Candidacy for prime minister

In presidential systems, it is clear who is a candidate for the position of heading government–anyone who enters the election as a formal candidate for president. What about in a parliamentary system? This seems like a trick question. I assume it is straightforward: A person who is the leader of a party can be assumed to be a candidate for prime minister.

We might qualify that definition of candidacy for prime minister by saying it only applies to the leaders of parties expected to be among the largest in the election. Perhaps leaders of clearly minor or sectarian parties can be dismissed as candidates for the post as they are deemed as highly unlikely to claim the post. However, in presidential systems, we would not define someone on the ballot as “not a candidate” just because he or she was considered unlikely to win the job. Is the standard different in parliamentary systems?

As a starting point, I do not really think it should be. “Candidates” who finish second, third, or even lower in votes in parliamentary elections occasionally do end up as prime minister, whereas only in very rare cases can anyone lower than second in votes become president (and being second in a final or sole round of voting can be sufficient currently only in the USA.*)

Our default, then, should be that, absent a good reason to believe some party is uninterested in heading the government, or no parties would ever let it do so, or that someone other than whoever is the formal party leader is likely to be prime minister should the party be able to fill the post, any party leader is a candidate for prime minister. However, this default may be incorrect, at least in the political discourse of any given parliamentary system.

Take the case of Israel 2021(a?). Twice during the campaign, statements about candidacy for prime minister have entered the media and inter-party conversation. In early March, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett made a statement that he was indeed a candidate for prime minister. At the time, my reaction was basically, no kidding. While his party would likely be too small for its leader to be PM, it does sometimes happen that some party within a coalition other than the largest provides the PM, and Bennett is his party’s leader and top-ranked candidate. Therefore, he is a candidate. Yet he felt there was political advantage in asserting so. In other words, what I called the “default” evidently is not.

Then more recently, Benjamin Netanyahu (the incumbent PM, leader of Likud, and most definitely a candidate for the top post in this election) said he would not debate opposition leader Yair Lapid unless the latter declares he is a candidate for prime minister. I do not think anyone doubts that Lapid is a candidate for the post, but somehow he has to utter the words in order for the incumbent to debate him. The back-story here is that Lapid has been trying to avoid a head-to-head fight and simply position himself as part of a broad replace-Bibi block, and not appear too ambitious to get the job himself. He has implied that he would accept not being PM even if his party, Yesh Atid, were to be the biggest party in the anti-Likud bloc. All polls for many weeks have said the party will be the largest such party, but Lapid is not ruling out allowing someone else–presumably either New Hope leader Gideon Saar or even Bennett–to take the post if that is what is needed to replace Netanyahu. Regardless of declarations, isn’t Lapid clearly a PM candidate? Yes!

So I am genuinely puzzled by contention over which party leaders formally declare themselves to be candidate for prime minister and which ones do not. I wonder if questions of this sort come up often in other parliamentary campaigns.

(Note: I hope to get a pre-election preview post up as I have done for Israeli elections back to 2006 or so. The election is this coming Tuesday, so time is getting short. Anyway, for now, I guess this is the pre-election post. But watch for another possible one.)


* Bolivia once had a president who had finished third in the sole round of popular voting. This was possible because the rule at the time was the congress selected from the top three if none had a majority. Later the rule was changed to two-round popular majority.

20 thoughts on “Candidacy for prime minister

  1. Jo Swinson, leader of long-standing third-place party the Liberal Democrats, announced herself as a candidate for prime minister in the UK election of 2019 and was widely mocked for doing so and there is certainly a perception that doing so cost a lot of votes.


    • In theory then I could be a candidate for Prime Minister then too. Despite not being a British voter, despite not standing for a seat, and despite not being affiliated with any British party.

      I just need to find 325 or so MPs to back me.


    • Yes, I remember that about Swinson. In fact, I commented about it after the election, as a rather foolish claim on her part.

      So a related question is, did Nick Clegg make such an announcement before the 2010 election? I have a campaign leaflet I picked up when I was there at the time that said something like, “Nick now in position to be Prime Minister”. Given polling at the time, it was not a ridiculous claim. But I do not recall whether he uttered the words, “I am a candidate..” or similar. He probably did.


