As Francois Hollande wins the Socialist Party nomination to take on Sarkozy in next year’s presidential elections, it is the selection process, not the result that’s surprising.
After the forced withdrawal of previous front-runner Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Francois Hollande became the party favourite and polls suggested he was best placed than any other of the six candidates for toppling incumbent president Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings have hovered around the 30% level for months.
The French Socialist party, however, could do little to choose him as the official nominee as the party decided to introduce a new system for the selection of the presidential candidate, allowing not only party members but also supporters and sympathisers to take part in a public ballot.
This system, known as “open primaries” is similar to the primaries adopted by both parties in the United States for the selection of their presidential candidates but it is quite alien to the European political tradition, which is based instead on membership of parties with strong hierarchies and internal rivalries.
Though there has been a wide discussion within the progressive parties across Europe on the adoption of this system, the only other example is the Italian centre-left coalition which used open primaries in 2006 and 2008 to select the candidate to oppose Berlusconi and whose statute gives great power to supporters in the election of the national leader of the party.
The reasons why the French Socialist party decided to choose the “open primaries” system, rather than the members’ ballot used in 2007 (when Segolene Royal was selected) are both political and tactical.
On a one hand, in a moment of great disaffection towards politics in general, the party needed to find a way to reconnect with the people and to present a candidate who was not the choice of an internal process; on the other hand, however, the personal and political divisions inside the French Socialist Party are so deep-rooted that it would have proven very difficult to keep the party’s unity.
This innovation did not arrive without fierce discussion and controversy, since many within the party ranks feared that this new system would discourage people to join the party and, more generally, weaken the traditional party structure. In addition, they feared that this kind of selection would put a great attention on the personal qualities of the candidates rather than on the political priorities of the party.
Supporters of the primaries, instead, pointed out the democratic process and the involvement of sympathisers as positive aspects of this selection process.
The high turn-out both at the first round (more than two million) and at the run-off (nearly three million) and the huge interest surrounding the TV debates and candidates’ hustings will definitely prove that the open primary system is a healthy process.
Whether, Francois Hollande will win the presidential elections in 2012 is a different question. Even though president Sarkozy is embattled, he is a real fighter and can still catch up in the polls. Hollande, in addition, has some weaknesses both political (a backward-looking and doctrinaire manifesto that is not very popular with the moderate voters) and personal (he never hold any ministerial position before).
The open primaries however gives Hollande a strong popular mandate and the huge participation in the system shows that it is still possible for a new form of political organisation, which values participation and really empowers citizens in the life of the party.