As the election campaign enters its sixth week, our political parties look like they are bursting with energy. But this is somewhat deceptive: behind the current scene, political parties in Canada are in decline as independent, thriving organizations.
Between elections, they're losing their vitality and sense of identity. Their membership has drastically declined. And, for most bright and ambitious young people, politics is no longer a prestigious career choice. They'd rather spend their lives in front of a computer or on the noisy floor of a stock exchange than devote themselves to serving their fellow citizens, with the risk of being eventually booted out of their job for no good reason.
This evolution is not simply a sign of the times – it was precipitated by a number of reforms that all resulted in the devitalization of the political parties.
The first one is the drastic limits imposed on personal contributions, which have transformed the mainstream parties into creatures of the state. With the exception of the Conservative Party, which is still supported by a huge number of small donations from its core sympathizers, parties now basically live on public subsidies based on their past performances. The activists don't feel pressured to contribute and don't feel responsible for the future of the party, and the party brass doesn't need to keep close contact with the party base.
This trend was especially striking in the recent evolution of the Parti Québécois and the NDP, two parties that used to have strong ideological commitments. With practically no objections from the rank and file, the authorities of the previously "social democratic" Parti Québécois embraced Pierre Karl Péladeau, a ruthless businessman who embodied everything that the PQ had been fighting against.
And NDP leader Thomas Mulcair managed to remove the word "socialist" from the party constitution, as well as severing its ties with labour unions with surprisingly few grumbles heard from the base. This was arguably a wise political move, but where were the militants who used to pride themselves on the party's socialist tradition?
The parties also lost a great deal of their driving force by extending to all card-carrying members the right to choose the leader. Party activists are no angels, and they need incentives to devote a portion of their free time to the gruelling chore of grassroots organizing. The era when political parties rewarded their faithful with a job in the public sector is fortunately gone but, until recently, there was still a small incentive left for hard-working militants: the privilege of chiosing the leader by being elected as a delegate to the national convention. But this small honour is gone now that anybody, even those who never raised a finger to help the party, can vote for the leader.
The primary system represents a huge step further in this direction. In the United States, many primaries are open to anyone who wishes to cast a vote in the nomination for the president. In France, the process of choosing the candidate who will represent the Républicains (formally the UMP) in the 2017 presidential election will be extended to any outsider willing to sign a pledge honouring the broad goals of the party. The current president, François Hollande, was chosen in the same kind of socialist primary.
This system will probably come to Canada, because political parties believe that enlisting mere sympathizers (or onlookers for that matter) will broaden their appeal, and because, at first sight, primaries look more "democratic" than the traditional system. But is it really? Isn't democracy best served with active, lively political parties?