Give credit to the most democratic party in Israel

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

Labor party members celebrate after the release of the results in the party primaries in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019 (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Labor party members celebrate after the release of the results in the party primaries in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019 (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

In the last few years, it seems like Israeli political commentators’ favorite sport is bashing and mocking the Labor Party about its internal struggles, its complicated bureaucratic processes, outdated institutions and unwieldy functioning.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 have a role to play in the public arena, then surely it is their job every now and then to actually praise the most democratically run political party in Israel. At the very least they should stop portraying the Labor Party as 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, Labor 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 the local government. The party’s internal democracy, with its factions, infighting, 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 the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 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 also true that democracy within a party has its drawbacks: unwieldy procedures, bickering about the rules of the game, and internal factions. These are the hallmarks 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. But, instead of simply siding with the winners, members of the media should pause to consider the extent to which a party is democratic. Despite all its drawbacks, internal democracy has a positive impact on critical functions of the parties, such as ensuring underserved sectors of society are represented, 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 that 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, and sets penalties for failing to keep within the law.

This means it’s the parties governed through internal democratic processes that receive negative publicity while the image of those parties that don’t hold internal party elections remains untarnished. It’s a lopsided reality in which the “open” — more democratic — parties, which should be more popular with voters, are penalized for the internal processes they so painstakingly uphold.

It’s time to give a bit more credit to those parties governed by internal democratic processes. These are not old-fashioned or obsolete. They are important mechanisms for a party that is alive and kicking, a way to bring in broad and diverse circles of the Israeli  public, and empower them to exert their influence, and not only  on election day.

Prof. Gideon Rahat is a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dr. Ofer Kenig is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute

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