Israel’s Likud Party, widely expected to romp to victory in the nation’s Jan. 28 general election, this week found itself in the middle of a vote-buying scandal that could change the outcome of the vote. The alleged misconduct occurred at the Dec. 8 Likud primaries, when the party’s central committee selected the list of candidates for Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Since the Israeli electorate votes for a party rather than individual candidates, it’s essential that prospective lawmakers get a high position on their party’s list. According to Ha’aretz, predictions that Likud “could more than double its current Knesset strength to as many as 41 seats—a pre-eminent position in the splintered, 120-member house—attracted a plethora of candidates, some of whom were later linked in media reports to organized crime, alleged extortion threats, and vote-selling schemes.”
Questions were initially raised when a 27-year-old waitress whose family is involved in the gambling business was placed in the 31st spot, while veteran politicians fell down the list. Police and fraud investigators are currently questioning at least four Likud committee members about the bribery allegations. As an editorial in Sunday’s Yediot Aharonot noted, “The odor of corruption is liable to pursue [Likud] all the way to the ballot box.” The opposition Labor Party has pledged to use the taint of corruption as a main campaign theme, and the Jerusalem Post reported that a poll released Tuesday night shows that Likud’s projected Knesset seat total has now decreased by four seats. Ha’aretz speculated that a less-than-landslide performance would allow Sharon to form another unity government rather than the right-wing, hawkish coalition that would be forced upon him if Likud “steamrollers to victory.” However, on Thursday, Labor leader Amram Mitzna told the Jerusalem Post he would not join a unity government led by Likud. (Labor is not altogether immune from fishy internal elections. Ha’aretz reported that three ballot boxes were found, unopened, after the party’s list was finalized. An unofficial count showed that if the votes had been counted, the ninth and 10th finishers would have traded places.)
Several commentators offered solutions to the primary mess. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Daniel Bloch recommended “a state law that will mandate all parties to conduct their selection of candidates in a democratic, honest and legally binding system” and the creation of a neutral body to ensure the integrity and honesty of internal party elections. An editorial in the same paper pushed for at least half the legislature to be elected directly by district, rather than by party list.
Yediot Aharonot fretted that the corruption flap was a symbol of a general decline in political and civic standards: Some of the people running for the Knesset are “completely unworthy to sit in a place where life and death decisions are decided. … The Knesset has never been comprised totally of geniuses, [but] it was also never a coincidental assembly, lacking all values.” An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post agreed that recent events marked “an extremely dangerous escalation in degree from that earlier period of political ‘corruption as usual.’ … Never before have such overtly criminal and other unsavory elements dared to involve themselves so openly in choosing a ruling party’s list of candidates.”