In France and in Russia Primaries are an Emerging Trend

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Ivan Blot

Political scientist, author of “Putin’s Russia”

Primaries in France

The principle of “primaries” is quite new in France. Normally, the candidates for the elections are chosen by the national staff of the party. It was the case in the Gaullist party. I remember a meeting of the “Investiture Committee” to nominate the candidate for the city of Lyon in 1989. The members of the committee were Jacques Chirac, the president of the party, the presidents of the parliamentary groups in the National Assembly and the Senate, Claude Labbé and Charles Pasqua, secretary-general Bernard Pons, his chief of staff (myself) and national secretary for the elections Jacques Toubon. President Chirac told us that we had to choose between two candidates, businessman Alain Mérieux and a local party member Michel Noir. Chirac explained that he preferred Noir because Mérieux was in his view too wealthy, thus too independent. He also explained that Mérieux was so ambitious that if he were to become the Mayor of Lyon, he would be candidate for the French presidency against Chirac. Eventually Noir was chosen as the candidate without voting on him and without even consulting local members of the party.

This practice was common in France and coherent with the view expressed by scholars like Gaetano Mosca or Roberto Michels who said that political parties are by nature non-democratic and function as oligarchies. In general, this is always the case in most Western countries, including France. Gaullist Charles Pasqua wanted that to change, so he became a pioneer in proposing a “primary election” by asking party members to choose between Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

The first party to adopt this principle in France was the Socialist party that held primaries before the presidential elections in 1995. Then in 2002 the Communist party asked its members to nominate a candidate for the presidential elections. The Green party resorted to primaries within the party to choose the candidate for the presidential elections in 2007 and 2012.

The first “open primary elections” where every citizen can vote were held before the 2012 presidential elections. The primaries took place in 2011 and every voter had to pay 1 Euro as well as sign a pledge to the values of the Left to get a right to vote. The idea was to nominate a candidate who enjoyed the trust and confidence of people. In 2012, François Hollande won the presidential election.

The Socialist party, however, tried to use primaries in the 2014 local elections in the cities of Aix en Provence, Béziers, Boulogne-Billancourt, le Havre, Marseille and La Rochelle. In all these cities the party ended up losing the elections.

To this day primaries are not regulated by law and bills introduced in the Parliament were never voted on. It is up to each party to organize primaries or not.

Primaries again top the agenda in France with the new center-right party “The Republicans” led by Nicolas Sarkozy resorting to this procedure. The polls show that the first party in France is the National Front that nominates its candidate in the old centralized way. The candidate who comes second after Marine Le Pen in the next presidential lections has great chances to become the future president in the second round. The National Front has few allies: It could get 30% of the votes in the first round but has no chance of getting 50% in the second. A socialist candidate, probably the President of Republic François Hollande, enjoys little support (under 20%).

So analysts think that a member of the Republican party will come second in the first round and will win in the second. There are now 10 competitors but only Alain Juppé, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon and Brno Lemaire have more than 10% of support in the polls. This primary election that will take place in October is in the limelight. For the first time people are massively interested in the primaries that may well change the outcome of the presidential elections

Primaries in Russia in the governing “United Russia” party

On 25 May 2016, preliminary voting (primaries) of the United Russia (UR) party was held throughout the country for the first time. The participation in primaries is mandatory for candidates to be nominated from the party at the State Duma elections. According to UR data, a total of 2,781 candidates took part in the primaries, including about 200 ONF (All-Russia People’s Front) activists. Over 9.1 million people took part in advance voting.

United Russia believes that this procedure is an effective way of selecting the strongest candidates and public opinion leaders who could participate in the elections as the members of the party, securing it a good result, as well as screening of the obviously impassable candidates, and those promoted by the local authorities, but not possessing sufficient authority with the electorate.

Based on the results of voting United Russia is forming a list of candidates for single-mandate constituencies and the regional lists of the most popular candidates, which will run from the party at the Duma elections. The lists will be presented at the party congress scheduled for June.

The lowest turnout was reported in the northwestern Arkhangelsk region (under three percent). The highest turnout was in the Republic of Mordovia (14.13%). In Moscow, the reported turnout was about 6.44%.

In UR, primary candidates create regional organizational committees comprising local UR branches, UR supporters and representatives of civic associations (at least 30%) and media figures. The lists are confirmed by a special national organisational committee. By mid-April 2016 over 3,200 candidates had applied to participate in the primaries, of whom 1,437 were non-party. Of these, 2,907 had been registered, of whom 1,208 were non-party. In the single-mandate seats 1,393 candidates had been registered, while another 1,514 were fighting to be nominated by UR to enter the Duma lists. Most surprisingly, 193 existing MPs applied to participate in the UR lists for the State Duma.

On average six candidates per district fought to be adopted by UR, with the most competitive UR primaries in Sakhalin, followed by Mari El, Vladimir and Moscow oblasts, where some 13 candidates per district were registered.

This process is new for Russia and makes it a pioneer of primary elections in Europe. Western media ignored this event but some papers did admit that the process initiated by United Russia was in fact democratic. In France, for instance, where old candidates get nominated year after year in most parties, politicians prefer not to speak about this issue. The result is a lack of trust among the citizens. Only 14% of citizens trust the political parties in France, yet 35% say they trust the democratic system in general. So, people are not against the principle of democracy but they are deceived by the current mechanisms of the regime.

A democratic innovation of choosing candidate that was adopted in Russia is something Western opinion is not prepared to admit. But it gives a good example to countries like France whose party system is oligarchic and struggles to undergo reforms.

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