The difference between the number and the ‘effective’ number of presidential candidates

Last weekend, Ireland held the first meeting of its Constitutional Convention. One of the topics for debate was whether the president’s term should be reduced to 5 years. However, an issue that generated much more discussion and passion was whether or not citizens should have a role in nominating presidential candidates. In the end, the members of the Convention voted overwhelming (94%-6%) to open up the nomination procedure to citizens. In that context, I thought that I would provide just a little more information about how nomination processes operate comparatively.

Currently, the Irish Constitution provides three ways of nominating presidential candidates: nomination by at least 20 members of the two houses of the legislature (there are 226 at the moment); by 4 elected councils (there are 34, I think); plus incumbent presidents may re-nominate themselves. This has meant that until recently political parties have dominated the nomination process. Since 1937, there have been 7 contested elections and a total of only 24 candidates. That said, in 1997 there were 5 candidates and in 2011 there were 7 candidates. So, there is perhaps some evidence that parties have less of a hold now than previously.

What happens elsewhere? In a recent article in Irish Political Studies, I provided some information about how 29 semi-presidential countries choose their presidential candidates. The take-home point is that probably only Mongolia and Turkey have more restrictive procedures than Ireland and most other countries have some sort of citizen nomination process.

However, two points need to be made.

Firstly, the rules for citizen nomination procedures vary greatly. Some countries simply require a number of signatures from registered electors. Even so, the number is very different from one country to the next. So, Taiwan and Montenegro stipulate 1.5% of the total electorate. By contrast, Poland requires 100,000 signatures. Given there were nearly 31 million registered voters in Poland in 2010, this is a much smaller fraction. In some countries, there is also a geographical requirement i.e. a certain number of signatures from a particular number of provinces or counties.

What all of this means is that even when the nomination system is opened up to citizens, the openness of the system will still vary as a function of the particular rules that are chosen. The up-side of this point is that it does not necessarily mean hundreds or dozens of candidates will inevitably stand. The down-side is that the system is not necessarily much more open. Apart from the cost of a campaign, which will exclude most people, the rules may still serve to restrict the number of candidates.

Secondly, even if the rules are changed in a way that increases the number of candidates, there is a big difference between the number of candidates and the ‘effective’ number of candidates. To put it another way, there may be a larger number of candidates, but how many of them are ‘serious’?

What are the figures? Leaving aside Mali and Peru, the highest figure was 24 candidates at the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, then 21 in Bulgaria in 1992. Other countries recorded 16, 17, and 18 candidates in some cases. However, the average effective number of candidates was much smaller. For example, whereas Ukraine has had an average of nearly 14 candidates across all its presidential elections, it has had an average of fewer than 4 effective candidates. In fact, France has had the highest average effective number of candidates at just under 5. For most countries the average effective number of candidates is between about 2.5 and 3.5 and the figures are remarkably even across all countries, regardless of how restrictive the procedures are for citizen nominations.

In other words, even if opening up the nomination process to citizens may increase the number of candidates, it does not necessarily make the election more competitive. There may be more candidates from small parties and more candidates from non-partisan backgrounds, but the party candidates are still almost certain to win. This is a function of party identification, previous notoriety, campaign funding resources, and so on.

Overall, the cross-national evidence suggests that opening up the nomination process to citizens is unlikely to change the type of candidate who is actually elected to the presidency. Parties will still dominate. However, opening up the nomination process to citizens may simply be something that people want as a matter of principle.

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