, which permits anyone who joins the party by a particular cut-off date to participate in the party's elections. The majority of parties are situated somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. These parties include Likud, Meretz-Yachad and many right wing parties, as well as most of the Arab parties. These parties turn to one of their own selected bodies, such as the Central Committee, to decide their list of representatives. Some parties ensure regional and sectoral representation, as well as the representation of women, minorities, etc.
Q: What system do you consider to be the most effective and appropriate system for Israeli democracy?
A: Ultimately, I think that we should aspire to include each and every citizen in the selection of their party representatives, but in the general elections and not at the primary level of the candidate selection process. We could achieve this objective by incorporating the selection process into the voting act itself; that is, by allowing each citizen to choose his or her preferred representatives from a list of party members that would appear on the national election ballot.
Q: Can you provide a few examples of models of the selection processes employed by other democracies?
A: Selection processes similar to the ones employed in Israel, which can be situated on the same "inclusivity-exclusivity" spectrum, are used throughout the world. Some multi-stage systems involve several different bodies in the selection process—the first stage typically involves the approval of a special screening committee; the second stage entails the required endorsement of party institutions; and the third stage allows all citizens who are party members to select their preferred candidate from the remaining candidates. This kind of system ensures that no single body is responsible for the entire selection process, and it is unfortunate that Israeli parties have not adopted a multi-stage system.
Q: Who is eligible to be selected for a place on a political party list in Israel?
A: Each party sets its own rules—the right to represent a party is open to any law-abiding citizen of the State, but some parties have additional prerequisites. In the Kadima Party, for example, the approval of the party leader is essential. Other parties have strict guidelines, such as limiting candidacy to long-time party members. On the other hand, even parties with strict guidelines tend to be less stringent when a potential candidate is likely to draw a substantial amount of votes in the general elections.
Q: Can you identify the main shortcomings of Israel's party primary system?
A: The selection of party representatives is a key factor in the implementation of democratic norms in Israel because this process is the fundamental link between voters and their elected officials. The greatest problem in the Israeli system is the gap between voters and representatives, which is not completely bridged by the selection processes employed in Israel to date. Israelis do not have enough influence on the parties' lists. All selection methods used by Israel's political parties—from primaries to lists of "superstars"—are, in my view, inadequate.
Q: What is the relation between the selection process and the functioning of Israeli democracy? Are certain systems more democratic than others?
A: The most popular claim (although it is inaccurate) is that a system that includes more people in the selection process is also more democratic; in other words, a system that includes all party members is more democratic than one that merely involves a party institution. Similarly, one might conclude that a selection made by party delegates is considered more democratic than one that is made by a small committee or by one person. In my opinion, the question is not that simple. Although primaries that include all party members are more inclusive, they can also limit the representation of women or minorities. That is why some parties guarantee specific slots on their lists to women, specific regions, social sectors and minorities. Another issue is the cost. Primary elections are very expensive, which makes them particularly vulnerable to corruption. Even in the absence of clear-cut corruption, the public, nonetheless, detects a distasteful link between politicians and large sums of money in the party primary system. This is very problematic.
Q: What system would you recommend in Israel, considering your knowledge of Israel's unique political culture and of the character of the political parties in Israel?
A: I would recommend a system that involves several bodies in the selection of the parties' representatives, as is the norm in England and elsewhere. In addition, I think that the time has come for a comprehensive reform of our electoral system in which citizens would participate in the selection of the final slate of their party representatives. This could be accomplished by introducing an additional component to the general election ballot that would allow voters to select the representatives of the party of their choice. This would be the final component of the multi-stage selection process that I envision.
Q: Is there any chance that political parties would consider adopting a multi-stage selection process, such as you describe?
A: Some aspects of the selection process within political parties are subject to frequent change. A multi-stage selection system offers the advantage of consistency in a constantly evolving environment. On the other hand, a multi-stage process could be difficult to implement because the members of the Knesset would have to simultaneously be responsive to their party's leadership, as well as to its members and to its institutions. Knesset members would undoubtedly have a hard time keeping everyone within the party satisfied with their political practices, which is ultimately one of the goals of a mixed system—to pressure the candidates to be responsive to the various demands. Therefore, my personal opinion is that Israel's political parties will not adopt a multi-stage selection process in the near future. To date, only Meretz-Yachad has adopted a system that is somewhat similar to the one I propose.
Dr. Gideon Rahat is a researcher in the Political Science Department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.