Primaries for party-list candidates?

Should the candidates on party lists, and their ranks, be determined by a system of primary elections? The New Zealand Herald has an editorial on 20 February that suggests primaries for the list tier of the NZ MMP system.

Whatever the calibre of party appointees to Parliament, it seems wrong that they are not subjected to some sort of electoral test. Perhaps list seats should have to be filled by the party’s highest polling losers in electorates – or perhaps an American system of party primary elections could compile the lists.

Some American primaries are open to all voters in the state, others are restricted to voters who have registered with one of the parties. The restricted system could work for party lists under MMP. Candidates for the list could campaign for the support of voters registered with the party for a primary in each region before the election. They would be ranked for list seats in order of their total vote at the end of the primaries.

First of all, let me say that I reject the labeling of party-list candidates, however the list is determined, as party “appointees”. Those who enter parliament via the list are elected–directly elected, even–but via a different method. There is nothing inherently “more democratic” about elections via plurality or other “nominal-vote” rules, nor about open lists, nor about primary elections. ((As for the possibility of having the “list” seats filled by the party’s highest polling losers in the districts, I have already addressed that. I put “lists” in quotation marks here, because strictly speaking, there are no party lists if all of the PR tier is filled in this way.)) Regardless of such arguments, however, are primaries in closed party list systems, including the list tier of a mixed-member system, a good idea?

I am skeptical, although at this point I do not have a fully formed idea about this. I am somewhat biased against primaries in list systems because of the experience of some Israeli parties, but political problems in Israel always seem to be somewhat, shall we say, overdetermined. So maybe primaries, per se, are not the problem.

In this context, it is interesting that today’s news has an article from Israel’s Ynet, “PM speaks out against elimination of Likud primaries”.

The Ynet article is without any context, and no other stories about proposals to eliminate primaries in the Likud have come through my news feed. The story quotes PM, and Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu as saying “The Likud used to [be] very centralized, and we decided to open it up. Today we have 130,000 people, instead of 3,000, deciding who will represent the movement”.

Do only 130,000 people participate in Likud primaries? There were 729,054 voters for Likud in the last general election. So that means that a selectorate equivalent to only around 18% of the party’s general-election constituency is effectively setting the lists. Yes, I recognize that 130,000 is a lot more than 3,000, but even 3,000 is a large (and thus at least potentially representative) body for a “centralized” process. Again, there is nothing inherently more democratic about having a self-selected minority of a party’s voters choosing its lists than there is of having a large conference of party delegates do the same.

I hope readers will offer some comments in favor of, or against, primary elections in closed-list PR systems, because this is an area of electoral systems and party organization where my thoughts are far from crystallized.

27 thoughts on “Primaries for party-list candidates?

  1. In principle it seems to me that both party leaders and candidates should be chosen in primary elections. Arguably both Australia and the Australian Labor Party would have benefited from that rule in 2010.

  2. Primaries were invented as a way to avoid elite control of hegemonic parties in a particular context (single-party control of many states of the US in the context of post-Civil War politics). In a PR system, if you don’t like the party, its relatively easy to start a new one. So it seems a bit pointless, especially as primary elections aren’t particuilarly representative anyway.

    However I do think that one reason for their growing popularity is they are a great way tolaunch a candidate, especially one who may not be so well know to the public at the start fo the process-that is, if the intra party conflicts don’t get too out of hand-see the recent Socilaits party primary in France as an example of a primary that worked quite well.

  3. Many Israeli parties are actually coalitions of multiple subgroups, with agreements on which groups gets which positions in the list. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but it throws a wrench into the comparison between the Israeli system and the government-mandated primary system envisioned here.

    There must be some jurisdictions which enforce primaries for PR lists, no? I seem to recall reading here about somewhere in Central America…

  4. If one effect of introducing primaries were to remove an incentive to the fragmentation of existing parties into new parties then that would be a good thing.

  5. Primaries seem to have been an American developed solution to deal with the somewhat unusual American political system, e.g. dominant chief executives selected independently of the legislature, an effective two party monopoly that becomes a single party monopoly in some localities. They weren’t a particularly great solution, and I would predict they wouldn’t transfer well to other countries with very different political and party systems.

