An Unfortunate Shift

Unless we restore the two large parties to their central role on the political scene, we are likely to experience growing political instability.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on November 18, 2008.)

Last week’s municipal elections, in which the large political parties showed poorly while independents scored successes, encouraged commentators to conclude that there really was no place for the national parties on the municipal scene. After all, what connection is there between the efficient management of a city – its garbage disposal, its education network, its transportation system – and the issues at the forefront of the concerns of the large national parties? What connection is there between the ways of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or making peace with Syria, and the municipal problems facing a mayor?

At first glance this seems quite reasonable, and the leadership of Likud and Labor seemed to share these reservations by putting little emphasis on the recent municipal election campaign, while gearing up for the upcoming Knesset election. But in the world’s large democracies, the United States, Britain, France, the big parties actively participate in local elections, and it is generally one of their candidates who holds the office of mayor or governor. There the contest between the large political parties is waged at all levels, local and national. As a matter of fact, in France, which does not prohibit holding both a local and national political office simultaneously, unlike Israel, government ministers often serve as mayors of local municipalities, too.

Actually it is absurd to argue that the large political parties should restrict their attention only to matters of foreign policy and defense and ignore the many other issues that are of concern to citizens in their daily lives. If they are truly national parties, they should be addressing the entire gamut of problems facing the nation, the problems facing mayors no less than the problems facing the defense minister, the foreign minister, the finance minister and demonstrate their capability on that level, too. This does not mean that the municipal voter, even if he or she is a loyal supporter of one of the larger parties, will not frequently cross party lines and prefer the candidate of another party because of abilities or past success in carrying out the duties of municipal office, just as voters in national elections may change their voting preferences for very similar reasons.

The big national parties should be involved in local elections not only because they should be offering solutions to all the nation’s problems, but also because municipal politics can be the breeding ground for their future leaders. Rather than coming out of nowhere, they could appear on the national scene after they have established a record for themselves at the municipal level and have honed their leadership skills there. That is the process in the United States, where former governors have reached the presidency, and former mayors have been candidates in the presidential race. As a matter of fact, candidates without this kind of background are sometimes considered as lacking the necessary experience for executive office.

The large political parties’ minor participation of the large political parties on the municipal scene brings about a fragmentation of the parties participating in the municipal elections. Parties that represent the interests of specific sectors and independent groups, which sometimes are formed for the purpose of contesting a municipal election, become prominent. If the effect were limited to the municipal scene, it would not be particularly harmful. But the large parties’ lack of participation is not only a reflection of their weakness – it also weakens them. In weakening the direct connection they had previously enjoyed with their membership at the local level, they end up being weaker at the national level when elections to the Knesset come around. This process has been going on in Israel for years now and is one of the reasons why the two large parties, Likud and Labor, very prominent on the municipal scene in past years, are becoming substantially weaker and appear in the Knesset as medium-sized rather than large parties. A process of political fragmentation is taking place at the national level as well.

The lack of emphasis that the big political parties placed on the municipal elections in recent years was the direct result of the “personalization” of Israeli politics, as signified by the direct election of the prime minister law, which has fortunately been abolished. The leaders of the large parties began to take little interest in the party, and most certainly not in its success in municipal elections. This development bodes ill for the stability of Israel’s political system. Whatever stability it had in past years was the result of the two large parties’ forming the centerpiece of representation in the Knesset. Unless we restore the two large parties to their central role on the political scene, we are likely to experience growing political instability. The return of the large political parties to a major role in the municipal elections is an important step in stopping this harmful trend.

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