Labor, bound for collapse in national elections, holds primaries
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Israeli elections 2019

Labor, bound for collapse in national elections, holds primaries

Race for top spots on Knesset slate is fierce, with surveys showing center-left mainstay party likely to plummet to as few as five seats in April’s national ballot

  • Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party, speaks to supporters at a party election campaign event in Tel Aviv, January 23, 2019.  (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)
    Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party, speaks to supporters at a party election campaign event in Tel Aviv, January 23, 2019. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)
  • Polling booths for the Labor party primary in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)
    Polling booths for the Labor party primary in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)
  • Activists outside the Labor party primary polling station in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)
    Activists outside the Labor party primary polling station in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)
  • The entrance the Labor party primary polling station in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)
    The entrance the Labor party primary polling station in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)
  • Activists outside the Labor party primary polling station in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)
    Activists outside the Labor party primary polling station in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)

Labor members went to the polls on Monday to elect the party’s Knesset slate for the upcoming elections, with the battle for the top spots fiercely contested in light of surveys showing the party, which governed Israel for its first three decades of statehood, likely to win only a handful of seats in April’s national ballot.

Labor has seen its fortunes tumble in recent years, hit by a rightward shift among Israeli voters, turmoil in the party, and the emergence of new political players that have eroded its base. But it still won 24 seats (in an alliance with the small Hatnua faction) in the 2015 elections, compared to the winning Likud’s 30 seats. Its support has collapsed since then, surveys show, under the leadership of current chairman Avi Gabbay.

The primary is being seen by some in the party as a last chance to save it from oblivion, with activists hoping that a final slate of popular and dynamic candidates can revitalize it in the next two months of election campaigning.

On Sunday, Gabbay urged party members to turn out in force. “Go out and vote. We are a democracy and the power is in your hands,” he said. “Go and vote and together we will choose a winning slate.”

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay at a party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m, some 60,000 voters were eligible to cast their ballots at 84 polling stations across the country. Party members can choose eight to 10 of the 44 candidates running, who will then be ranked according to the votes and placed on the slate in various national and district slots, as well as reserved places for certain minority groups.

With recent polls indicating that Labor could win as few as five seats in the April elections, candidates face slim chances of snagging a realistic spot. The district candidates, who will be placed on the slate from the 14th spot and on, are not considered likely to have any chance of being elected to the Knesset.

To make matters more difficult, the second spot on the list is reserved for an outsider of Gabbay’s choice — though it is not clear he will utilize that right — and the fourth is reserved for a woman.

Gloomy forecast

Primaries were introduced to Israeli politics in the early 1990s, when several major parties sought to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process. Since then, however, most new parties have forgone internal elections, opting instead for a system in which the party leader or a committee of officials choose a “perfect” slate, unsullied by the caprices of party members.

The number of people actively taking part in the primaries from each party has also declined. In the first primaries of the Labor party in 1992, there were over 160,000 eligible voters; in 2015 just 61 percent of only 49,000 paid up members voted. Party membership is up slightly this year, but turnout is not expected to be high.

Activists outside the Labor party primary polling station in the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 11, 2019. (Raanan Cohen)

In a sign of the gloomy forecast facing Labor, only 14 of the 24 MKs who entered the Knesset with the party in the 2015 elections are even competing for slots on this year’s slate. They are joined by a number of high-profile new additions: Yair Fink, former head of the community activist NGO “Good Neighbor” and a former chief of staff to party veteran MK Shelly Yachimovich; broadcaster Emilie Moatti; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel; and Michal Zernowitski, an up-and-coming party activist who has headed Labor’s ultra-Orthodox branch.

The Israeli Labor Party was formed in 1968 in a merger of three parties, one of which was David Ben Gurion’s Mapai party, which was founded in 1930. In the years leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Mapai was the de facto leadership of the Jewish community and played a key role in the creation of the state.

But Labor has not ruled since Ehud Barak was defeated as the incumbent prime minister in 2001, following a failed attempt to reach peace with the Palestinians. The past 16 years have been a downward spiral for the party as the public has grown disillusioned with Labor’s moderate message of peace. The party has vacillated between meekly opposing a string of hawkish governments and serving as a junior partner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in what critics saw as a feeble attempt to cling to power.

New threats

The current nadir follows one of Labor’s greatest recent successes, when it garnered 24 seats in the 2015 election after its leader Isaac Herzog joined forces with the centrist former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua party to form the Zionist Union.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay (L) announces the shock break up of the Zionist Union as his erstwhile partner, head of opposition Tzipi Livni, looks on, during a party faction meeting in the Knesset on January 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Gabbay recently dumped Livni on live TV as she sat by his side, without having been given advance notice. The move has not gone down well with potential voters.

Polls forecast Livni’s Hatnua failing to gain the 3.25 percent of votes necessary to enter the Knesset.

While horse-race polls are an almost daily occurrence in Israel in the months leading up to elections and are not seen as overly reliable, taken together the surveys can often serve as a general gauge of the political climate and where the vote may be headed.

In the wake of Livni’s ouster and the subsequent dive in the polls, some Labor members, including long-time lawmaker Eitan Cabel, sought unsuccessfully to oust Gabbay.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Labor has been the establishment of several new parties.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s new Israel Resilience party, which polls predict will draw significant votes away from Labor and other center-left parties, is forecast to receive 36 seats if it unites with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, or 22 seats if it runs alone.

Labor says that after the primary results, which are expected to trickle in Monday night and early Tuesday morning, it will turn its attention to trying to win those voters back.

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