    Am I completely wrong in this? Are there examples of other countries using primaries with at least as much success as they have been used in the U.S?

    My impression is that attempts to use primaries to select party leaders in parliamentary systems have occasionally thrown up “leaders” who are unacceptable to much of their parliamentary party caucasus, with interesting consequences.

  6. I certainly think primaries are a good idea though not always necessary.

    When it comes to complaints about a closed list the answer is simple: open the list up. In fact with PR-STV you can have more candidates on the list than there are seats, provided you allow voters to rank the list according to their preferences (i.e. STV), to determine the final list order. This is equivalent to having a primary and a general election at the same time and very efficient.

    If this process seems daunting, especially if a voter has to rank dozens of candidates when competition is high for a few seats, the process could be simplified with Above the Line Voting that is used in Australia. The party leaders could come back into play in PR-STV by allowing them to rank the pre-election list in order of their preferences (which is necessary to have in Above the Line Voting). The voters can then rank the list as they see fit, allowing for a full change in the list order, or endorse the list as is (which 95% of voter in Australia do) which could provide a good balance between voter choice and party choice.

    Still having a separate primary has benefits. A primary conducted by a party allows for innovation that could not happen if it were part of the general election. For example, the Pirate Party in Germany uses Approval Voting to select their party leaders. Other parties could see the value in this method and adopt it. Later nations could adopt better voting methods like Score Voting (a.k.a. Range Voting) to use in general elections once they see it being used effectively in party primaries.

    So, whether it is a combined primary/general election using PR-STV or a separate election where innovation can take hold, having primaries seems to be an obvious plus.

  7. @Ed

    The trouble with caucus electing the leader is that it just makes it too easy to change leader. Gillard declared firmly, when asked about Rudd’s electoral standing: ‘This isn’t Big Brother’. The problem with that argument is that you can apply it to any election, not just electing party leaders. It is a profoundly undemocratic sentiment that actually argues the elite knows what it’s doing and the electorate can get stuffed.

    I admit I am coming to this from a rights perspective rather than a political science perspective, but it is just not immediately obvious to me why the party elite has a better right to elect the leader than the party membership.

    Rudd was deposed as prime minister of Australia inside 24 hours on the basis of polling that was shown to be deeply flawed and after a stealth campaign that seems to have been going on for some weeks. That is just not good enough and hindsight shows it was certainly not wise enough.

  8. A caucus of legislators should be led by someone selected by the legislators.

    Now the problem sets in because in parliamentary systems, the leader of the largest legislative caucus is usually appointed (not elected) to be the head of government. And the leaders of the political parties in parliamentary systems are usually the caucus leaders in the national legislature, though I don’t think this is the case in Germany and France.

    Honestly, I don’t know how to resolve this problem except to argue that if electing the head of government is really that important to you, the you probably prefer the presidential model to the parliamentary model. Once you allow the legislature to fire the head of government, then that person has to have the confidence of the legislators. That can be incompatible with having the confidence of the wider electorate.

    If you are a Labor supporter who can’t stand Gillard, your problem is really that Labor MPs disagree with you. Work on deselecting MPs. In Canada, Martin replaced Chretien though his supporters gaining control of the riding associations, ensuring that the MPs flipped against Chretien, though its true the conflict wound up perhaps fatally wounding the party.

  9. I would adopt the system used by the labor party in Britain where the electorate is divided equally between MPs, affiliate organisations and individual members. Notably under their rules a spill can be initiated by 12.5% against an opposition leader but 25% against a prime minster. The decision to call a special election rests with the annual conference.

    The Australian pattern of caucus elections is actually quite rare.

    I think you are translating the Washington model too directly. In parliamentary systems, especially Westminster systems, there is no ‘caucus of legislators’ there is a government caucus and an opposition caucus. The Leader of the House, the closest role to a majority leader in the US, is a cabinet minister appointed and removed by the prime minster.

