Participation, Transparency, Action: Primary Election as Political Innovation

No source indicated || Originally published by the Huffington Post

In Hungary the democratic opposition struggles with the lack of visibility, trust and the capacity to act. Those voters who left the governing Fidesz party do not join the opposition. In order to stimulate the latter, the Republikon Institute proposes to introduce primary elections. We believe that this instrument of narrowing the field of candidates helps also to enhance media attention and involve citizens, thus increase the trust in the democratic opposition.

According to traditional concepts, the criteria of electoral success are mostly connected to the political content, thus party programs are vital determinants of electoral behavior. However, since the 1960s, it is a widely shared opinion among analysts and experts, that instead of party manifestos, the political socialization, previous experiences and popular beliefs about political parties are the decisive factors. As a consequence, the communication of content, the “sales” of politics – political marketing, became more relevant and mobilization of voters gained more importance.

Both voters and politicians realized these changes. Social movements recognizing their power, as well as due to the expansion of higher education and the financial crisis, demand more transparency and more participation in decision making. In the meantime, some countries and politicians had actually made a step towards involving people in the democracy.

What Is This All About?

The primary election system is based on the idea that the potential representatives should be chosen by a wide group of people, not just by the members of a given party or a sole individual. It brings about transparency, simplifies and explains the process of elections for the voters. There are several examples for primary elections, especially in the USA or in Europe – the election has to suit to the political situation and culture of a given country.

Primary Elections in Europe

Some European countries were inspired by the example of the USA when they started to use primary election. It became a regular tool both in France and in Italy, but there are several other countries where this concept appears in use, such as England, Spain, Germany, Poland and Romania. If we analyze the history of primary election in France, we may see that the six relevant events happened with different conditions and voters.

The concept of primary election in France is strongly connected to the Socialist Party – primary election is there in use since 1995 (with just one exception in 2002). In 1995 the Socialist Party introduced the first primary election in the country to choose a candidate for the presidential election. The primary election was closed; just party-members had the right to vote for the two candidates. Although Lionel Jospin won more than 65% of the total votes on the primary election, he could not win on the national election against Jacques Chirac. In 2006, the pattern has continued – the primary election-winner Ségoléne Royal lost the national elections against Nicolas Sarkozy and created a lot of critiques on the left-wing that the process is not built on relevant social support. The right-wing also used primary election; two times for the position of the mayor of Paris and once for the position of the president. In 2011, the majority of the left-wing voters were mobilized and this enabled the development of the old system with modern elements so it became an open structured election for the first time. This latest primary election was held to choose a candidate for the president, but the Socialist Party has extended the group of voters – for the first time, not just party-members could vote on the primary election, but everyone who has signed a contract about shared ideology with the parties and paid one euro. The members of the youth organizations could also vote above the age of 15. Absolute majority was needed for winning – if it did not occur in the first round, a second round took place with the two strongest candidates. The first person to win the hearts of the 2 parties on the primary election was Francois Hollande. Later on, he won also the national elections against Nicolas Sarkozy, which legitimized the success and effect of the primary election.

The highest number of primary elections in Europe was held in Italy; the election of most of the positions via this instrument became regular starting with the year 2000. The precondition of this was the change of the political system in the mid 90’s, when the proportional system was changed to majority system. As a similarity to France, there is no unified formula for the process of primary elections, but the region of Toscana created a regional one. The first primary election was held in 1995 by the Lega Nord; it was a closed type election, just party-members could vote. The most remarkable primary election was the one in 2005, when Romano Prodi was chosen as a candidate for the prime minister position. In Italy, 57 primary elections were held in total, in 26 cases for the position of major and in 17 cases for the position of regional president. The most important elections were the choice of the prime minister candidate two times, and the president of the party once.

There were several examples of primary elections also in England. The local organizations of the parties not just announce the event and the time, they also select the potential candidates. The voters do not have to certify their political views, they can participate by sending their votes and the election is open in every case. Generally in England, the process of the primary election is based on the idea “the winner takes it all”, which means that relative majority is sufficient for winning.

In Germany, the Green Party announced a closed primary election in 2013. The voters had two votes for the four candidates – the winners were those who got the two highest percentage rates. The two representatives of the party were elected and they are still in the parliament.

Primary Election in Hungary

Necessity of primary election for the democratic opposition is based on several factors. A new electoral law was accepted in 2012 which has generated big changes in the electoral system: it strengthened a majority electoral system instead of the previous more proportional one. In the previous system, there had to be an absolute majority, even with holding a second round. In the new system, there is just one round with a relative majority without validity and efficiency thresholds. This means that the winner can win the position even with 30% in the new system, so the opposition parties do not have the opportunity to cooperate in the second round, they only have one chance to win the area. Another factor, which creates a strong majority electoral system, is the “winner-compensation”. In contrary of the previous system, from 2014 not just the “loosing” parties gained compensational votes, but also the winner one, which is also against the proportional electoral system. With these new conditions, the oppositional parties have two main interests: the first one is to find a candidate, who has the widest supportive background and who can win the most of the votes on an election. The other one is to minimize the compensation of the winning party, by gaining almost similar numbers of votes, or – of course – more.

The Hungarian opposite parties face two big issues. From one side they can find a – rather hard and risky way to cooperate – as we could see before the elections of 2014. On the other side, the Hungarian left wing struggles with the lack of credibility, trust and being perceived as incompetent. This is precisely the reason why the voters who stopped supporting the governing Fidesz party do not join the opposition.

Despite other alternative models of primary elections (negotiation between the ‘leaders’; chosen by the members of the party, open primary election and public polls) Republikon Institute proposes a structured, mutually agreed and respected method: primary election to stimulate the Hungarian opposition, to narrow down the field of candidates of the Hungarian democratic opposition, and to enhance its transparency and credibility through the process.

The proposal is twofold: one part deals with the election of the potential prime minister; the other one is the election of the 106 potential representatives from all around the country. The potential prime minister candidates have to collect 5000 recommendations in 10 days, the regional potential candidates have to collect 250. Candidates do not need to be politicians – representatives of civil organizations can be nominated as well. To be a candidate, they have to agree to the rules of the primary elections and sign a contract of shared values, which is also signed by the voters. Apart from this, the voters have to register before the election online or personally. There is no special criterion who is allowed to vote or not (like being a party-member). The cost of the elections is paid by the parties who join the primaries.

Before the primary elections, the candidates have to visit every region during 8-10 weeks period. Parallel to this, the election of the regional candidates is going on. The campaign involves local debates and personal votes, which guarantees that there will be a stronger relation between the voters and the candidates, and that the candidates will take seriously every region.

Essentially, the three main benefits of the primary elections are as follows: strengthening participatory democracy; the regulated competition on the left side; the cooperation of the civil and political sphere. And, hopefully, the more successful performance of the democratic opposition parties at the next Hungarian elections will be held in 2018.

The article is a summary of the publication of Republikon Institute titled ‘Participation, transparency, action: primary election as political innovation’ published in Hungarian, supported by the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung für die Freiheit. It analyzes the international practices of primary elections in Europe, and gives a detailed proposal of primary election for the Hungarian opposition.

Republikon Institute