Want intra-party democracy and "clean" candidates? Nominate through primaries, says Faisal Salahuddin
In Bangladesh, the very vehicles of democracy -- the major political parties -- are undemocratic. They are centralized and autocratic -- mostly due to their dynastic nature. Lack of intra-party democracy ultimately catapulted us into the current political crisis in Bangladesh. The fact that even the senior leaders always keep mum when it comes to the party heads reflects the potentially abusive authority of our top leaders. Change is long overdue.
How can we catalyze intra-party democracy and attract "clean" candidates to the political system? The solution lies in revamping the way parties nominate their parliamentary candidates.
Under the current nomination circus, the party heads nominate candidates through "interviews" behind closed doors in Hawa Bhaban or Dhanmondi. Voters and/or grass-root party members have little say in the process. This, in turn, often marginalizes honest politicians, stifles intra-party competition of honest ideas and candidates, and exports the personal animosity between the two top leaders to the candidate level, perpetuating the cycle of confrontational politics.
This centralized nomination fuels corruption and encourages horse-trading (evidence: the Ershad saga from last year). Democracy gets hijacked by a small coterie of operators around the party heads. Parties become increasingly inflexible and less responsive to the voters' needs.
We need a nomination process where politicians would compete more for voters' approval and less for that of the party heads. We need to eliminate the rent-seeking behaviour rampant in the current process. Furthermore, we as voters need a larger menu of candidates instead of the pre-selected one dictated by the party head.
Here, I argue that nomination through primary elections ("primaries") can combine the above features.
Primaries would democratize the intra-party decision process and decentralize power from Dhanmondi to, say, Dhamrai, from Hawa Bhaban to Hatia. A transparent and decentralized nomination process -- through increased intra-party democracy -- would, as in many countries: i) reduce corruption; ii) encourage honest candidates; iii) increase people's participation.
What is a primary election?
In a primary election, voters in a constituency select the party candidates for the parliamentary election. In other words, primary elections are generally those in which each political party decides its nominee for the upcoming general election by holding an early election among the prospective party nominees (Wikipedia).
Primaries vary, depending on who can vote during the primaries. Some are open only to the registered party voters. In the Bangladeshi context, open primaries -- where a registered voter regardless of his or her own party affiliation can vote -- may make the most sense. It is easier to monitor; it also encourages wider participation. The specific form of primary, however, can be decided thorough national debate.
It is crucial that political parties promote primary challenges -- that is when an elected official is challenged in an upcoming primary election by a member of his own party. Primary challenges would increase the political space within the party and will, thus, be the key to fostering intra-party democracy.
Political parties in the US use primaries to select their candidates for congress or senate. Primaries are also used to select US presidential candidates.
History of primary elections in the US
In the 19th century, the degree of fraud and corruption in America approached (in some cases exceeded) that of today's most corrupt developing nations (hint: Bangladesh), as municipal governments and robber barons alike found new ways to steal from taxpayers and swindle investors (see work on corruption by John Wallis from University of Maryland).
A nexus of corruption between politicians and large businesses exploited common people. The popular backlash to these corrupt practices manifested itself through the Progressive Movement, which fought for, and eventually gave birth to, many of the key US reforms.
These reforms increased transparency and reduced corruption by raising accountability of businesses (e.g. by anti-trust law) and politicians/parties (e.g. by primary elections). The primary election was adopted to undercut the power of local and state political machines, and to bring into the parties fresh candidates, new ideas, and organized constituencies such as unions.
Through the primary process, contenders in the primary election promoted self-critical public debates and strengthened democracy by addressing weaknesses in their own parties. Primaries, thus, increased transparency and accountability within the political parties by allowing intra-party democracy and competition (see work on political competition by Prof. Ansolabehere of MIT).
All reforms create some losers and some winners. The losers from primaries were the corrupt politicians.
The winners included the honest politicians emboldened by the public debate during primaries and, of course, by the people.
Is the US experience relevant for Bangladesh?
Yes. The political dysfunctions in the 19th century US and the 21st century Bangladesh may have different manifestations -- but their diseases are quite similar. The US dysfunctions stemmed from the local and state political machines, which often colluded with businesses. Ours from the dynastic (and undemocratic intra-party) politics. Like today's Bangladesh, the US in the 19th century was undergoing rapid industrialization. Wealth created by industrialization made political corruption attractive, and political patronage lucrative. In the absence of transparency-promoting institutions, incumbent politicians in the local and state legislatures did not want political competition. They subscribed to the winner-takes-all attitude.
Against this backdrop, primaries provided a long awaited platform for local debates and dialogues within the party. Subsequent reduction in systematic corruption in the US political system owes much to primary elections.
The diseases in our major parties are more severe than they were in the US. We, therefore, need a stronger dosage of the same medicine -- political competition through primary elections.
Primaries, coupled with a little bit of sunlight, may cure many chronic political infections.
Why should the parties in Bangladesh support primaries?
Primaries would reestablish trust in our political institutions. Without trust in parties, democracy suffers from power vacuum. Trust is not a zero-sum game; all major parties can enjoy trust surge from nomination reform.
Primaries would be an electoral asset for the parties. As the Latin American experience has shown, parties that adopted primaries tend to do better in the elections (Journal of Politics, 2006).
In fact, the party to first implement primaries may enjoy the first mover's advantage. They may reap the "primary bonus" -- higher electability of their candidates -- because primaries tend to select stronger candidates for the general election (The Journal of Politics, 2006).
Primaries will save the politicians from themselves by increasing competition among them. Transparent debates will make it more "profitable" for a candidate to be honest than to be corrupt, by making them more electable.
Primaries can ensure that party remains above person by allowing timely reforms. These democratic reforms can ultimately ensure the long-term survival of the major parties. Otherwise, parties -- like species or civilizations -- can become extinct unless they evolve with changing times.
One concern could be that primaries might weaken the central authorities. Yes they might. But weakening the central authorities would not necessarily weaken the party. In fact, the opposite will happen. Ultimately, primaries would make the party stronger by making changes at the top through democratic process and by electing the most deserving leader.
Current and would-be politicians should ask their parties to adopt primaries as a hedge against the whims of the party heads and the select few. Honest leaders then would be able to channel their energy toward pleasing the voters who they are supposed to serve -- instead of the party heads and their family members.
Of course the current beneficiaries of the centralized nomination process will not want to relinquish their power. In this regard they may need “encouragement” from all segments of the society. Media can play a vital role. So can the civil society. Now is an historic opportunity to forge consensus among honest politicians, media, civil society and, most important, common citizens to demand transparency in the nomination process.
Why should voters support primaries?
The answer is simple. Through primaries, power would gradually emigrate to voters, who should be the ultimate players in a democracy. The vehicles of democracy -- the parties -- would be what they are supposed to be -- democratic. Less of the democratic apparatus would be up for sale -- both intra-party and inter-party.
The transparency of primaries would enforce honesty on the leaders, who now run Bangladesh with their remote controls from behind closed doors. The country would be less of a hostage to the personal whims of, and animosity between, our party heads.
Let's support transparent nomination. Let's nominate through primaries.
Faisal Salahuddin is an actuary and economist.