Especially in times of internal party crises, social democratic parties in Europe have recently often relied on the involvement of party members in the choice of party leadership. In Germany, Spain, Portugal and France, for example, party chairmen or top candidates have been determined by member votes in recent years. In Italy, the centre-left party PD has been holding primaries based on the US model for years.
In GERMANY, after several changes at the SPD party leadership and a historic defeat in the elections, a member survey was scheduled in 2019 as a result of pressure from within the party. After the resignation of SPD leader Andrea Nahles in June, an equal dual leadership should be determined – including at least one woman. Six duos applied for the party leadership in a week-long process with a total of 23 regional conferences in all German federal states. The 430,000 SPD members were then able to cast their votes by postal vote and online. Since no pair of candidates achieved an absolute majority, a second member survey followed as a runoff between the top two, Klara Geywitz/Olaf Scholz and Saskia Esken/Norbert Walter-Borjans.
The winners, Esken and Walter-Borjans, were then elected party leaders at a party conference in December. The duo had been supported by the influential Jusos, while the entire party leadership had spoken out in favor of Scholz. The big loser triumphed just under a year later, however, when his former inner-party opponents at the party leadership nominated him as candidate for chancellor. The party members were not involved in this decision. The finance minister at the time, Scholz, was by far the most popular SPD politician at the time and led his party back to the chancellery a year later after 16 years. Before that, the SPD had first chosen its party leader by means of a membership vote: in 1993, Rudolf Schärping prevailed over Gerhard Schröder in a membership survey. 56 percent of the approximately 870,000 SPD members took part in the survey at the time. Even then, the defeated candidate ultimately proved to be the more successful: while Scharping was defeated in the election, Schröder became chancellor in 1998.
In ITALY, the centre-left party PD has held regular primaries based on the US model to determine the party leader since it was founded in 2007. Simultaneously with the founding of the Partito Demcratico as a fusion of the Left Democrats (DS) and the center movement Margherita, the new party leader Walter Veltroni was determined in a primary. Similar to the USA, not only party members but all Italians and foreigners living in Italy from the age of 16 were allowed to take part in the so-called “primarie”. The primary was a success: around 3.3 million people cast their votes in more than 11,000 polling stations across the country. Since then, primaries have been held six more times. At the end of February, Elly Schlein was the first woman to be elected leader of the center-left party. The election was quite surprising and only partly corresponded to the will of the party members. Because when the party members in the local party committees selected two candidates from four in the first phase, Schlein with 33 percent was well behind the favored Stefano Bonaccini with 54 percent. In the September 26 primary, in which around 1.1 million party members and sympathizers took part, Schlein finally triumphed with 53.75 percent.
In FRANCE, members of the Socialist Party have been regularly involved in the election of party leaders and presidential candidates for many years. A primary election was held for the first time in 1995, in a serious crisis after hopeful Jacques Delors gave up his candidacy for the presidential election. 73.1 percent of the approximately 103,000 party members took part in the vote and a majority chose Lionel Jospin as the presidential candidate. The result was then confirmed at a special party conference. Although Jospin was considered to have no chance in the presidential election, which took place almost three months later, he surprisingly made it into the run-off election and there achieved a respectable result against the victorious Jacques Chirac.
In 2012, the French Socialist Party decided for the first time to hold primaries in which non-party members could also participate. François Hollande emerged victorious from the “primaires citoyennes” and moved into the Elysée Palace after the presidential election. Since he left office, the party has gone downhill. Before the presidential election last year, the initially planned primary was canceled and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was sent into the race without any major debates. She received only 1.75 percent in the presidential election. The current party leader, Olivier Faure, was traditionally elected by primary elections by party members. However, the last primary election in January turned into a fiasco when Faure’s competitor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol only accepted his defeat after a days-long power struggle because of the narrow result.
In SPAIN, the general secretary of the social democratic party PSOE has been elected in a primary election of all party members since 2014. The candidates need the support signatures of five percent of the party members to run. The membership vote was introduced when the PSOE was stuck in its deepest crisis to date, 135 years after it was founded. Party leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba threw in the towel after the party’s debacle in the May 2014 European elections. In the primary election that followed for the almost 200,000 party members, Pedro Sánchez, who was largely unknown in Spain until just a short time before, prevailed against the opposing candidates Eduardo Madina and José Antonio Perez Tapias. At a special party conference two weeks later, the new PSOE leader was officially confirmed. In 2016, Sánchez resigned after criticism from within the party, but returned to the party leadership just under eight months later after a new primary election for party members. Around 187,000 were called to vote this time.
In GREAT BRITAIN, too, the election of the Labor leader involves party members. According to the current rules, the election takes place in two stages: candidates must be MPs and be nominated by at least 20 percent of Labor MPs. They then need a certain percentage of party support from constituencies or from Labor-affiliated groups such as unions. Then it’s the members’ turn. In 2021, the possibility of having a say in the party leader even as a non-member was abolished by registering and making a support payment. So far there have been female candidates for party leadership, but no Labor leader. Since April 2020, the leadership of Britain’s largest opposition party has been in the hands of Keir Starmer. He was elected with 56.2 percent. At that time, more than 780,000 people were entitled to vote.
In GREECE, too, the social-democratic party PASOK has been using a ballot for years, in which not only party members but also sympathizers of the socialists can take part. Faced with poor poll numbers, a generational change was initiated in 2004 and the party statute was changed to allow for primary elections. EU citizens with permanent residence in Greece can also vote. In the last primary in 2021, more than 200,000 members took part and a majority elected Nikos Androulakis as PASOK chairman.