Thursday 19 August 2010

PES September Seminar: Primaries

The PES Primary Campaign activists have been invited to the September seminar of the PES in Brussels. The seminar is the beginnning of the internal PES debate on the Presidental candidate selection process. It's great to see this worthwhile campaign not only getting recognition from the party, but also being invited into discussions on how to shape the election process.

There are still many important questions on how a primary would be carried out:

"We will shortly provide details for supporters to give their ideas on what Desmond and José should present to the seminar in Brussels. We want to start a debate amongst PES activists and supporters on how they think the selection of our candidate should be organised. How should candidates be nominated? How should they be selected? Who should get to vote in the primaries? How should those votes be counted? Should the votes be weighted like the QMV votes are weighted in the European Council?"

Personally, I think that the voting should be internal to the party, to ensure that the PES and it's policies have a greater voice in the election. A criticism of the EP from Simon Hix, is that while the EP actually represents the average EU voter quite well, representing the average voter isn't really the point of the parliament. In the same way, the PES candidate should be selected by PES members, so that party membership has value (what better way to encourage participation in the Europarties than to give membership a real meaning by opening up opportunities for participation?), and that the candidate represents a truly "PES face" in the election. As for the internal electoral system, that's a more complicated question.

Thinking aloud, the candidate should be selected on the vote of the party members (without special weight attached to MPs, Councillors, MEPs), but I think that votes should be weighted to increase the say of the member parties of smaller member states. Otherwise it could lead to the debate and participation of the smaller states being neglected. On the other hand, the weighting needs to be carefully balanced, so that the majority needed isn't so great that only bland "all things to all people" candidiates are chosen. When it comes to nominations, I think that several methods could be used: a certain number of MEPs, MPs and members as supporters could be required to nominate someone for the primaries (perhaps the "voting value" of MEPs, MPs and members could be "translatable" at the nomination stage (e.g. 1 MEP = 15 MPs)).

Finally, an interesting question is how this would impact on the border make-up of the Commission. Since a coalition is likely to almost always be needed to elect the Commission President, what form will coalition politics at the European level take? Would PES coalition partners be satisfied with commitments to certain legislative proposals in the Commission's manifesto - or will coalition partners hold out for seats around the Commission table itself? Since the EP has to approve the whole Commission, the EP has the power to force the issue if the member states remain wedded to picking their own political favourites for the Commission; while there has to be a Commissioner member from every member state, it is not a requirement that each member be from the governing party of their member state. Even at a basic level we could ask, if there's an EPP majority in the Council, but a PES-led coalition majority in the EP and PES President of the Commission, then why should the Commission be conservative by majority? The Commission has votes on proposals it puts before the Council and EP, so why should a PES (or EPP) President be outvoted by an EPP (or PES) majority in the Commission? Afterall, the Commission is accountable as a body to the EP.

It's a question for the future, since we don't even have primaries yet. But it's an important issue, so I think we should keep it in mind. As the Commission becomes more accountable to the European Parliament, and its membership a question at the European elections, the rationale for allowing its membership to almost automatically mirror the Council's will be increasingly undermined.


  1. Eurocentric,

    You are quite right to follow this initiative by PES activists for a primary, because it has the potential to introduce more democratic practices with regard to the elections to the European Parliament and the face of the Commission.

    Your added merit is that you discuss how the primary should be devised, taking various aspects into account.

    In my view there are arguments for both closed and open primaries, but let us see what the discussion brings with it.

  2. Hi Conor ... you raise some crucial points for the Campaign. As Ralf says, there are arguments both for and against open and closed primaries.

    Closed primaries would, indeed, give considerable added value to party membership. The crucial dependency in this campaign will be gaining the support of the 33 PES national member parties across Europe and they are much more likely to support a closed primary. It will also serve to strengthen the relationship betwen the national parties and the PES, a key objective of the Prague Congress last December.

    Weighed against that is the indeterminable consequences of open primaries. The campiagn itslf has already attracted much positive coment and support from people outside of our political family. Open primaries would explore the potential for that interest to be translated into a successful election campaign in 2014.

    In truth, the stakes could not be higher for the PES in this campaign. All these ideas speak powerfully to the unavoidable fact that the PES must reform or die!

    Regards .. Desmond.
    Desmond O'Toole
    Campaign for a PES Primary.

  3. My preference for closed primaries is probably a reflection of my feelings on party membership. I think that party membership should be given value to encourage people to join the parties closest to their ideological preferences. I feel that people view policy as a kind of comsumer market, where parties produce options and voters "buy into" them, and perhaps this has led to the common complaint that "none of the parties represent me". Party membership isn't for everyone, but the more that party membership narrows, the less representative and engaged parties will be (and perhaps the more dependent they will be on focus groups). /rant.

    Anyway, there are many ways that the primaries could be held, so I hope to see a wide-ranging debate on the topic. Hopefully the suggestions and ideas gathered by the campaign will be posted on their blog to open the debate to non-party members who support the campaign.

  4. @ Desmond

    You and Ralf are right that there are advantages to open primaries, such as involving the public more early on in the campaign, and gauging the support of the public in the run-up to the election. Still, I tend to view the election itself as the opportunity of the wider public to deliver the verdict, and in that sense I think that closed primaries would be better at expressing the opinions and face of the party that the public might elect to power. No doubt "electability" would be an ever-present factor in members' minds when casting their ballot.

    It sounds like tactically speaking, closed primaries would go down better in the party, and be a good way of introducing them, and them perhaps opening them op later.

    That's not to say I'm totally opposed to the idea of open primaries, or wedded to the ideas I've written about above, so I hope to hear more ideas and debate in the following weeks!

  5. Don't forget: the apparent borderlines between the different selection models (1- a vote by a handful of congress delegates, 2- a closed primary, 3- or an open primary), can be blurred.

    You'd say: a closed primary is always more open than a selection by party delegates during a congress. This assertion looks rather obvious. But what if the party delegates designating the leading candidate have been themselves directly elected by party members? What if they are so-called "pledged delegates", that committed to vote for a specific candidate during the congress?

    Now take the distinction between a closed and an open primary: by definition, the closed primary involves only party members, while open primaries target a far broader "selectorate": all declared party supporters, and even sometimes anyone willing to take part.
    But imagine a closed primary in which all members can participate, including those that joined the party two days before the ballot only by paying 10$ (that’s what the Canadian progressive-conservative party did in the nineties)?
    A counterexample: take an open primary in which all citizens can participates, but in which there will be only one candidate in accordance with a gentleman's agreement made by party leaders before the primary...

  6. You're right, Anonymous, there are a bewildering variety of forms that selection by primary might take. Conscious of this, the Campaign has focussed on a very straight-forward objecive, i.e. that the PES selects its candidate for Commission President through a democratic primary process involving all of the individual members of the PES parties.

    This is the decision that we are campaigning for the PES Council in Warsaw in December to take. The detail of how the primaries should be structured, i.e. how candidates are nominated, voted on and finally endorsed, is a matter for debate once the principle has been won.

    Regards ... Desmond.
    Desmond O'Toole
    Campaign for a PES Primary