Party Leader Selection and Deselection

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

ConventionBaloonsConcept description

The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network (reference below) describes three concepts that are central to the issue of party selection of leaders:

  • centralisation, which is what level in the party – local, regional, or national – controls the candidate selection
  • participation, meaning who – ordinary members or top leadership – controls the process at the level where the decision is taken
  • mediation, the mechanism through which organized interests within the party can gain influence.

ACE writes:

“In an extremely centralised system, a national party agency would decide on the leadership selection without any involvement by the local branches of the party. At the other end of the scale would be a system where the most local branches of the party would decide on their leaders and possibly also representatives on national leadership bodies without any approval or participation from the national level. As in so many other fields, the actual practice is usually somewhere between the two extremes.

“In most political parties, local selection processes deal mostly with local candidates to general elections, while the national leadership is selected on a national basis. In both cases, the party has to strike a difficult balance between national level strategies and local sensitivities while considering the party’s overall role in the political process at all levels.

“A situation with extremely low participation would be if the party leader alone would decide on his or her leadership body. The other extreme would be if the ordinary members of the party would decide with limited or nonexistent participation by current party leaders.

“Parties in different countries have chosen varying degrees of member participation in the selection process, from party-run primary elections to indirect elections where party branches send delegates to a national congress.

“Mediation describes the problem of recognizing, and the process of mediating, the distinct interests in a political party and its organisations. Most political parties consist of different wings, subunits or special groups, which constantly seek to influence the party’s leadership and therefore also the selection process of party leaders. High mediation of different interests would lead to a fair representation and participation of all distinct groups in the leadership selection and as a consequence in the leadership committee, too.”

Common mechanisms of leadership selection

ACE identifies three common mechanism (p. 46):

“Only the members of the party’s parliamentary caucus decide. The group that makes the decision about who is going to be the next party leader therefore consists of a small number of people. This shows a high level of centralization and low levels of participation and mediation.

“Another selection method is election by an Electoral College, which consists of a limited group of, for example, the parliamentary caucus, representatives of constituency associations, and representatives of any affiliated trade unions or trade associations. Each of the groups usually holds an equal share of the votes necessary to elect the party leader. This mechanism reflects a compromise and the aim to mediate between different interests.

“Some parties let widely open party conventions (also called direct party vote or open primary) decide rather than the parliamentary party. A certain similarity to American primary elections for election candidate selection cannot be overlooked. This method emphasizes participation.”

Consequences of different selection methods

ACE writes (p. 47):

“The leadership selection mechanism a political party applies has implications on what types of leaders are selected.

“Leadership selection through only parliamentary party members by caucus tends to lead to the election of a leader from within the parliamentary circle, usually with long experience in the parliamentary arena.

“When the concept of mediation dominates the process, organized party branches and/or auxiliary organisations get a bigger role, and the negotiation between them can be clearer than in internal struggles between member interests. In the best-case scenario, leaders selected through this process enjoy legitimacy within the party, but mediation processes can also leave the general membership with no or little influence over the decision.

“Mechanisms with emphasis on decentralization clearly shift the balance towards candidates from states or regions and open opportunities for persons outside traditional areas of office to be selected.

“Open selection processes with a high level of participation from ordinary party members tend to lead to the election of the most popular and well-known candidate, often irrespective of the candidates level of experience in legislative and party work. Since the party leadership has no influence on the selection process (such as through mediation of certain interests), even party leaders with rather short parliamentary careers or with no experience in an elective office may be elected.

“The opening of internal leadership selection mechanisms to more general participation or democratization has also led to unintended consequences such as to the rise of internal battles between party groups and factions or even to the phenomenon of candidates taking part in leadership elections without any dedication to the party itself but rather to a single issue that in their view needs to be addressed publicly.

“In general, political parties all over the world tend to want to have a wide involvement in their leadership selection, but decisions vary on how to balance different regional, issue-based, and participatory interests.”

Party leader de-selection

Bakvis and Wolinetz (reference below) point to the importance of the party’s mechanism (or lack of mechanism) for de-selecting a leader. They write (p. 206-207):

“The power of the prime minister and provincial leaders is reinforced by the ways in which leaders are selected as well as by the absence of effective de-selection procedures.”

Writing of the federal Progressive Conservative party, they note:

“Only in the 1960s, when the highly erratic leadership of John Diefenbaker caused turmoil in the cabinet and the party generally, did the Progressive Conservatives begin formulating a review procedure. It took more than three years of internecine struggle before the procedure was adopted and Diefenbaker was removed from the leadership. The Canadian leadership convention process and its current variants mean that party leaders typically have few obligations to the parliamentary party: caucus members constitute only a miniscule proportion of those selecting the leader.”

And of the Liberals:

“The limits of de-selection procedures are amply illustrated by the difficulties which supporters of Paul Martin experienced in trying to replace Jean Chrétien as Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister. Martin, Chrétien’s Minister of Finance, had long been regarded as a likely successor. However, Chrétien was deliberately vague about any plans to leave office. He periodically encouraged potential successors to test the waters and begin organizing to contest the leadership, but would clamp down on campaign activity whenever it became too bothersome. By 2002, Martin’s supporters had gained control of many constituency parties and were in a position to force a leadership review at an upcoming policy convention in 2003. Had such a convention been held, it was likely that Chrétien would have been ousted. Faced with this prospect, Chrétien announced that he would step down in eighteen months’ time, and eventually left office in November 2003. Months earlier, Martin had been forced either to resign from cabinet or abandon the substantial leadership campaign organization constructed on his behalf. He chose the former option. Chrétien’s move not only avoided formal de-selection, but also threw the Martin forces off-balance by delaying selection of a new leader and enhancing the prospects of other candidates. This episode suggests that although a sitting prime minister could in the long run not avoid de-selection, he or she could nevertheless delay the process and exert some influence over it. Despite newer parties adopting more open leadership selection procedures, within the Liberal Party, the net effect is that sitting leaders remain strong and almost immune from effective challenge.”

Bakvis and Wolinetz summarize:

“In Canada, neither government nor opposition members are strong enough to oust their leaders with any regularity. This weakness is mirrored in another comparison. In contrast to Westminster, where occasional dissent is tolerated in both major parties, Canadian parliamentary caucuses allow minimal tolerance of dissent. Under Jean Chrétien, the rule was zero or near-zero tolerance. The strength of party leaders vis-à-vis their parties reinforces their control over cabinets when they are in government.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Electoral Systems and Democratic Reform (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, The ACE Encyclopaedia: Parties and Candidates, at, accessed 25 August 2016, and uploaded to the Atlas at

Herman Bakvis and Steven B. Wolinetz (2005), “Canada: Executive Dominance and Presidentialization,” in The Presidentialization of Politics: A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies, eds. Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb, pp. 200-219. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 25 August 2016.

Image: Boston Globe, Balloons swirl in the air following Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican nominating convention in Tampa, at, accessed 25 August 2016.