The Primary System in Israel: A Balance Sheet

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The frequent criticism of the Israeli primary system by politicians, the media, and academics often creates the impression that the system should be retired and replaced by a new one. In the article below, which was written prior to the Kadima primaries in March 2012, IDI Researcher Dr. Ofer Kenig surveys the arguments against primaries, analyzes the validity of the criticisms, and explores ways of addressing the weak points of the system.


It is primary season in Israel. Within a period of six months, the three main parties in Israel will complete their leadership selection process. In September 2011, the members of the Labor Party elected Shelly Yachimovich to be their new leader. In late January 2012, the Likud's members re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as their party leader. On March 27, 2012, Kadima also held a leadership contest and decided that Shaul Mofaz rather than Tzipi Livni will lead the party into the next general election. Thus despite the fact that general elections can be held as late as autumn 2013, there is an undeniable election atmosphere.

Twenty years have passed since the primary system was first used in Israeli politics, after Yitzhak Rabin defeated Shimon Peres to take over the leadership of the Labor Party. The adoption of primaries, a procedure in which all rank-and-file party members participate in choosing the party's leader and list of candidates for the Knesset, marked the climax of a democratization process that saw the parties shift from the closed, oligarchic era of nomination committees to a more open and inclusive method.

Twenty years and 28 primary campaigns later (see the table below), we may argue that the primary system has taken root and turned into a regular part of the Israeli political landscape, at least as it concerns the main parties. Despite some feeble voices calling for the re-establishment of nominating committees—small, undemocratic bodies that chose leaders and candidates with no transparency whatsoever-it seems that the primaries are here to stay. As such, a re-evaluation of this system is warranted.

Internal Elections Using the Primary Format, 1992-2012

Elections for Party Leadership Elections for Party's Knesset List
1992-Labor  1992-Labor 
1993-Likud  1996-Likud 
1997-Labor  1996-Labor 
1999-Likud*  1996-Meretz 
1999-Likud*  1999-Labor 
 2001-Labor 2002-Labor 
2002-Labor  2005-Labor 
2002-Likud  2008-Kadima 
2004-Meretz  2008-Likud 
2005-Labor  2008-Labor 
Total: 18  Total: 10 

* In 1999, there were two elections for the leadership of the Likud

The adoption of the primary system was expected to open intra-party procedures to wider populations and to free parties of the stagnation and oligarchic image that was attached to them in the 1980's. In particular, the primaries were perceived as a means that would strip the power of the party elites, strengthen competitiveness, improve representation and enhance transparency. From this perspective, primaries would become a 'celebration of democracy', a participation channel for concerned citizens who care about society and politics and want to impact the selection of leaders and MKs.

This is all true in theory. Reality, however, is quite different. The experience of 28 primary campaigns has demonstrated that, de-facto, the primary system suffers from many failures. The large amount of criticism of the primary system—from politicians, the media and academia—often creates an impression of a system that has more negative consequences than positive ones. Even if we do not accept such a view, these criticisms should not be overlooked. In this paper, I will try to address these criticisms and the questions that they raise. The paper presents a series of arguments against primaries, discusses whether these arguments are valid, and surveys possible means of addressing the weak points that they raise.

1. The primary system violates the principle of equal opportunities for candidates

The argument: The primary system gives an unfair advantage to wealthy candidates. The logic is clear: shifting the procedure from small selectorates (tens or hundreds) to a selectorate of tens of thousands voters made campaigns very costly. Let us just think of the large amount of money a new candidate would have to invest in order to send an election pamphlet of her qualifications to all party members. Since a primary campaign is expensive, it creates an advantage for candidates with deep pockets or candidates who have an access to people with deep pockets.

Solution: MKs were aware of this problem and took action to amend the Israeli Party Law in a manner that set an expense limit for each candidate. The exact amount a candidate may spend during a primary campaign is derived from the number of eligible voters in the contest. This clause within the Party Law reduces the potential damage of unequal opportunities by setting an upper limit of the expenses for each candidate. In addition, it is also worth mentioning that the spread of technologies such as emails, websites and social networks (Twitter, Facebook) enables candidates, even those with limited resources, to reach all party members without the need for a costly investment. This development reduces the potential advantage of wealthier candidates.

