Embracing primaries

Political parties in many parts of the world are turning to US-style contests to spur intraparty competition

Updated: March 18, 2014 12:15:43 am

By Sasha Issenberg
Those seeking evidence that the US retains an ability to export democracy in the 21st century should turn their attention away from city squares in Kiev and Cairo to more peaceful terrain where a major global devolution of control from political elites is underway. Ascendant parties in France, Italy, Argentina and Canada are now led by figures chosen under new systems designed to spur intramural competition by widening the circle of people empowered to choose party leaders.

Like bluegrass and Abstract Expressionism, the party primary is a unique creation of the American 20th century, an alternative to the “smoke-filled rooms” that dominated politics in the 19th. In the rest of the world, however, parties effectively remained clubs, bounded by pledges and membership fees, with responsibility for selecting candidate lists tightly controlled by steering committees.

Now many party leaders are choosing to relinquish that authority in exchange for developing better relationships with the type of casual backers whom one former Canadian prime minister dismissed as “tourists”. Faced in particular with a desire to gain intelligence about the electorate — in countries where both laws and culture impede the type of large-scale collection of voter data common in the US — party leaders are hoping to lure participants with primaries. Around the world, the model is the long 2008 campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, which for all its ferocity served as a recruitment and organising tool for the Democratic party.

In the US, party officials frequently voice their exasperation with the primary process, which emboldens activists with niche concerns and forces nominees to contort to their extreme demands. When Republican leaders decided in January to wrest back some control of their party’s presidential nomination, largely by tightening its 2016 primary calendar, they portrayed it as a party performing its natural duty. Americans adopted primaries to keep party bosses from exerting too much of that control. Primaries were among a series of innovations by turn-of-the-century reformers looking to expand direct democracy that culminated with the 1913 constitutional amendment to let a state’s voters, instead of state legislatures, elect its senators.

Starting in the late 20th century, a handful of countries, led by those, like Taiwan and Argentina, with acute fears of authoritarianism, embraced legal reforms to promote what political scientists call “intraparty democracy”. The primary elections that followed were still relatively exclusive, often with proof of party membership required to receive a ballot. The worldwide vogue for primaries is “more tactical than ideological,” says Susan E. Scarrow, a political scientist at the University of Houston who is working on a book about party membership. Opposition parties are particularly eager to find ways to interact with supporters outside of election season.

The popularity of primaries points up an existential conundrum facing political parties. There are signs of their looming irrelevance: Around the world, parties have struggled to hold on to their members, especially younger ones. Yet parties are uniquely suited to take advantage of innovations in modern electioneering, where experiments have demonstrated the exceptional value of face-to-face contact in campaigns. The strongest draw may be the type of high-intensity internal conflict that political parties and extended families do best. Where once party leaders feared infighting, now they are building institutions that will encourage it.

The writer is the Washington correspondent for ‘Monocle’The New York Times

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