Party Primaries: If democracy is the goal, then the Chinese might be closer, by Osmund Agbo
Two years prior to the 1976 US election, a Gallup poll listing 31 candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination did not include a little-known governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter. Even a year later and after he emerged from a crowded race to win his party’s primary and later the general election with a narrow margin, Mr. Carter’s support among Democrats was abysmally low. But Jimmy Carter was even a better presidential candidate than he was a president and Ronald Reagan defeated him in a landslide, winning 489 out of 538 electoral votes and ending his one-term colorless presidency on January 20th, 1981. Democrats felt that something needed to change in the structure and process of the primaries from where their party’s future presidential candidates would emerge, if only to avoid the chances of throwing up another Jimmy Carter.
According to a New York Times article in 1981, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, was asked to head a new 29-member amorphous Democratic rule-changing group. The group was made up of both the young upcomers and the experienced, charged with the task of writing “rules that will help us choose a nominee who can win and who, having won, can govern effectively.” That was how Superdelegates were invented in the Democratic Party.
The New York Times editorial described Superdelegates as “party bigwigs of 712 Democratic leaders, legislators, governors and the like. They can vote for any candidate at the nominating convention, regardless of whether that candidate won the popular vote. These unpledged delegates make up 30 percent of the 2,382 delegates whose votes are needed to win the nomination, and could thus make all the difference.” What that means, simply put, is that the Democratic Party has an establishment structure in place that equates a single establishment vote with thousands of citizen votes.
The Republican Party’s primary too is anything but perfect, especially with its winner-take-all state primaries. That was how Donald Trump won about 60 percent of Republican delegates, but only about 44 percent of the vote. If the Republicans had allocated delegates in proportion to their vote, they would have had a contested convention and Trump would not have proceeded to become the 45th President of the United States.
The two examples above of how the American presidential candidates emerged from both parties are far from democratic, yet they remain integral parts of the processes in the world’s most celebrated democracy. The West love to brag that they have patented a certain liberal Democratic process that is best for the world. But is that a goal already achieved or remains at best an aspiration?
In China, the Politburo Standing Committee is China’s real decision-making body. This is how the system works: In mid-October every five years, the Communist Party of China (CPC) delegates from across China will meet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The party has about 2,300 delegates but sometimes less since delegates may be disqualified for a wide range of reasons.
Those CPC delegates will go on to elect the powerful Central Committee, which has about 200 members. This Central committee in turn elects the Politburo and from that, the Politburo Standing Committee is chosen. The Politburo currently has 24 members, while the Politburo Standing Committee usually has about seven members, although these numbers have varied over the years. The Central Committee also elects the party’s top leader, the general secretary who becomes the country’s president. The announcement of China’s new leaders takes place at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The 13th National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China was elected from October 2017 to February 2018 and will be in session in the five-year period 2018 to 2023.
Of course, the west loves to castigate this Asian giant for the mystery and secrecy surrounding membership in the Chinese Communist Party which is true to a large extent. But the fact remains that more than any other political systems in the world, advancement in the Chinese Communist party is largely based on merit. Big money and corporate entities have limited influence as opposed to what’s obtained in western democracies.
To get on the party and state official system, you must pass China’s Civil Service exam which is administered to individuals irrespective of their social standing. To serve the Chinese government, everyone has to pass a five-hour test. Topics that folks get texted on, include advanced verbal skill, logic, math and world knowledge.
If you pass, promotion is then based on an elaborate ten-tier ranking system.
Comparing and contrasting the American Democratic system with the Chinese Communist model, there are a couple of other interesting facts that could be jarring. For the U.S. Congress, the turnover rate in any given election is around ten percent or even less. One Congressman got elected 30 times and spent 60 years in the House. These politicians become too powerful in the game that the only way to replace them is if they resign their position voluntarily. The turnover rate of the Central Committee, on the other hand, maintains roughly about 62 percent, on average, every five years. With this, the Chinese communist system tends to achieve that which American democracy promises. The Chinese also have term limits which helps to ensure that new Chinese leaders emerge, mostly based on performance, rather than privilege.
This piece was inspired by the Sunday, May 1,2022 segment of 90minuteafrica. It is a new talk show hosted on Sundays across several social media platforms and anchored by two of my friends who are veteran journalists, Dr. Chido Onuma and Mr. Rudolf Okonkwo. In the audience in this particular episode were media pantheons, the likes of Azu Ishiekwene, Kadaria Ahmed and Simon Kolawole.
I was particularly struck by Kadaria’s narration of how her effort to shed a little light on the conduct of Nigeria’s hitherto opaque party primaries and infuse a more robust participation was rebuffed by the leadership of the two major political parties. As far as these parties are concerned, the method of choosing who flies their flag in an election remains an internal affair that should not be subjected to the intrusive eyes of media practitioners and non-party members. Yet, Nigerians are expected to choose from the few that emerged through this less-than-ideal process, those who ultimately will hold a key to their future.
Political parties have become all too powerful in most liberal democracies of the world, even when nowhere in many nations’ constitutions is this tremendous amount of power exercised even remotely alluded to. The party nominating process truncates democracy since it offers few of the protections associated with the grand idea of “one man one vote.” In the United States of America, voters in early caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire have far more influence than voters in later ones even when they constitute less than one percent of registered voters nationwide. In Nigeria, the delegate selection process cut the voters out entirely. This is how during most presidential elections, voters are forced to choose between two terrible candidates.
In a recent article titled” Nigeria’s party-political season of “philanthropy”primaries”, the former Chairman of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission and now a Professor in Human Rights Law at Tuft University, Chidi Odinkalu wrote:
“Political parties are supposed to chaperone competition for access to the mandate to superintend the public good. In Nigeria instead right now, they are to conduct auctions to buy and sell the country.” I can’t agree more, though this aberration is not unique to Nigeria. As it is in Nigeria, so is in America, though less crude and in your face.
Before the West and the rest of the world start preaching to China about the need to embrace liberal democracy, let us work on getting the system right. Democracy for sure, remains the best idea of governance but the way it is currently being practiced, leaves much to be desired.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com