How do Primaries Work and How Could they be Improved?

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The third in a series of articles and videos prepared by the Israel Democracy Institute in the run-up to April 9, explaining and critiquing what goes on during an election period

Choosing the list of candidates for parliament is one of the key activities of political parties. The methods by which these lists are determined may affect critical democratic values, such as competition, representation, and participation. The methods may also influence the behavior of legislators, and have an impact, for example, on party cohesion and party discipline.

Parties in Israel employ a variety of methods in determining their lists of candidates. In some parties, the list is created as a result of primaries — elections in which all registered party members or even all of the party’s supporters determine the list. Ahead of April’s elections, the Likud, Labor and Meretz parties are all using versions of primaries to choose their candidates for the Knesset.

An argument can be made that the more democratic the process, the better the system — but “primaries” as we know them today in Israel include many deficiencies. Among the shortcomings of this system are the high possibility for corruption due to the funding needed for campaigns, a disproportionate amount of power for interest groups, and an increased likelihood of voter fraud.

In other parties, the party leadership determines the list. The candidates of the Yesh Atid party, for example, are determined by the party’s founder and leader Yair Lapid. Similarly, the Yisrael Beytenu list is created in accordance with the desires of a council and Avigdor Liberman, the leader of that party. In the ultra-Orthodox parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism, a “Council of Torah Sages” chooses the slate.

Beyond this, however, there are more open bodies within Israeli parties that participate in determining the party lists. In some parties, the list is determined by a small group of party elite, as in the case of “appointment committees,” which are also called “nomination committees.” This is the method that the Jewish Home party will likely be using in order to determine its slate for the upcoming election.

In still other parties, the party list is established by means of an internal election conducted within a party institution, such as a congress or a council, with delegates chosen by the party members.

One alternative would be for Israel to implement the semi-open ballot in general elections. When people come to vote on Election Day, they would select the party of their choice, and then be given the opportunity to mark or rank its preferred candidates. This way, they would determine not only which parties entered the Knesset, but who the members of Knesset would be.