On a representative democracy, political parties are the vehicles for ascertaining and representing people’s interests, and free election is the last hope of citizens to have a say in their government. This thesis is well-established and needs no defense. Dictatorships do not pretend to recognize or respect the people’ s right to have a say in their government. But a representative democracy that recognizes that right must concretize it through periodic elections open to all eligible citizens.
The issue that has always posed a dilemma for political parties in their role as vehicles for ascertaining and representing the interest of their members is this: are parties also subject to the norms of democracy? If not, why not? If yes, how might they discharge this responsibility and remain free and competitive?
In what may be described as the distinctive contribution of our political system to democratic practice, we have come up with two answers to this question. But we really appear to have pitched our tent with just one of them. First, to give every party member the right to choose or be chosen as candidates of the party for a local, state, or federal election, we subscribe to the democratic norm which opens the field to every member interested in a political office to canvass for the party’s nomination. Our unique name for this is “direct primary”. Many democrats defend this option for its openness. It is also the practice in advanced democracies.
Second, however, for several reasons that we have identified to fault direct primary, we devise a different practice toward the same end. In this second practice, candidates for party nomination are elected by party delegates who are themselves either elected through an electoral college system or are selected in virtue of their positions as party executives at various levels, ward, local government, and state.
One of the reasons we adduce for our aversion to direct primary is that there is a great danger of it creating rancor and bitterness within the party, a self-inflicted wound which may not heal before the general election. Second is the fear of the use of big money during direct primary, a situation that may favor the filthy rich whose purpose is to buy election to serve his or her personal interest without any loyalty to the party’s ideology. Third, even when money politics is reined in, and party members are well-disciplined and capable of making their preference felt though direct primary, the choice they make may be limited by their understanding of the issues. And such popular choices may fail to deliver on party programs.
For those concerned about the foregoing issues with direct primary, indirect primary is the answer. Notice, however, that each of the two variants of indirect primary solves only one or more problems that have been attributed to direct primary. The system of electoral college does not really solve the problem of the abuse of money in politics. The filthy rich and/or their supporters may still buy the votes of delegates at the various levels. A presidential candidate can use surrogates from ward to state levels to elect his or her preferred delegates to the national convention. This appears more often than we care to admit in our current system. Furthermore, just like in direct primary, there is no guarantee that a candidate elected through an electoral college will be more in tune with party principles and ideology than one elected directly by all eligible party members.
From the foregoing, it appears that neither direct primary nor electoral college primary can guarantee an outcome that is consistent with the principles and ideals that a party stands for and which it prefers to have exemplified by its candidate. In that case, party leaders may prefer an alternative indirect primary in which they constitute themselves as the delegates for the election or selection of its candidates. After all, the leaders know best where the party shoe pinches. They may therefore use that sacred knowledge to pick “consensus” candidates.
Beside the assurance that this option avoids electing a candidate who is not in tune with party ideology, it is also presented as one that avoids irresolvable internal conflicts which may jeopardize the interest of the party in a general election. The fear of post-primary conflicts may not be unfounded where electoral malpractice is suspected, or where there are sore losers. While the former can be remedied, the later cannot. What is unclear is how pervasive the phenomenon of sore losers is.
We may now ask of the alternative of leadership selection by consensus: what recommends it and what is its weakness? It should also be noted that this approach has been used regularly by all political parties in our system since 1999. A second point to note is that in almost all cases where it has been adopted, it does not appear that the leaders see it from any other prism than that it is a second best which is warranted by the circumstance of our immature democracy and the economic deprivation of the populace. Party leaders therefore play the role of benevolent seers who know best the interest of the party and its members.
A look at one feature of this approach which is usually referenced as its appeal will make the foregoing point clearer. Democracy is adored as a system that respects equality because it affords the people (demos) the opportunity of choosing their leaders. On the other hand, equality without efficiency is an empty rhetoric because a system that protects equality but jeopardizes efficiency cannot deliver the needs of the people. Therefore, democracy must also worry about efficient functioning of the system.
However, while the masses will benefit from an efficient system, they may not be adept in making the choices that promote efficiency. Therefore, a compromise is needed. Party leaders who have the insight into the quality of candidates offering themselves for its nomination, and who understand the importance of the party’s principles and ideals as well as the requirement of efficiency, should be burdened with the choice of party candidates. Then, in a general election, the masses have a choice between the candidate of one or the other party.
Obviously, the reconciliation of equality and efficiency on behalf of the masses is a good thing. However, there is no guarantee that this is the motivation of every party leader who embraces the consensus approach. There are selfless leaders and there are selfish leaders. As the skin that covers the stomach prevents us from knowing the innermost part of an evil doer, so we are unable to determine the motive of a party leader who supports candidate selection by consensus.
Some leaders have effectively used the approach to the benefit of their people and state by identifying and supporting good candidates who turn out to work hard for the people. In other cases, however, the self-serving motive of party leaders has done nothing but hurt the people and the party. Therefore, selection by consensus cannot legitimately be our default position.
More to the point, however, the argument that direct primary leads to internal conflict is at best tenuous. For if it is not well-managed by a charismatic leader who is trusted by the people, a consensus arrangement is also prone to internal conflict aggravated by the resentment of imposition. Again, we have experienced variants of such crises in our body politic in recent years.
What then is the best approach? It depends on what our goal is. If our goal is to deepen democracy, then the earlier we started getting our people in the mood, and engaging in serious political education, the better. We cannot continually underrate our readiness for tested democratic practices, without undermining our chance of political maturing. If, on the other hand, we are not worried about democracy but are more concerned about efficiency, then we are likely to grow political leaders who will benefit the masses without giving them the chance to a free choice of their representatives. But, as we know, a tool that is not utilized will soon degenerate.
Filed Under: Politics / 4 years ago