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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Combining competition and subsidiarity will be the key to a compromise for a PES primary.- Aymeric Lorthiois

Since the early twentieth century, from Canada to Japan without forgetting Europe, history is full of examples of political parties that agreed to democratize the process of selection of their leading candidate in order to overcome an unprecedented defeat. With a reduced influence in the European Parliament (25% of the seats) as well as in the EU Council (20% of the states and 16% of the population), the PES finds itself indeed in such a situation.

This poses naturally the question of a primary election to select the PES candidate for Commission president for the 2014 elections. The idea is not only to democratise the party, but also to give PES a presidential candidate who, more than just a good spokesman, would be able to draw a direct link with progressive voters and initiate the return to power of the party in Europe. Such a presidential candidate is not something one can improvise. Nor can we expect the leaders of PES member parties to take the risk of this designation themselves. In reality, only PES members can take responsibility for such a designation. Only they can lead the different contenders to work on their programmes, to strengthen their capacity to gain supporters, and to better meet the expectations of voters.

However, to ensure an ambitious choice, the PES primary will have to conciliate two objectives: first to take into account the specificities of PES member parties; and then to organise a visible and long-time competition resulting in an unambiguous choice.

A primary declined nationally

Currently, out of 30 PES member parties, only 11 select their national party leader through a primary, with very different rules from one party to another. The majority of PES member parties actually prefers to stick to a more restricted process: a vote by party delegates gathered at a specific party convention with 130 to 1,700 participants. Faced with such diversity of systems, the PES primary can find a compromise allowing member parties to keep on working according to their conception of internal democracy.

The PES primary should thus be an indirect primary, phased into two stages: State by State, PES members would first select the member parties’ delegates, before a delegates convention takes place for nominating the PES presidential candidates. Though indirect, this process would still remain a primary, as long as PES activists would elect “pledged” delegates that have openly committed to vote for a specific candidate. The remaining problem would be the overall allocation of delegates’ seats between member parties, preferably on the basis of the composition of the European Parliament.

This system would allow each member party to appoint its delegates according to the procedure that suits him best, the general principle being that PES members should be involved. This way, in order to select its delegates, the British Labour party could apply the method of the three electoral colleges already used for the designation of its national leader, giving one third of votes to the trade unions, and one third to parliamentarians. The Italian PD and the Greek PASOK could, in turn, make the choice of open primaries. Finally, the most reluctant member parties may, if necessary, derogate from the general principle of consulting PES activists by devolving the selection of their delegates to a more restricted party assembly.

A visible competition and an unambiguous choice

The objective of such a system is also to lead to an ambitious candidate that is well-identified among voters. In this view, the process should aim at organising an open and fair competition attracting media coverage and leading to an unambiguous choice.
First, the process should not be artificially restricted to a handful of authorised candidates. In order to avoid suspicion on the preliminary qualification of candidates, any PES member should be able to run for the presidential nomination provided she or he obtains the sponsorship of a limited number of PES elected representatives in different countries.

Then, another important question is the timing of the different ballots. One of the primary strengths of the US primaries is indeed its timing. The phasing of individual States’ votes over several months leads candidates to work on their project and to move the campaign on the ground, while maintaining the suspense about the final outcome. Such a timetable would be an asset for a PES primary.

Finally, we should prevent the entire process from resulting in an equivocal outcome, which would compel the party to an unlikely compromise and cast doubt on the whole process. To avoid this as much as possible, the type of majority to be achieved in the delegates’ convention in order to gain the party’s nomination should be simple and clear: the absolute majority of the delegates should be sufficient. All the more so as this very rule applies for the election of the Commission president by the European Parliament.

Aymeric Lorthiois,
Supporter of the Campaign for a PES primary

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