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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks about the Senate and Liberal senators during an announcement in the Foyer of the House of Commons Wednesday January 29, 2014 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau has just broken his promise to hold open nomination contests, and it will only strengthen his control over his party.

Nominations are part of the power relationship leaders have with their party. Influence over who can run for the party is influence over the party. So despite pledges that they will hold open, contested races, leaders find it hard to completely resist the urge to control them.

Traditionally, that's been more or less a leader's prerogative. They have the power to reject a potential candidate – so potential candidates, including MPs, have to worry that the leader might use that power against them. But leaders like Mr. Trudeau have made pious claims that they'll respect local party democracy, and that's what makes their interference stand out.

The truth is that nomination races are less modern democracy than medieval skirmish, in that the winner is whoever brings the biggest numbers to the battlefield. Nominations are won by candidates who sign up a few hundred party members and get them to a hall. And leaders who interfere are like kings trying to control squabbling nobles. Now that Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal party leadership have crushed one person who defied their will on a nomination, fewer will try.

That's essentially what happened in downtown Toronto. The Liberal Party stepped in to rig things so the leader's favoured candidate would be protected.

It was part of a squabble over ridings to be created when the electoral map is redrawn for next year's election. Two existing Toronto ridings, Trinity-Spadina and Toronto-Centre, will be carved up into three new ones.

New Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, elected in a Toronto-Centre by-election in November, wants to run next year in the new riding of University-Rosedale, drawn from the northern parts of the Toronto-Centre and Trinity-Spadina ridings. Mr. Trudeau's inner circle recruited her and gave her a prominent role, and they want her run and win next year.

But another Liberal, Christine Innes, also had her eye on University-Rosedale. Her husband, Tony Ianno was the MP for Trinity-Spadina for 12 years. Ms. Innes ran twice there, and lost, but against tough competition, the NDP's Olivia Chow. Now that Ms. Chow has resigned, she was going to get a third kick at the can in an upcoming by-election. But when it comes to 2015 election, she wanted to run in University-Rosedale – the same one as Ms. Freeland.

Usually, party poobahs ask one candidate to move to another riding. But the newly redrawn Toronto-Centre is where a star candidate and business executive Bill Morneau is expected to run. The third redistricted riding, Spadina-Fort York, isn't as easy for Liberals. At any rate, Ms. Innes wanted to run in University-Rosedale. She and Mr. Ianno are organizers, so she might well beat Ms. Freeland to the nomination.

To protect Ms. Freeland, the Trudeau favourite, the party leadership offered Ms. Innes a deal she wasn't supposed to refuse. The party's Ontario election co-chair, David MacNaughton, insisted that Ms. Innes would only be approved as a candidate for the upcoming by-election if she'd have to sign a form saying that in next year's general election she'd run in a riding the party chose for her.

Ms. Innes decided to call the party's bluff, and she refused to sign. She lost. The party disqualified her as a candidate, alleging that her campaign team had engaged in "bullying and intimidation." Mr. MacNaughton told the Canadian Press that several young Liberals had been warned that their future in the party could be jeopardized if they found themselves on the wrong side of a nomination battle.

It's hard to see that as anything but a flimsy pretext to knock out Ms. Innes. Her husband, Mr. Ianno, has a reputation for what one Liberal called "rough-and-ready" organizing, but even if the party's vague allegations were true, warnings to party members that their party future could suffer if they get on the losing side aren't exactly an unprecedented level of tough politics.

The explanation of what happened is much simpler: Mr. Trudeau's team told Ms. Innes what they wanted, she fought them, and they killed her candidacy. And now the message is clear: candidates who cross the party leadership over nominations face a tough response. Rebellions will be fewer.

Mr. Trudeau isn't the only leader who put his thumb on the scale. Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised open Conservative nominations, but his party decided MPs who won by-elections since the 2011 election didn't have to be re-nominated – protecting five incumbents. Brandon Tories accused the party of unfairly disqualifying a contender before last November's by-election. Leaked documents showed the Conservatives are holding early nomination votes to help incumbents.

Though they've pledged they won't use it, leaders can't seem to give up that lever of control – and by using it, Mr. Trudeau has gained power by the implicit threat he'll use it again.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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