  10. Alan: I think that is not necessarily the case, as there are parliamentary systems with well-defined party caucuses. There are two elements that can change the ‘government caucus and an opposition caucus’ you described:
    1. multiparty democracy with PR, where various parties are in opposition, government, or even somewhere in the middle.
    2. In some parliamentary systems, ministers have to vacate their parliamentary seats. This is the case in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and I believe Sweden. The one I know best is the Netherlands, where there is a clear separation between floor (caucus) leader and overall political leader when the party is in gov’t.

  11. @JD

    I was focused on Westminster systems. My point stands that a prime minister is not merely the leader of a ‘caucus of legislators’. Of course a multiparty democracy is more desirable than a two-party system although I can still see problems where too much power is vested in the parliamentary party.

    Oddly enough, an article of new constitutions led me to Kenya. They drew much of the bill of rights from South Africa but they expanded the polotocal rights clause quite a lot:

    Article 38 Political rights
    (1) Every citizen is free to make political choices, which includes the right
    (a) to form, or participate in forming, a political party;
    (b) to participate in the activities of, or recruit members for, a political party; or
    (c) to campaign for a political party or cause.
    (2) Every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections based on universal suffrage and the free expression of the will of the electors for
    (a) any elective public body or office established under this Constitution; or
    (b) any office of any political party of which the citizen is a member.
    (3) Every adult citizen has the right, without unreasonable restrictions
    (a) to be registered as a voter;
    (b) to vote by secret ballot in any election or referendum; and
    (c) to be a candidate for public office, or office within a political party of which the citizen is a member and, if elected, to hold office.

  12. This reminds me of what was going on in Ireland in the 1980s in FiannaFail. The very controversial (and as it turns out rather corrupt) Charles Haughey was leader of the party. About a third of his own parliamentary party thought him an actual menace (he was famously described as a “deadly cross between Salazar and Nixon” by a leftist politician at the time).

    During one of the many leadership challenges Haughey faced (which he eventually won), when it appeared the result might go against him, he and his core supporters apparently gave serious consideration to a plan where Haughey, titular President of FF as well as parliamentary leader, would refuse to resign the former office, as well as the Prime Ministership, if he lost the parliamentary party vote.

    The reasoning being that Haughey was far more popular among party members than among the parliamentarians, and that the presidency of the party, while generally held by the parliamentary leader, was not technically synonymous with it.

    In effect he would have been daring his internal opponents to vote against him in parliament, which for what was then a very disciplined party was tantamount to treason.

  13. There is the example of Ramsay MacDonald, who remained as Prime Minister despite being expelled by his own party. Its an unusual instance, but it means that some caution is warranted with “leading the dominant party in parliament automatically makes you Prime Minister (and no longer leading it means you are fired)” assumptions.

  14. Billy Hughes remained prime minster while being expelled from the ALP, but he immediately became leader of the National Labor Party. Unlike McDonald, whose National Labour Party went nowhere, Hughes succeeded in winning an election.

    The first para of the Hughes Wikipedia entry has to be quoted:

    Over the course of his 51-year federal parliamentary career (and an additional seven years prior to that in a colonial parliament), Hughes changed parties five times: from Labor (1901–16) to National Labor (1916–17) to Nationalist (1917–30) to Australian (1930–31) to United Australia (1931–44) to Liberal (1944–52). He was expelled from three parties, and represented four different electorates in two states.

    The Hughes coalition government formed in 1916 may have been the model for the National Government in Britain.

  15. There is a presumption if one favours leadership primaries that party members or supporters are better at choosing electorally successful/effective leaders. Is that true though, in the context of a parliamentary system? I think also that in a parliamentary system the micropolitics of the caucus is not a trivial consideration where the pool of potential government members is reduced to the parliamentary party-if most of you closest colleagues cant stand you, maybe it says a lot about you, and your potential effectiveness of your govt, whatever ones image in the mass media.

  16. By the same token, if most of your electors cannot stand you the macropolitics of retaining government become quite important. The great difference between a caucus election and a whole-of-party election is that one is closed, opaque and unaccountable. The other is open, transparent and accountable.

  17. Transparency isn’t always a good thing in these matters. If it really comes down to a group of people who can’t work together, as Rudd’s cabinet when he was leader apparently was, then nobody comes off well in the cold light of day. But they actually know each other, and have worked together day in and day out. Its an advantage of parliamentary systems that someone who has good press but is a total heel, or just an empty suit, can be removed fairly efficiently if it comes to it.

