Canada’s party leaders–or rather four of them–are holding their only pre-election debate in English this evening at 7:00 p.m., Eastern Time. (A debate in French is tomorrow, the date having been changed for the thoroughly Canadian reason of conflict with hockey.)
In Monday’s Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson says, in explaining why leaders, and by extension debates, matter:
while they [“political analysts”] know that Canada is on paper a parliamentary system, in reality voters think presidentially. They don’t vote for the candidate they want to represent them in the House of Commons; they vote for the leader and party they want to form the government
There are actually two statements in there, one fairly accurate, and the other way off. So let’s unpack them.
In virtually all parliamentary democracies, voters vote mainly for the “leader and party” they want to form the government–or gain a share of it, where coalitions are expected–and not for the candidate they want to be their local or regional representative. That’s parliamentary politics 101.
However, the first part of the quoted passage makes a much bolder claim, that voters vote as if it were a presidential election. This is a very different claim from simply asserting, as the second sentence implies, that the leader might be a key part of the reason for a voter’s party choice. It actually suggests that voters go a step farther, and vote for a given party if they want the leader to head the government–full stop. That has to be what “thinking presidentially” means. For what makes presidentialism distinct from parliamentarism in the voting process is precisely that voters can vote for a presidential candidate without also voting for that candidate’s party in the legislative election.
There is a literature in political science on “presidentialization” of prime ministers. It may be clear from these remarks what I think of it. If it is not, please consider reading (better yet, buying and reading!) Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers, because I could quite literally write a whole book on the topic (with lots of help; thanks, David!).
The short(-ish) version is that personalization is not the same as presidentialization. The personal characteristics of the executive candidate (or the legislative candidate, for that matter) might be a major factor in vote choice, perhaps more important than the party program or simple party loyalty. But unless you can show me that the candidate was selected to appeal to voters who would not otherwise vote for the party, and with the party having accepted that said candidate may not actually share the collective preferences of the party, then please do not tell me it is presidentialization. Because, one can show that parties in presidential systems make these sorts of tradeoffs all the time, and often to the detriment of the party as a whole. But one can also show that it simply is not the case very often in parliamentary systems. Yes, it happens. Blair and Koizumi come to mind. But I do not believe any of the about-to-debate Canadian leaders represent parties that have made such presidentializing tradeoffs, and certainly not Stephen Harper, who is running his fourth consecutive campaign and whose party has won a plurality, but not a majority, in the last two.