Give Credit to the Most Democratic Party in Israel

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Long ridiculed, Labor is one of the few parties that meet stringent standards on campaign finance and transparency

Labor Party secretary general Eran Hermoni | Flash 90

In the last few years, it seems like the favorite sport of Israeli political commentators is bashing and mocking the Labor Party about its internal struggles, its complicated internal processes, outdated institutions and unwieldy functioning. This stands in glaring contrast to the "leader parties," where everything seems to run smoothly. If political reporters and commentators also have a role to play in the public arena, it is their responsibility that every now and again, they should actually praise the most democratically run political party in Israel or at the very least – they should stop turning the Labor Party into the laughing stock of Israeli politics.

According to the Intra-Party Democracy Index developed by the Israel Democracy Institute, which examines various aspects of parties' internal functioning, in the past three election campaigns, the Labor Party was ranked as the most democratic among all the parties. It is true that in the most recent elections, the party fell apart and was abandoned by most of its voters , and is now in the midst of the most serious crisis it has ever known (like several other European social-democratic parties). There are various reasons for the party's very poor showing: social-demographic changes, the absence of clear ideological agenda, and the loss of important power bases such as the Histadrut and local government. The party's internal democracy, with its factions, strife, and lack of loyalty has created a reality in which the party "devours its leaders". A glance at the Likud party, its main rival on the right, reveals that, there have only been four Likud party heads over the years, whereas since Rabin's assassination, the Labor Party has had 10 heads.

It is all too easy to jump on the bandwagon and join everyone in poking fun at the internal struggles within the party. It is especially tempting to ridicule the Labor Party which suffered a severe blow in the last elections and, rather than engaging in housecleaning and gearing up to plan its campaign for the upcoming elections, is preoccupied with tedious discussions and (once again) holding primaries for the position of party head. It is true that democracy within a party has its drawbacks: unwieldy procedures, bickering about the rules of the game, and internal factions –these are integral features of any party practicing internal democracy. And it would appear that the “leader parties”, headed by one all-powerful individual, avoid all this noise and seem to be doing not badly at all.

The role of the media should not just be to side with the winners. Just once in a while, shouldn’t the media stop and consider the democratic, or undemocratic, nature of the parties? Despite all its drawbacks, internal democracy has a positive impact on critical functions of the parties, such as representing various sectors of society, stimulating ideological renaissance, and meeting voters’ needs. It should be emphasized that internal party democracy is not the exclusive property of either side of the political map. In 2013 and 2015, we witnessed high levels of internal democracy in the Jewish Home party, Zehut, and of course the Likud party - all right-wing parties.

It should also be noted that over the years, our lawmakers have created a mechanism which requires parties with internal democracy to meet rigorous regulatory standards, from which the non-democratic parties are exempt. For example, an entire section of the Parties Law focuses on the financial aspects of intraparty elections (such as primaries), regulating and limiting both the funds candidates may spend, and may receive as contributions during their individual campaigns, reporting and auditing systems, as well as the penalties for failing to keep within the law. So in reality, it is those parties governed through internal democratic processes which receive negative publicity dealing a blow to their image, whereas the image of those parties that do not hold internal party elections remains untarnished. This creates a distorted reality; Even though the “open” parties are considered more democratic, and we would think that they would be more popular with voters, they are in no way rewarded for the internal processes they hold.

The time has come to respect and give a bit more credit to those parties governed by internal democratic processes. These are not old-fashioned or obsolete, but rather an important mechanism for a party that is alive and kicking which brings in broad and diverse circles of the Israeli public, and grants them the power to exert their influence, and not only on election day.

The article was published in the Times of Israel