Israel elections 2019

Meretz holds first-ever primaries in hope for vital boost for ailing left

21,000 party members eligible to cast ballots for the 23 candidates running for a likely 5 Knesset seats

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Members and activists of the Meretz party march on Rothschild boulevard in central Te Aviv on January 30, 2015, ahead of the Knesset elections. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Members and activists of the Meretz party march on Rothschild boulevard in central Te Aviv on January 30, 2015, ahead of the Knesset elections. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Members of the left-wing Meretz party were going to the polls on Thursday to elect its Knesset slate for the upcoming national elections, in the first-ever primary ballot open to the party ranks.

Introduced in an effort to boost enthusiasm and participation among activists and supporters, Meretz is hoping that the primary vote and the final slate it produces will expand the reach of Israel’s dwindled and sidelined political left.

From 2 p.m. to 10 p.m, some 21,000 party members will have the opportunity to cast ballots at 131 polling stations across the country. Voters can choose four of the 23 candidates running, with the battle for the top spots being fiercely contested in light of surveys showing the party earning four to six Knesset seats in the April election. It currently has five MKs.

With party chair Tamar Zandberg already guaranteed the top spot after winning the leadership race last year, the four other incumbent Knesset members will be hard-pressed to all snag realistic slots, as at least one of the top five must go to a new candidate and another to a woman (in addition to Zandberg).

Head of the Meretz party Tamar Zandberg speaks during an conference of the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modiin, February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

MKs Ilan Gilon, Michal Rozin, Issawi Frij and Mossi Raz are competing against a roster of well-known party activists that includes three former heads of the  Peace Now anti-settlement group  — Yariv Oppenheimer, Gabby Lasky and Avi Buskila, who lost the leadership race to Zandberg in March 2018.

As with the Likud and Labor primaries, which took place over the last two weeks, Meretz is seeing efforts by some in the party to determine the final slate via deals to support or block certain Knesset hopefuls.

One group of activists is seeking to rebrand the party as one that deals primarily with social welfare issues and not its bread-and-butter focus on pushing for a Palestinian state and Palestinian rights. To do so, party members have been urged by some candidates to boycott MKs Rozin, Frij and Raz, who were all aligned with former leader Zehava Galon.

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 rank-and-file party members.

Meretz, on the other hand, is one of the few parties to adopt the internal election system in recent years, with former leader Galon even advocating an open primary system in which any Israeli citizen can vote. It previously chose its Knesset slate via a two-stage process in which party members elected delegates to its top committee, which then selected the Knesset list.

MKs from Meretz and the Joint (Arab) List take part in a protest against the ‘occupation’ in Jerusalem on April 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On winning the chairmanship of the party last year, Zandberg said her goal in the national elections was for Meretz to win 10 Knesset seats, a feat the party hasn’t managed in 15 years. She has also vowed to change the perception of Meretz as a perpetual opposition party —  the last time it served as part of the government was 17 years ago under Labor prime minister Ehud Barak — even suggesting a willingness to join a coalition with arch-nemesis Avigdor Liberman, who leads the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu.

Specifically, Zandberg is seeking to draw support from Labor voters disillusioned with leader Avi Gabbay, who seems set to lead the party to its worst ever electoral result. Earlier this month, she said Meretz “is certainly a better candidate to lead the left-wing bloc due to its ideological clarity and its loyalty to its values.”

After its own primary on Tuesday, however, Labor has seen a mild uptick in support.

Results in the Meretz vote are expected around an hour after polls close at 10 p.m.

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