  2. Germany is one exception. The “party leader” and the “chancellor candidate” are not always the same. Currently, the new CDU leader Armin Laschet is “now in the pole position to replace Merkel as chancellor in the fall. “But if the CDU does not shine at state elections on 14 March, the more popular Markus Söder (CSU) could still be the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor,” he said. “Also Jens Spahn, the current health minister, may also join the race to lead Europe’s largest economy.”


    • From Wikipedia, regarding Germany: “The SPD names a chancellor-candidate while the CDU and the CSU name a common one. The smaller Bundestag parties (FDP, Left and Greens) usually do not name a chancellor-candidate as it is very improbable for such a candidate to actually be elected chancellor. They instead name one or two persons (Spitzenkandidaten) who are to become the faces of that party’s campaign. Fringe parties sometimes name a chancellor-candidate although there is nearly no chance for them to win seats in the Bundestag”

      India, too, has had candidates for prime minister different from the party leader; obviously it has even more electoral alliances with regional parties than Germany, and regional parties’ leaders are more obviously not PM candidates than any other small parties. But there are probably also other factors in play – if I understand correctly, Sonia Gandhi was not the Congress’ pick for PM in the 2000’s (instead it was Manmohan Singh, who sat in the upper house) more due to controversy over her foreign extraction than anything else.

      Don’t forget that the leader of Poland’s PiS is neither the current president nor the PM. Which may be unusual even for Poland, but raises a wider issue that parties sometimes do not have hard and fast rules for which position the leader is to take in a government, and sometimes even in a coalition – and sometimes there’s not even a consistent rule for which of a party’s various officials is its “leader” (the Dutch VVD’s statutes do not designate its ‘party leader’; the British Conservatives had no formal rules regarding the choice of its leader until the informal process went awry in the 60’s), or which position the leader takes after the election. In the Netherlands, a party’s leader during a general (lower house) election is its ‘lijsttrekker’ (=’list puller’) who will be the party’s first listed candidate on the list. If that party becomes the largest party in the new coalition govt, its lijsttrekker is all but guaranteed to become PM. But what if it enters as a junior partner? Then its lijsttrekker may become a minister and deputy PM, but s/he might instead stay on as the party’s parliamentary caucus chair instead, which is also almost always what will happen if that party goes into opposition (in Holland, a minister cannot simultaneously serve as MP). In many countries, a party’s leader (whatever his/her position) will lead it at the next election – again, this is not always the case in Holland, where parties often hold an internal poll to choose its lijsttrekker not long before the election.


      • True, re Germany, although most of the time the party leader is also the announced candidate for Chancellor. The interesting point there, from perspective of my question, is that there are indeed parties in Germany that do name candidates for the post explicitly. So these (and India) can sometimes fit under my exception mentioned above, cases where “someone other than whoever is the formal party leader is likely to be prime minister.”

        Re PiS, it is outside the scope of my question, given it is a semi-presidential system. But it is indeed very unusual that neither of the two executives is the formal leader of the governing party. I imagine that is quite unusual among semi-presidential systems.

        Good to learn the Dutch practice here, as in various ways, it has the party system most similar to the Israeli one that prompted my question. (I mean in terms of relative sizes of parties, not their ideologies of type of constituencies.)


    • From The Guardian online April 18, concerning this year’s German federal election:

      “Five months before national elections, a Green party that once styled itself as the rebel of German politics is finding itself in an unusually respectable position.

      The party’s standing in the polls – in second place at 21-23% of the vote – means it will on Monday, for the first time in its 41-year history, nominate a candidate for chancellor. Furthermore, that candidate will have a realistic chance of filling the top job in German politics by the end of the year.”


  3. (1) In May 1981, the day after UK Labour – led by the centre-Right Andrew McIntosh [*] – won a majority on the Greater London Council in May 1981, the caucus dumped him for “Red Ken” Livingstone:
    (2) The question of “who is the Opposition Leader” came up in the Northern Territory a year ago, and a week ago in Western Australia, where in both cases the vagaries of single-member seats and a small Parliament led to a situation where a bloc of independents (NT) and the Nationals (WA) have more seats than a once-proud governing party. There is perhaps something to be said for averaging seats in the last two legislatures when deciding which group of MPs forms the official Opposition, to screen out noise from atypical Kym Campbell-level wipeouts.


