Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Democratic nominations: why is Germany more democratic than Canada?

You can't turn on the television without hearing of a candidate being appointed to run for parliament somewhere in Canada.

In Germany, this would be illegal.

But isn't Germany the place, you may ask, where half the MPs are elected on a party list? Aren't they appointed? And anyway, can't parties do whatever they like?

No, and no. Germany has laws to guarantee democratic nominations.

Why can't Canada have laws making nominations democratic?

Germany's Law on Political Parties states "The nomination of candidates for elections to parliaments must be by secret ballot:" Sec. 17. Their Federal Elections Act states "A person may only be named as a candidate of a party in a constituency nomination if he or she has been elected for this purpose at a members' assembly convened to elect a constituency candidate:" Sec. 21(1).

The Law Commission of Canada designed a democratic voting system for Canada. The nomination system was outside the mandate of that study, but their model was the German system.

What about nominations at provincial conventions for candidates to be on province-wide lists of party candidates for the federal parliament? Doesn't the party leader decide which candidates get the top ranking, almost guaranteeing them a seat?

No. Again, Germany's Federal Elections Act requires that the order of names of the candidates in the provincial list must be laid down by secret ballot: Sec. 27(5). (This matters for federal elections in Germany, where half of the MPs are elected from closed party lists. By contrast, in provincial elections in Bavaria the list order doesn't matter, since voters vote for the candidate on the regional list they prefer, as well as for the local candidate they prefer.)

But aren't those provincial conventions controlled by the party brass?

No. Even the election of convention delegates is democratic: "The elections of the delegates to delegates' assemblies (party conventions) shall be secret" says Sec. 15(2) of the Law on Political Parties. And if the party allows executive members to be automatic ex-officio delegates at conventions, that Law states that the number of them eligible to vote must not exceed 20% of the total number of delegates: Sec. 9(2). And the usual practice is that the provincial convention to elect list candidates is held only after local constituency candidates have been elected; most good list positions go to candidates who have already won a local nomination. (The SPD, for example, makes sure at least 40% of each group (5 or 10) of candidates on the list are women. Occasionally the list includes a "list-only" minority or female candidate not nominated locally.)

But if an incumbent MP loses the nomination, can't the party brass protect him or her? Not much. The provincial executive may object to the decision of a membership meeting. "If such an objection is raised, the ballot shall be repeated. Its result shall be final:" Sec. 21(4) of the Federal Elections Act. An interesting example from the recent German election was the nomination of Bärbel Bas for the SPD in Duisburg I, defeating an incumbent MP for the nomination. At the first nomination meeting she won by only five votes. A second meeting was called: she increased her margin to 17 votes, and then won the seat in the election.

A notorious instance of breach of these provisions arose in Hamburg in 1993, when the Hamburg constitutional court ruled that the CDU had not abided by the provisions of the law in its selection procedures for the Land election of 1991, and a new election had to be held.

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