Primary and practice

The Congress experiment may call forth unintended consequences.

Published: February 7, 2014 2:42:29 am
In theory, primary selection makes parties more likely to respond to the views of the electorate. But in practice, this is not always the case.  (AP) In theory, primary selection makes parties more likely to respond to the views of the electorate. But in practice, this is not always the case.

By: Alistair McMillan

The Congress experiment may call forth unintended consequences.

The Congress party’s decision to introduce primary elections to select Lok Sabha candidates seeks to empower party workers and open up new opportunities for advancement through the party. Strengthening party democracy and opening up the process through which candidates are selected should be a popular move, but international experience suggests that primary elections can have unexpected consequences for the quality of representation.

The Congress isn’t the first party to see primary elections as a means to re-legitimise a moribund party organisation associated with weak government and corruption. The Spanish Socialist Party used primary elections to choose its leader after the party’s reputation was tarnished in the 1990s, but when the party members selected an outsider, José Borrell, the establishment fought back and he was forced to resign before getting a chance to fight the general election. In Mexico in 2000, when the once dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party was forced to respond to a real democratic challenge, it turned to a presidential primary to present itself as a party open to new ideas and competition. It was not enough to defeat the challenge of Vicente Fox of the Alliance for Change.

Although presented as “US style” primaries, the Congress scheme only allows party members and officials to have a say in the candidate selection process. In the US, primaries are often “open” to any registered voter, widening out the public participation process. And while primary elections certainly provide an opportunity to widen political engagement, remember that voter turnout in the US is remarkably low.

In Britain, the Conservative party has adopted open primaries for selecting candidates in a small number of constituencies. With a shrinking and socially unrepresentative membership, the party has seen primary elections as a way to rejuvenate the local support base and broaden the appeal of the party. Candidate selection becomes a media event, and raises the profile of candidates prior to the election. In a system where many seats are “safe”, it is seen as giving the public a real influence over who becomes a member of parliament.

The Labour party in Britain has seen one member, one vote (OMOV) as a central part of reforms aimed to redress a tortuous organisational history, which has been seen to hinder the party’s electoral success and popular responsiveness. Tony Blair saw OMOV as a way of democratising the Labour party, characterised by a traditional link with trade unions and an activist base which has often placed factional battles before electoral considerations. However, there were tensions between the New Labour project as envisaged by Blair and the beliefs of the grassroots party membership. These tensions were most obvious in 2000, when the party leadership changed the selection process for the candidate for London mayor to prevent leftwinger Ken Livingstone from being chosen.

The Labour party sought to balance the popular appeal of primary elections with strong central control over which people could stand for selection as party candidates. It is a practice the Congress seems to be copying: opening up the process of selection while keeping close control of the options available to the primary electorate. Whether this is enough to constrain a factionalised party organisation with little ideological coherence remains to be seen.

In the US, it has been argued that there is a “primary penalty”, where candidates selected through primary elections are less effective in winning competitive elections. The suggestion is that the selectorate for primary elections can have an agenda that is partisan and unresponsive to the wider electorate. An example would be the mobilisation of the Tea Party movement to influence the selection of Republican party candidates. This sort of activist capture led to the Republicans fielding candidates with extreme opinions on issues such as abortion and public services, which led to moderate Republicans and independents deserting the party in the 2012 election.

The concept of the “primary penalty” has also been used to explain electoral outcomes in Latin America, where, in many countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay, parties have used primaries to select candidates for presidential elections. According to political scientist Josep Colomer, internal democracy can reduce popular support in a general election, and primaries tend to choose weaker presidential candidates.

Yet presidential primaries can be defended as providing opportunities for less well-known candidates to raise their profile, and for party members to unite behind a chosen candidate. Empirical studies of Latin American elections have indicated that candidates endorsed by primary elections get a boost of around 5 per cent in popular support. An example comes from Brazil, where Luiz Ignácio (Lula) da Silva, despite having been defeated in three previous presidential elections, won the Worker’s Party primary election and used this as a springboard to success in the 2002 presidential election.

Candidate selection by primaries has broader implications for party organisation and electoral politics. In theory, primary selection makes parties more likely to respond to the views of the electorate. But in practice, this is not always the case. Evidence suggests that primary elections have mixed implications for the representativeness of the party system.

Decentralisation of the selection process may also make the overall slate of candidates less diverse. The “tyranny of small decisions” may be a consequence, where politicians from minorities or women applicants lose out to those from dominant groups. Each constituency is focused on its own selection process, rather than thinking about how the overall selection process reflects the broader diversity of the party and the electorate.

Party primaries may also have an influence on the ideological coherence of a party programme, and the way that the elected candidates behave in the legislature. MPs and MLAs who are selected by a primary election may feel that they are responsible to the party members in their constituency who chose them rather than the party leadership. This could make enforcing party discipline and pushing forward a legislative programme more problematic.

The fact that the Congress party organisation is not completely behind the idea of candidate selection through primaries is already evident. An indication of underlying tension is shown by the decision to scale back the scheme from 25 to 16 constituencies, and the speedy reversal of the decision to use a primary in Kapil Sibal’s Chandni Chowk constituency. There will certainly be further party machinations regarding the composition of the primary electorate and the process of determining a winner.

Rahul Gandhi’s call for the democratisation of the Congress recalls the attempt by his father, Rajiv Gandhi, to do the same in the 1980s. There is an obvious paradox in a dynastic leadership pressing for a more open and meritocratic party system, and earlier reform attempts floundered. Democratisation of the grassroots is a worthy cause, but it would be more effective if the party leadership shared the principles of openness and accountability.

The writer teaches at the University of Sheffield, UK and is author of ‘Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India’

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