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When people don’t like their president – how to choose candidates for highest office

Date:06 February 2017
Author:Andreas T. Schmidt
Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel
Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel

The US elections last year were historically remarkable for many reasons, one of which is that it presented American voters with a choice between two historically unpopular candidates. No surprise then that the chosen president started with record low approval ratings and has already alienated large segments of American society.

Republicans and Democrats are not the only parties running unpopular candidates – although their example is probably the most dramatic. In a surprise moment in British politics, Jeremy Corbyn became Labour party leader in 2015, buoyed by a wave of new, young party members voting for “Jezza” as an alternative to politics as usual. Corbynites have been quick to brand their success as a grassroots democratic revolution. Yet the electorate refuses to be impressed. Even when the Tories were in turmoil over Brexit, Labour failed to rise in the polls. Lacking a popular party leader is not an entirely new experience for Labour. In previous years, Labour had repeatedly tried to make former opposition leader Ed Miliband look more prime ministerial. To no avail. Unfairly or fairly, British people did not think Ed Miliband would make for a good PM, no matter how many spinning attempts Labour undertook to reinvent Ed.

Democracy involves more than holding elections, and elections should be more than mere popularity contests. Nonetheless, democratic institutions are weakened, if voters have to choose from candidates few people like and many dislike. Is there a better way to choose candidates running for highest office?

Received wisdom has it that democracies should favour primary elections wherein all party members have a say. It might be time to question received wisdom. Last week, the SPD nominated former European parliament president and party hopeful Martin Schulz for the upcoming federal election. Interestingly, the head-to-head between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz will involve two popular candidates. Neither, however, was chosen in a primary election. Rather than its members, it was the SPD party executive committee that picked Schulz.

While primary elections make parties more democratic, they can fail to secure suitable candidates. More party democracy does not necessarily translate into more democracy overall. This is not entirely surprising. Even sizeable membership numbers are at best a tiny and unrepresentative fraction of the relevant electorate – something that casts doubt on the Corbynite grassroots democratic aspirations. Moreover, with individual votes not making much of a difference, party members might be inclined to vote for candidates that come closest to their personal views but not necessarily for the candidate most suited to win elections.

Is the German alternative better? Should party executives pick the candidate? In one respect, such a system provides those executives with better incentives, because popular candidates augment their own chances to be in government rather than opposition. Moreover, avoiding American-style months of primary electioneering frees up time and prevents candidates from laying into each other to secure nomination (something that typically does not bolster the candidates’ popularity either). Of course, these points in no way settle the case and better answers might be out there that avoid pitfalls of both executive decisions and primary elections. Moreover, unpopular candidates might also reflect a more general disconnect between voters and the political establishment, increasing political polarisation and declining social cohesion. Whatever the correct answer, recent elections show that political parties must do better. Selecting more popular candidates should be part of that effort.


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