Party Politics

The founding fathers of the first modern democracy, the United States of America, hoped that democracy could be made to work without the involvement of political parties.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on December 24, 2002.)

The founding fathers of the first modern democracy, the United States of America, hoped that democracy could be made to work without the involvement of political parties. The first two American presidents, George Washington and John Adams, insisted on distancing themselves from the political factions existing at the time. Only the third president, Thomas Jefferson, was associated with the Republicans (no connection with the current Republican party) who were opposed by the Federalists; and since that time, it has been obvious that political parties are an integral and essential part of democratic government. As such, the functioning of political parties impacts on the quality of democratic government.

The extent of this impact depends, in no small measure, on the system of elections practiced in any specific democracy. District elections that put the emphasis on individual candidates tend to moderate the connection between the quality of the country’s governance and the quality of management of the political parties. This is especially true when the candidates fielded by the political parties are elected by way of primary elections among the parties’ registered voters.

On the other hand, the system of proportional representation makes the political parties a centerpiece of the democratic process. Here, there is a direct connection between the political parties, especially the large ones, and the composition of parliament and the government.

Israeli elections are held on the basis of proportional representation and, subsequently, the functioning of Likud and Labor impacts directly on the working of the Israeli democracy. This raises questions concerning the governance of these parties. How are they run? How are they controlled?

The Israeli practice is that the person elected to be party chairman is simultaneously elected to be the party’s candidate for prime minister. Thus, if the said individual eventually becomes prime minister, he will carry the burden of running the party in addition to the burden of running the country. One cannot expect a prime minister to be able to take the time to keep close control of the goings on in his party. The job of assuring the proper functioning of the party on a day-to-day basis and especially at times of elections to the party convention and preparations for Knesset elections is left to the party secretariat, a body that is generally representative of the party membership and run by a senior member of the party.

On June 27, the Likud secretariat elected a new chairman. It was to be his job to oversee and direct the enrollment of new party members in preparation for elections to the party convention, the elections to the party convention, the preparation of an agenda for the party convention and the revision of the rules for the election of the Likud’s candidates for Knesset membership for submission to the convention – in other words, to prepare the Likud for the coming Knesset elections.

A month after the secretariat began its work under its new chairman, the Likud party court, in response to a request by a party member, dissolved the secretariat, thus declaring the elections of the chairman invalid and leaving the Likud in the middle of its membership campaign and preparations for the convention without a secretariat. It is this decision – one based on abject ignorance of how the party functions and contrary to decisions taken by the same court that revised and confirmed the membership of the secretariat in preparation for the election of a new chairman – that plunged the Likud into a state of anarchy and brought about the results now regretted by all.

At this point, the lesson must be learned from this unfortunate experience. The functions and the procedures of a large political party are too important to be left without control or direction.

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