    • Definitely worthwhile to broaden this to include sub-national assemblies. I imagine there would be a greater diversity of practices than at the national level (although I lack a theoretical intuition as to why I imagine that).

      Also, convention for who is opposition leader–when there is a formal post of that sort–likely tend to break down when there is not one clearly dominant party facing the government. The very nature of having a “leader of the opposition” assumes two (dominant) parties, or at least two blocs.


      • In India, there is no official leader of the opposition if the largest opposition part in the lower house is under a certain size.

        I believe in Israel there is always an opposition chairperson, even if the opposition is not really a unified bloc (which is basically always).


      • Canada seems to survive “false positives” like awarding official leadership of the Opposition to the second-largest party in one Parliament even if it came third in the previous Parliament and comes third again in the following Parliament. The parliamentary perks (resources, right of reply, and occasional legal powers like a veto over moving fixed election dates) are important, but the main reason for having an Opposition Leader is so that at election time media know which party’s proposed policies, budget, appointments etc to scrutinise. The media can do this even if the opinion polls show that the party currently third-largest in seats is running second or first in voting intentions. The US media manage this without the countty even having an official “Opposition party” [] status as far as the executive is concerned. Occasional challengers like Wallace, Wallace and Perot post some conceptual and logistical challenges but these can be worked through.
        ] The “minority leader” in the House or Senate is not an “Opposition leader” in the parliamentary sense since s/he may well belong to the same party as the President. (And may well do his/her own share of obstructing the President’s legislative agenda, regardless).


      • PS: Some constitutions and laws award Opposition Leaders quite wide legal powers, such as (typical in Caribbean Westminster systems) of appointing or nominating a large number of Senators. In Queensland the unicameral Parliament’s standing orders typically for, say, N members of a legislative committee, including the Chair, to be appointed by the Govt’s Leader of the House, and the other (N–1) members to be appointed by the Opposition leader. Given the tyically three-sided nature of Queensland politics (Labor – Coalition – DLP/ QLP in the 1950s, Labor – Liberal – National in the 1980s, Labor – Coalition – One Nation in the 1990s, and possibly Labor – LNP – Katterites/ One Nation over the next decade… this state really needs to get rid of its unstable and fragmentising system of proportional representation, doesn’t it), this has led to some interesting debates.
        Likewise if the Constitution, statute law and/or standing orders refer to “second-largest” or (sometimes) “third-largest party”… occasionally objections will be raised that this means a genuine organisational alliance, and not merely several Independents agreeing to tell the Speaker they form a “party”. (The Standing Orders-es that I’ve seen usually decouple “party” in the sense of what Germans would call a parliamentary “fraktion”, a caucus bloc, from the legal provisions for registering “parties” for electoral and financial purposes – eg, “parties” that have only MPs as members vs “parties” that rank-and-file voters can join too).


      • So I will enhanced your goodness by asking a question that I have: who is the leader of the opposition in WA? The Nationals’ leader should be by every precedent. But as no one will see the Nationals as the next potential government, will the Liberal leader get the attention?


      • It’s at the discretion of the speaker. My view is that it should go to the largest current opposition party unless a majority of non-government members decide otherwise.


    • (* I don’t think UK Labour has a binding rule that all its leading centre-right figures have to be named Andrew or Andy – it’s just a 35% target or quota.)


  4. Pingback: Israel 2021a preview | Fruits and Votes

  5. I think that is the rule in Israel. Not sure if it is formalized, or just convention: The leader of the largest non-government party is Opposition Leader normally, but the opposition parties collectively can choose someone else instead. This came up following one of the gazillion recent elections, when there was some consternation of the possibility that the head of an anti-system party (the Joint List) might become the formal leader of the opposition.

    In that system the role of Opposition Leader is not very important, unlike under Westminster practice.


    • It’s not very Westminster, but I’d think it fairly self-evident that in edge cases it should be up to the non-government members rather than the speaker, or as in some Caribbean countries, the governor-general.


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