The typical answer from all those who complain about democracy in political parties is clear and laconic: "Everything is caused by the corrupt primary system." Politicians who failed in the elections say this. Sharp-tongued journalists write about it. Everyone repeats the stale mantra about "deals" made by the "vote contractors" at the polls. In a similar vein, they say that until primaries came into the world, there was an organized election method within the parties, one that was trustworthy and, most of all, just.
As someone who accompanied the Labor Party through the birth of democratization and the primaries, I speak for myself and my friends when I say that we converted a perverse electoral system into one with many risks, and still many prospects. In the 1980s, several parties in Israel made the transition from the steering committee method to the more open option, internal primary elections. I can't forget the Likud Knesset candidate selection in 1984. Each candidate was able to present himself to the voter, independent of considerations of blind "loyalty" to the existing leadership. Revolt in the Likud lines bequeathed the public with a greater role in the selection process.
In those elections, the Knesset list was still set by the steering committee, which included the movement's leadership. The contradiction between the Likud vote outcome and the decisions made in the smoky room at 100 Hayarkon Street caused my friends and me to introduce reform in our own party; we compelled the party leadership to change the system for selecting candidates to the Knesset in the 1988 elections. The steering committee we were fighting against imported its authority from Eastern Europe. Knesset members were not tested by the Knesset and the public, but instead according to the level of conformism he or she displayed to the party leaders' desires. We recalled how Shulamit Aloni had been removed from the Knesset list a few years before. She was a popular Knesset member, active and taking initiative, but in the era of Golda Meir, the steering committee moved her to a place on the list that would ensure an unrealistic Knesset seat.
Since then, most parties have moved to the primary election system. Over the years, a few flaws have been discovered with this method: There were cases of people registering for membership in a party so they could vote in the primaries, only to then renounce their membership; meanwhile, sectorial organizations would conduct censuses that influenced members' choices. For example, in 1996 and 1999, hundreds of thousands of people became members of the Labor party. Each "contracted voter" had influence, on a local or sectorial level, but did not actually set the Knesset list or its overall image.
Many people were unsatisfied with the outcome of the Likud primaries this week. It was "the result of deals," some people have said; I must say, however, that this is an amateur opinion. The Likud has changed its image, and not just because Haim Katz brought several thousand people out to the voting booths. When 73,000 voters come to the polls, we can't say Katz determined the outcome. Perhaps it is unfortunate, and perhaps not. It's all about the political approach. The results indicate that Likud voters have shifted their position to the Right. Benny Begin didn't fail because he wasn't included in the deal; he failed because settlers have become a significant voice in the Likud. Members of the nationalist ilk could not forgive Begin for his position on Migron and his defense of the Supreme Court's authority.
Primary elections constitute a method with several flaws, but it is preferable to other systems for setting a representative list instead of a list of steering committee favorites.
Uzi Baram is a former Labor MK and mnister who served in the Knesset and government from 1977 to 2001.