2. The primary system corrupts: it creates a dangerous relationship between candidates and tycoons

The argument: Candidates approach the wealthy for generous donations to finance their campaigns. When they are elected, they may feel indebted to the people who helped them and this creates an ethical problem.

Solution: Here, too, the Knesset reacted and tried to diminish potentially dangerous relations between politicians and donors. It set up a set of rules that regulate donations and campaign finance. For example, the law set a maximum sum of money that a candidate is allowed to receive from a single person; it completely prohibits donations from corporations; it prohibits a donation of cash over the sum of NIS 200, and it demands that the specific donor behind each donation it is recorded. This regulation creates a norm of transparency in the primary campaign. It enables documentation of who donated how much to each candidate and prevents situations in which a politician feels too obliged to a single person.

3. The primary system corrupts: candidates violate the finance regulation due to ineffective enforcement

The argument: The regulation on campaign finance (which sets an expense limit and restricts donations) has good intentions, but in reality, candidates can easily bypass it and do not follow it. This is mainly because oversight of this regulation is weak and enforcement is low; thus, candidates are easily tempted to find "creative" ways to circumnavigate the restrictions.

Solution: This argument was perhaps valid until several years ago, during the period when oversight authority was in the hands of each party. In that situation, the incentive for conducting effective oversight was understandably very low. None of the parties wanted to air their dirty laundry by reporting campaign finance violations. This changed in 2005, when a temporary provision to the Party Law transferred oversight authority to the office of the State Comptroller. This provision became permanent in 2008, following an amendment to the Party Law, and today, every party that holds primary elections must submit a detailed report to the State Comptroller, who actively investigates the financial aspects of the primaries.

4. The primary system creates problematic party registration campaigns

The argument: In theory, opening the leadership and candidate selection processes to the entire party membership should have a positive effect on the incentives of citizens to register as party members; now that they have important rights and are able to affect party leadership, concerned citizens who want to be involved could join the party as members. In reality, however, primaries also opened the way for so-called "vote contractors," who enroll large numbers of citizens in the party in order to support a certain candidate. These contractors took control of the party registration campaigns, which have lost their transparency. Often, these contractors do not reveal the number and identity of new members until the last minute before the registration deadline. To make matters worse, the manner in which the contractors act in order to register new members is often unethical or is even criminal. Some contractors pay the registration fee for the new member, others register people without their knowledge or by misleading them, and there have even been cases of fraudulent membership registration forms. This negative phenomenon results in a problematic membership population and discourages the involvement of sincere citizens who see their potential impact eclipsed by people who often do not care about the party affairs and who participate in the primaries only because they were instructed to support a certain candidate.

Solution: Vote contractors, membership registration fraud, and other irregularities are made possible due to the lack of regulation of the status of party membership. There are two ways to combat vote contractors by reducing their incentives. The first is by standardizing the process of party registration, a process which is today entirely under the control of each party. The law must be amended in a manner that will demand that each registration form be electronically coded in a way that will enable to the identification of each member. In addition, the membership fee must be collected either by direct debit of the members' bank account or by charging their credit cards. The second means is through instituting a waiting period of at least 13-months between registration and voting. In other words, only members who have paid their annual membership fee twice will be able to vote in primaries. This would end efforts by vote contractors to enroll hundreds of citizens just before a primary election. A bill including these two means is currently in the legislative process n the Knesset.

5. The primary system enables individuals to be members of more than one party

The argument: The phenomenon of double membership—being a member of more than one party at a same time—is a by-product of the primary system and of the activity of vote contractors. Despite the fact that the Party Law contains two different clauses prohibiting this, and despite the fact that the parties themselves prohibit this in their constitutions and on the membership forms, double membership is still a widespread problem. Not only is this phenomenon illegal, but it also distorts the preferences of  legitimate party members, damages trust in the primary process, and raises questions about the reliability of the results of the primaries.

Solution: In order to combat double membership, the Party Registrar should be authorized to conduct cross-comparisons of the membership lists of the different parties regularly. This should be done, of course, without compromising the privacy of individual party members. A bill concerning this measure has passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset.

