Yesterday, the Democratic Party (PD) was supposed to have unveiled the way that they will choose the leader of the centre-left coalition for the next elections due in spring. Instead, once again, they put off the final details, promising them in the coming week but the two main candidates did agree on a couple of fundamental points.
Party secretary and obvious frontrunner, Pierluigi Bersani and his main rival, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi decided that there should be a register of voters for the primaries and in the event of no candidate winning an absolute majority, there would be a run-off.
The primary problem is that imported political plants do not grow in the same way as they did in native soil.
The Americans invented primaries long ago to choose candidates for most political offices but an institution which seems simple, straightforward and effective is actually a mystery even to most Americans apart from the most dedicated political wonks. For the rest of us, the word and the process only hit our radar every four years and only then for the choice of presidential candidates.
It is a process which has developed over more than a century to meet different needs in different places and times. It is not regulated by the federal government and on occasions, even state governments have little to do with them. There are not quite as many versions as there are states, but almost.
Most foreigners (and a good number of Americans) think that voters from a party decide which candidate they prefer and that the one that wins goes on to face the other candidate.
It’s not quite like that.
Some states don’t even have primaries – they caucus, which is a polite way of saying that a few interested people get into a huddle and reach some sort of consensus. There may be no procedural rules or they may be very flexible.
The states that do have primaries each organise them in very different ways. In some, only registered members of the party may vote (“closed”), in others anyone may vote (“open”) meaning that a registered Democrat can vote for the least likely to win Republican or vice versa or the one most agreeable to him. In others, registered independents or undeclared voters can vote in either Democratic or Republican primaries (“semi-open” or “semi-closed”). The weight of results is also highly variable; in some states, the winner takes all the state’s delegates, in others, the delegates match the proportion of votes.
[For a detailed account up to 1997, see James Davis’s U.S. Presidential Primaries and the Caucus-Convention System: A Sourcebook. My thanks to Marcella Morris, UMd, for pointing this out to me].
There are a few PD members who understand the dark arts of primaries but most just think of the results they hope for. But as with the much more serious question of the national electoral system, the first question to answer is “who do we want to win?” Or on the rare occasion that an electoral system is changed without ulterior motives, “what principle do we want to uphold?”
In the beginning, in Italy, Romano Prodi needed legitimation for his leadership; he had no party and because of that in 1998 was rudely shafted. Before leading a new coalition, he wanted support which came from the electorate and not the parties. The operation succeeded at least until one of those parties withdrew their support.
Walter Veltroni had the same reasons when he launched the Democratic Party in 2007; a popular vote would give him at least a façade of support or at best a real power base.
Primaries seemed a good way of raising party and personal profiles. The problem and big difference with the US is that it was never clear whether the primary was to chose the leader of a party or a coalition of parties. All the Italian electoral systems in practice demand coalitions so the primaries rapidly became mechanisms for choosing the coalition leader and the problems began when the “wrong” people (ie outside the nomenclature of the biggest party, the PD) starting winning the primaries for regional and city elections. The other big difference is that there is no party programme that conferences have debated and candidates have to stick to.
The PD leadership did not prepare the ground for next year’s elections; the scent of victory was so intoxicating that they did not realise that the old guard would have to justify its hold on political power and the privilege (not right) to lead the victorious coalition. That primary genie was out of the bottle and will not be put back.
The PD hoped to use the primaries as a way to mobilise potential voters and they are certainly doing this but they had not thought through who was supposed to win or rather how Bersani was supposed to win and by setting the rules now, they risk being accused of manipulation against his main rival, Matteo Renzi. Some of the party leaders have accused Renzi of being an upstart pipsqueak or, worse, being a friend of Berlusconi’s (who has expressed his appreciation of the young Florentine, a real kiss of death, reinforced by an article in the Berlusconi family Il Giornale by arch supporter, Giuliano Ferrara).
For a year now, Renzi has been saying that the oldies should be traded in (rottamare is more brutal – “scrapped” or the American “cash for clunkers” are both more direct but no one is offering the electorate financial incentives if they dump the old guard). There are other candidates and despite occasional whinges about lack of choice, there is a very real choice.
If the US is the model, then the complaints are misplaced. At the moment there are five candidates. Four men and one woman; three from the north, one from the centre and one from the south. Two are over 60, two over 50 and one under 40. Three are within the PD, one to the left and one to the right. Three are or have been regional presidents and one is a regional councillor. Two are Catholic, three are secular; one is gay. It’s actually a pretty good spread to choose from compared to say, this year’s US Republican candidates.
Nonetheless, instead of acting as a window for the party and a launching pad for a leader, the primaries still risk seriously dividing the centre-left.
Their greatest hope is that when the centre-right tries to choose a leader, it will be even more divisive.
Pierluigi Bersani (PD, male, 1951, party secretary, MP, former minister, former pres. Emilia-Romagna, Emilia-Romagna), Matteo Renzi (PD, male, 1975, mayor of Florence, Tuscan), Nichi Vendola (SEL, male, 1958, president Apulia, Apulian), Bruno Tabacci (UDC (ex DC), male, 1946, MP, former pres. Lombardy, Lombard), Laura Puppato (PD, female, 1957, Veneto regional councillor, Veneta).