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(McCann, Pierre)
(McCann, Pierre)

LYSIANE GAGNON

Are primaries the spark for Liberal spirit? Add to ...

The federal Liberal Party is thinking of organizing American-style primaries to choose its next leader. Even though this looks like a desperate move – and it is, given the party’s sorry state – it might not be such a bad idea.

It works for the Americans. And it worked for the French Socialist Party, although the idea was first met with a great deal of skepticism.

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Last year, several of my socialist French friends were absolutely horrified at the thought that people other than bona fide, card-carrying Socialists could be allowed to choose the Socialist candidate for next year’s presidential election. “It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard off,” Christiane said adamantly. “The right-wing guys are going to weigh in in favour of our worst contender!”

Theoretically, it could have happened. But it didn’t.

For President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, the ideal Socialist adversary would have been Arnaud Montebourg, who ran for the party’s nomination on an extreme-left platform. The second “best” would have been Martine Aubry, a former cabinet minister who was more radical than all the other candidates except Mr. Montebourg and whose rigid schoolmarm manners would surely have alienated the middle ground. Alternatively, if “outsiders” had wanted to sabotage the Socialists, they could have voted for Ségolène Royal, who ran a disastrous campaign in 2007 and whom Mr. Sarkozy could easily beat again.

Instead, a solid majority (56.6 per cent) chose as their presidential candidate François Hollande, a man who, although lacking a stellar personality, was still the most reasonable choice if the Socialist Party wants to attract those middle-ground voters. Not coincidentally, according to polls, Mr. Hollande was by far the most popular of the six contenders in the population at large.

By all accounts, the Socialist primaries were a success. More than 2.6 million people voted in the first round, on Oct. 9; a week later, more than 2.8 million voted in the second round. The Socialist Party has always been secretive about its membership, but it was estimated at 150,000 before the primaries. Chances are, the newcomers who voted in the primaries will stay close to the party, either as donors or as activists. All that was required was that the voter sign a declaration affirming his or her belief in leftist values, and contribute at least €1.

The excitement surrounding the primaries greatly increased the visibility of the Socialists. Mr. Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, may be tempted by the idea for the 2017 presidential election. (As in the United States, French presidents are limited to two terms.)

Based on the American and French experiences, it’s doubtful that Canada’s Liberals would be derailed by outside “enemies” who would vote for the worst candidate. (In any case, this is something the Liberals are perfectly able to do themselves.)

Primaries could invigorate the Liberal Party, although its real hope lies in the NDP’s eventual implosion – a possibility that’s not totally far-fetched. Otherwise, with a centre-right government and an Official Opposition that will position itself at centre-left as time goes by, there’s no place for the Liberals on the political spectrum.

Primaries are not a magical solution: If the Liberals are seen as doomed, they won’t be able to attract star candidates and won’t generate much excitement.

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