6. The primary system makes parties susceptible to insincere membership

The argument: The primary system creates a situation in which a person and register as a member of party X while voting for party Y in the general elections. Naturally, this is wrong from a democratic point of view, because a person can affect the internal affairs of a party he or she doesn't vote for. This kind of "Trojan Horse" strategy is unfair and may result in membership that is not representative of the party's supporters and voters. Evidence of this phenomenon can be found in the primaries of every party that holds such elections: Arabs register as members of the Labor Party to impact its leadership without supporting the party in the elections; ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) register as members of Kadima, and Jewish settlers in the West Bank register as members of the Likud when in fact they vote for other parties. Recently there were even reports of leftist voters who registered as Likud members in order to try to bring about the selection of moderate candidates in this party.

Solution: Insincere membership is perhaps unethical, but it is by no means illegal. Party registration forms include a statement in which the member attests to his or her support for the values of the party, but this is a statement on paper only. The only possible way of preventing this phenomenon is by merging candidate selection with the general elections—that is, to adopt an open or semi-open ballot in the general elections, that will include the names of the party's candidates; when the voter selects the ballot of the party of her choice, she would be able to mark or rank her preferred candidates (there are varied methods for such ballots) and thus affect who is elected to the Knesset. This personalized dimension of elections is common in many democracies. An additional, indirect way of dealing with this problem is by calling on citizens to register as members of the parties they support. The more sincere members enroll, the less the negative effect of insincere members.

7.  The primary system is subjected to fraud and other irregularities of the election procedure

The argument: Intra-party election procedures in Israel are very vulnerable and may be tarnished by fraudulent ballots, pressure on voters, stealing of ballots, and other irregularities. These cast a dark shadow on the purity and fairness of the process and may also distort the results. The most notable case of large scale irregularities occurred during the 2001 contest of the leadership of the Labor Party. Many ballots, mainly in Druze villages, were fraudulent and the party was dragged into a long and bitter legal dispute. In the end, the primaries were held again in 40 polling stations in which impropriety was suspected. Complaints about fraud and falsified ballots also emerged following the 2008 leadership contest in Kadima. Shaul Mofaz, who lost to Tzipi Livni by less than 500 votes, argued that there were many nearly-criminal actions on Primary Day that tilted the final results in a very specific direction.

Solution: The Law already lays down detailed standards for intra-party elections, the same standards that apply to elections for public institutions. The law stipulates heavy sanctions for various crimes related to elections, including the interruption of the procedure, threats upon voters, false identification, fraudulent ballots, and so on. Despite this, however, there are often complaints about irregularities. Therefore, there are voices calling for transferring the management of the elections to unbiased bodies independent of the parties.

8. The primary system creates shallow campaigns that emphasize image at the expense of content

The argument: Primaries are seldom a contest involving ideas, values, positions, and ideology, but rather are a sort of a beauty contest. The final results of primaries are often decided by the images of the candidates as  reflected in the media, and by dubious popularity polls.

Solution: Blaming the primaries for reducing the political process into images ignores the more general shifts in Israeli politics today. The Americanization and personalization of politics in Israel are not by-products of the primary system but are part of broader social-political changes. General elections have also become candidate-centered, while values, ideologies, and platforms have made way for pollsters, image consultants, and campaign managers.

9. The primary system reduces the representativeness of parties

The argument: The adoption of primaries stripped the power of the party elite and abolished its control of the list of candidates. As a result, the ability to produce a balanced and representative list that includes candidates from various social sectors, was cancelled.

Solution: This argument is actually not supported by the facts. True, moving to more inclusive methods took away the leadership's ability to produce a balanced list, but the parties were aware to this flaw and incorporated built-in mechanisms into the primary system. These mechanisms (gender quotas, safe places for minorities, spots for candidates from various geographical areas) ensure that the final list is balanced. In fact, since the adoption of primaries, the number of women candidates in the various parties has considerably improved.

10. The primary system undermines party cohesion and unity

The argument: An internal contest in the format of primaries intensifies the personal rivalry between candidates. Because primaries draw the attention of the media and its coverage is focused on the competition, rivalries, and disputes between candidates, the party may be depicted as divided. This image is, of course, not beneficial to the party and may harm its electoral prospects.

