It now seems unlikely that Ariel Sharon will be able to resume his duties as prime minister and leader of the new party, Kadima, that he recently established. He has suffered significant damage to his brain since his stroke on Wednesday, and will remain in an induced coma for 72 hours. Even if he survives–rumors earlier today that he had already died have been refuted by the hospital–the prognosis for returning to governing and campaigning is bleak. What are the implications for the new party and for the upcoming elections?
Kadima is very much a creature of Sharon, and thus its capacity for electoral success without Sharon’s ability to serve as prime minister is in doubt. The question boils down to the extent to which Kadima’s surge to a large lead in polls immediately upon its formation is a product of leadership contingency or inherent features of this “moment” in Israeli history. That is, did Sharon create the current moment of hope for a break in the logjam of Israeli politics by his bold decision to split from Likud, or did he seize upon already existing conditions not of his creation? In some respects the very question poses a false dichotomy. Real-world explanations lie somewhere on a continuum between leadership contingency and inherent conditions, but to the extent that the reality is closer to the former (the contingency of a bold leader’s actions), Kadima would slip badly in polls and actual results without Sharon. To the extent that it is the latter (inherent conditions for a major transformation of the political scene), the party will go on without him. It has already attracted prominent defectors from both Likud and Labor, and has essentially absorbed the small centrist Shinui. Yet none of these other leaders enjoys the personal reputation of Sharon, and extraordinary opportunities for political transformation often require an extraordinary leader who enjoys the respect even of those who disagree with his course of action. Often such extraordinary leaders are those whose current and expected future actions are contrary to past reputation–the “Nixon-to-China” phenomenon. By this standard, Sharon qualifies as an extraordinary leader, and thus even if the current moment in Israeli politics is defined more by inherent than contingent factors, and even if Kadima does nearly as well in the elections as recent polls have suggested, it is sure to be in a weaker bargaining position–both with respect to other parties in forming a government, and with repect to Palestinians in future negotiations–without Sharon at its helm.
Even the most optimistic polls–such as one just released Wednesday–put Kadima at just over a third of the seats in the new Knesset. Even with no more than a third of the seats, Kadima would tower over all the other parties, yet it would still need various other partners to form a government. Without Sharon, polls have suggested the party could win around 26-30 seats (of 120).
But even if it somehow won close to a third of the seats without Sharon, the dynamic of coalition bargaining in the Knesset could be changed significantly without Sharon. Competing over cabinet positions, policy concessions, and even the premiership itself without Sharon (or someone of comparable political stature) as the head of the largest party can be expected to give those potential partners greater leverage.
In anticipation of the blow to Kadima’s prestige and power that the likely absence of Sharon will bring, other leaders of the new party are already trying to recalibrate the party’s message.
“Kadima is not one man, it is a path,” Transportation Minister and Kadima stalwart Meir Sheetrit told Army Radio Monday morning…
To which the Jerusalem Post editorial writer, Herb Keinon, responds:
Kadima is Sharon. He is the magnet that has attracted politicians as diverse as Haim Ramon on the left and Tzachi Hanegbi on the right. He is the glue that binds the party together. Without Sharon, there is no cement keeping Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz in the same party.
Magnet, glue, cement.. Choose your metaphor, or employ several at once, but there is no denying the importance of Sharon himself.
Sheetrit is kidding himself if he believes that the public views Kadima as presenting a clear ideological path. For the public, Kadima represents a vehicle through which Sharon can continue to pursue his policies – policies which, if the polls are to be believed, the majority of the country wants continued. [Yet polls also show that at best a third, not a majority, of Israeli voters would vote for his party--MSS]
Up until Sunday at 8 pm, Sharon’s personality, pragmatism, realism and vast security experience were the party’s message. From Monday morning that message will need to be a bit wider and more complex.
That message will be shaped, at least in public perception, as much by the slate of candidates forming the upper portions of the party’s list as by any formal documents the party puts out or statements that its leaders make. As I noted shortly after Kadima’s formation, such a new party’s reputation will be driven to a large extent by the personalities on its list. Ironically, the construction of the list was one of the things Sharon and associates were working on at his ranch in the Negev at the moment that Sharon began feeling unwell and was put in an ambulance. Without Sharon, the new party may already face not only a leadership crisis–with now-acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert probably not popular enough to be an acceptable leader going into the election–but open squabbling over who will get what rank on the list. The list ranks themselves become all the more important: Their occupants will provide important signals of the direction of the party as a whole, and now they suddenly become more important to the candidates themselves because of increased uncertainty about just how far down the list a rank is “safe” and thus guarantees a seat.
As the Head Heeb notes, the crisis Kadima faces will force it to become a party and not just assemblage of politicians coalescing around Sharon. Whether it can accomplish this in the 82 days before the election will be critical to its prospects of being a coherent force in the next Knesset at a time when the defections of centrists from both Labor and Likud have made those parties smaller, but also more ideologically focused. And, as Keinon notes:
It doesn’t take much creative thinking to imagine the Likud campaign spots in a few months warning that a vote for Sharon is really a vote for Peres…
given that Shimon Peres is the most prominent Labor defector to have joined Sharon in Kadima.
Israellycool is posting regular updates from the Israeli media.