    A somewhat larger, but still fairly selective (and in modern times rathEr atypical) group of party memebrs who don’t have that kind of personal knowledge. Then it becomes duelling PR camplaigns and factional machines, and this isn’t necessarily conducive to truth and beauty emerging.

  18. Transparency is always a good thing in these matters. Your charming invocation of a council of philsopher-kings sitting down to debate that which is good, true and beautiful is only a delightful myth.

    The sad reality is that even caucuses of philosopher-kings get manipulated and reviving 18th century ideas of wise electors deliberating in secret is not going to save them from manipulation. Who voted for Gillard? We don’t know. Why did a Labor MP announce at 07:30 pm that there was no challenge and the ABC had lost all credibility? We don’t know. Why did Gillard’s staff begin work on her victory speech a fortnight before her spontaneous challenge to Rudd? We don’t know.

    What we do know is that the most high, most excellent and most mighty princes of the ALP were told they were about to elect a new prime minister less than 13 hours before they met to crown Gillard.

  19. What I said at #14 (please…).

    This really is a thread on primaries as a means to choose legislative candidates (and the NZ MMP review), not a thread on party leadership selection. There are several threads on the latter, including a recent one specific to the recent Australian Labor caucus vote.

    –Your Orchardist who likes to keep things tidy

  20. Most of the main political parties in Iceland have used open (to varying degrees–e.g., all voters or just dues-paying party members) primaries to determine their lists since 1971 (for a description, see Kristjansson chapter in Narud et al. (2002) book, Party Sovereignty and Citizen Control.

    The process is generally carried out locally, so local notables with name recognition in the constituency are advantaged in candidate selection. This is perhaps one reason why there are so many legacy/dynasty politicians in Iceland: roughly 30% of the members in the last three Althingi.

  21. One imagines that Icelandic naming conventions would make political dynasties easier to detect – “George Georgeson vs Albert Albertson” etc, rather than having to google that Stephanie Herseth’s grandfather was a former Governor of South Dakota, etc.

  22. er, I owe Ms Herseth Sandlin an apology there, first for bifurcating her surname, secondly because her grandfather the former Governor was a Herseth too. Nancy Pelosi or Nancy Kassebaum would make better examples.

  23. Bringing up an old planting here, as I was recently thinking of how the US’ primary culture could be converted to choosing a party list.

    The biggest issue I can think of is complying with the Voting Rights Act and guaranteeing the opportunity of ethnic minorities to elect their candidate of choice.

    My best solution thus far would be to either use cumulative voting within the primary to determine list position, or else to use the lema/sublema system l, either at the primary, the general election, or both.

    Does anyone know if existing primary systems in PR countries are majoritarian within the party? The only examples I can think of are HaAvoda and Likud in Israel. If I recall correctly, the Likud system requires the voter to vote for exactly 12 candidates, which is limited voting. I remember that HaAvoda has/had certain list positions reserved for groups like women, younger candidates, regional candidates, and kibbutzniks. Do any other Israeli party primaries, or non-Israeli parties for that matter, use limited or proportional voting or reserved positions in the primaries?

    I know that Panama uses primaries to determine which candidates for deputy make the ballot. Each party typically nominates the same number of candidates as their are vacancies. However, I’m not sure if the primaries are majoritarian or proportional. It also has less impact as Panama uses open lists. The Electoral Tribunal proposed moving to closed lists, with 50/50 gender alternation based on primary votes, but did not propose specific rules on how primaries were to be conducted. Of course, their recommendations were completely ignored by the National Assembly.

  24. Many other Israeli parties have reserved positions. A lot of the parties are themselves coalitions of parties/organizations, eg: the National Union was NRP + Moledet. Typically these parties will reserve slots for each of the constituent sub-parties, to make sure they’re both getting something out of the deal.

  25. In the Netherlands, where and to the extent that ‘primaries’ are held, places on the list are elected sequentially from the second place down (the first place is elected separately in the leadership election), with a second round if necessary.

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