Political Parties and their Leaders: Power and Selection in Comparative Perspective.

Project leader: Nicholas Aylott
Starting year: 2019
Project type: Project

Today, representative democracy, and thus party democracy, is often said to be in varying stages of crisis. In Europe, election after election in recent years has seen established parties challenged from the right and the left, and sometimes from both wings, by socalled populist parties. At the same time, individual political leaders, often from these challenger parties but sometimes from within older parties, seem to be dominating politics ever more, amid increasing electoral volatility. That, in turn, raises the question of such leaders’ relations with their parties. Are parties just vehicles for these individuals? Or does the ideal of democracy within parties, which some claim to be necessary for democracy between them, still have substance? The question is especially salient in Northern Europe, where some of the continent’s oldest democracies rub shoulders with some of its youngest, but where the centrality of parties to the mechanisms of representative democracy remains a common feature. How, then, do political parties select their leaders – and why do they choose any particular method? In our project, we will develop a comparative framework for analysing how leader selection proceeds in Europe. Crucially, the framework emphasises not just what party rules suggest should happen, but also the “real story”. We argue that the real story has two essential features: first, what we call precursory delegation, in which some intra-party actor, a “steering agent”, is charged with filtering candidates, formally or informally, prior to formal selection; and second, the negotiation of the leader’s contract or mandate, which is informed by the degree to which her political preferences become public information. Such is the importance of its leader to a party, we argue that the way in which it selects that individual offers arguably the most illuminating insight into its nature – the party’s very idea of itself. As a consequence, our analysis can shed considerable light on contemporary debates about intra-party democracy. Our research will proceed in two phases. The first involves in-depth analysis of parties in Latvia, Germany and Sweden. The second involves deployment of our established research network across a further six European countries, covering both older and newer democracies. Seven of the countries in our survey have a Baltic coastline; the inclusion of two additional countries allows for broader generalisation of our conclusions.