Solution: This is a very weak argument. Personal rivalries, internal camps, and factions are part of most parties, regardless of the selection system. Some of the most bitter rivalries in the political history of Israel (Yitzhak Rabin vs. Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir vs. David Levi) occurred in the pre-primaries era. Events that depicted the parties as internally divided also occurred before the adoption of the primary system.

11.  The primary system undermines party discipline

The argument: The primaries release  MKs from their dependency on the party leader and party institutions, allowing them to behave more independently rather than following the party line. As long as the list of candidates was selected by the party elite, an MK who wanted to be reelected needed to be disciplined; otherwise he would be punished. As soon as the reselection of MKs shifted to the hands of tens of thousands of party members, the candidate's base of legitimacy and dependency changed. Under the primary system, MKs have to try and stay in the minds of the party's members. They need to push themselves into the limelight and often do this by behaving independently, expressing in themselves a way that does not always match the party line and sometimes even violates party discipline, such as when they vote against the party line. It is no coincidence that the most disciplined MKs are from Shas, Yisrael Beitenu, and United Torah Judaism, the MKs who owe their reelection to their party bosses.

Solution: It is true that the behavior of MKs who were elected in primaries is different from that of MKs who were elected by other methods. However, it would be wise to differentiate between blunt expressions of violating party discipline and more moderate expressions. Blunt expressions may include voting against the party whip in critical votes, while moderate expressions may include voting against the party whip in early stages of a bill or speaking out publicly against the party's official line. A recent study of the behavior of MKs found that the large majority of MKs-including those who were elected in primaries-vote with the party whip in critical votes; even MKs who are regarded as "trouble makers" and often speaks and behave independently, eventually vote with the party whip in critical votes.

12. The primary system encourages MKs to over-legislate

The argument: MKs who are elected in primaries compete for media attention that would keep them in the public mind. One of the ways to get attention is by introducing private bills. As a result, these MKs often promote an enormous number of populist or controversial bills just to get into the headlines. This creates an unbearable load for the Knesset and devaluates the legislative process. It also shifts the balance of power of the Knesset's parliamentary work from oversight of the executive towards legislating. In the last decade, over 10,000 private bills were submitted, ten fold more than in any other parliamentary democracy. This was not always the case, and one can point to a correlation between the adoption of primaries and the meteoric rise in private legislation.

Solution: The disproportional flood of legislation can be reduced through amending Knesset regulations. For instance, the Knesset may set a quota of bills for each party and can lay down strict and demanding standards for the introduction of bills. In the long-run, a more challenging solution would be to try to change the public perception that measures the success of MKs by the quantity of bills and laws that they initiate, rather than by the quality of the laws.


As demonstrated above, the primary system attracts a great deal of criticism. While some of the arguments levied against it are valid, others are unjustified. The analysis above has also established that Israeli law has already given partial solutions to address the weaknesses of the system. This has created a wide infrastructure of regulation, which has been added to the wide regulation of Israeli political parties in general-excessive regulation that may also be the target of criticism. Some may argue that if such extensive state intervention was necessary in order to address the flaws created by the primaries, perhaps to the advantages of the system should be revaluated. According to this position, perhaps instead of filling in the many holes in the system, we should abandon it and adopt a different one.

While this argument may have a point, let us consider the options. What are the alternatives? Do we really want to return to the era of nominating committees?  Do we really want to revert to elections within the party institutions (central committees, conventions)? Several of the most corrupt scandals in Israeli politics emerged from such elections. Let us not forget that many of the criticisms against the primary system stem from the fact that it is a more transparent procedure. In smaller selectorates, much is hidden, including "deals," manipulations, and mutual agreements that often include dubious benefits. The primary system is far from being an ideal system, but just like democracy, it is the lesser evil. It is better than the other options.

There is no doubt that the adoption of primaries some twenty years ago created several unintended negative consequences. The Knesset and its parties have already dealt with some of them through a line of amendments. Others remain unanswered, although several bills that are currently in the legislative process will reduce the list. Still others are not actually derived directly from the primary system. The ease with which we ascribe all the ills of the Israeli political system to the primaries is simplistic and wrong, particularly when we consider the alternatives. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties' Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.