Party list: Who gets to choose candidates?

Benjamin Reilly

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Party list: Who gets to choose candidates?
The Philippines can learn a few things from how political parties in other countries draw up their lists of candidates

The different electoral systems used around the world exhibit a wide range of ways by which candidates and parties are chosen. These can have a big impact on election outcomes. 

In some countries, ballots are centered on candidates. In other countries, the focus is on parties. In yet other countries, ballots allow the voter to express a more sophisticated range of choice – for example, by choosing a preferred candidate as well as a preferred party . 

These differences in choice are found within contrasting types of proportional representation systems. PR systems provide for legislators to be elected from multi-member districts. The number of seats that a party has in the legislature should correspond as closely as possible to the number of votes that the party has received in the election.

Closed-list proportional representation

Most of the world’s list proportional representation systems are closed, meaning that the order of candidates elected is fixed by the party itself. Voters are not able to express a preference for a particular candidate. 

The PR system used in Indonesia in 1999 to elect all members of its first post-Suharto democratic legislature is a good example of a closed list. The ballot paper contained the party names and symbols, but no names of individual candidates. Under such systems, voters are restricted to choosing their preferred party; it is the party that both chooses and ranks the individual candidates. Parties, not voters, are therefore the key in determining which candidates are elected and end up sitting in the legislature. 

The manner in which parties choose and rank candidates varies, not surprisingly, from country to country and party to party. Those who value democratic practices would want the choosing and ranking of candidates to be done in accordance with party processes that allow for broad-based decision making (beyond just a narrow group of party leaders).

Such “closed list” systems do have some advantages: they promote greater party discipline, as those who go against the party can face the sanction of being demoted in rank in the party’s list of candidates the next election – or even of being taken off the list altogether. Voters thus have a clearer sense of what programs and policies to expect when they vote for a specific party.

They also allow parties to include candidates (perhaps members of minority ethnic and linguistic groups, or women) who might have had difficulty getting elected otherwise. A “zipper system” mandates the alternation of candidates by gender toward the goal of increasing the number of women in the legislature. This specifically prohibits practices that undermine gender equality, as when male-dominated parties put men at the top of the list and relegate women to the bottom of the list.

However, the negative aspect of closed lists is that voters have no say in determining who the representative of their party will be.  

This is particularly an issue in cases such as Indonesia, where PR is used to elect the entire legislature. In Japan, by contrast, almost 40% of the legislature is elected by closed-list PR, and the remainder in single-member districts. This mixed nature of the Japanese electoral system ensures that voters have voice both in terms of choosing their favored parties (via closed-list PR) but also in choosing individual candidates (via district representatives).

Closed lists can also be unresponsive to changes in events. Should specific candidates figure in scandal after the lists are closed, for example, electors have no choice to vote them in if they still want to support the party that has put them on the list in the first place.

Open-list proportional representation

In Europe today, most PR systems use open lists, in which voters can indicate not just their favored party, but their favored candidate within that party. In most cases the candidate vote is optional. As most voters identify with parties rather than candidates, the candidate-choice option of the ballot paper often has little effect. 

But in some cases (Finland is one) this choice is highly important, because electors must vote for candidates. Thus the order in which candidates are elected is determined by the number of individual votes they receive.

The open-list system has become more popular around the world in recent years, and there is no question that it gives voters much greater freedom over their choice of candidate. 

At the same time, open-list systems also have some side effects that are less than desirable. Because candidates from within the same party are effectively competing with each other for votes, open-list voting can lead to intra-party conflict and fragmentation, as candidates try to outshine other members of their party. It also means that the potential benefits to the party of having lists which feature a diverse slate of candidates can be overturned. 

Shifting from closed-list to open-list PR

Indonesia’s recent experience has been instructive. Critics of the 1999 elections focused on the way the closed-list system gave disproportionate power to party bosses and weakened the links of accountability between citizens and their representatives. 

Starting in a very partial way in 2004, but then instituted in 2009 and having a particularly dramatic impact on political behavior by 2014, Indonesia moved from a closed-list to an open-list system in which voters were able to influence the composition of party lists. The candidates would run under a party label, ruled the Constitutional Court, but would be elected on the basis of their personal votes. Voters were given one vote, and given the choice of voting either for an individual candidate or a party. 

Again, the motivation for this reform (common in Europe, but unusual in Asia) was to give voters more influence over which candidates from a given party list would be elected. The reform was intended not only to strengthen the linkage between voters and politicians but also to change patterns of politics within parties, as decisions related to the selection of candidates were being influenced by bribery and internal vote-buying. 

However, this also meant that candidates had to promote themselves, not their party, to gain sufficient name recognition to win. Distributing money and patronage became essential to a candidate’ success – not least in their race against other candidates from the same party. 

“Instead of appealing to party identity or campaigning on policy programs,” explains Edward Aspinall from the Australian National University, candidates use vote buying and pork barrel projects to “provide voters and their communities with concrete benefits.” Once elected, the focus of legislators has been less oriented to national policy concerns and law making, and more oriented to obtaining patronage projects for constituents in their home districts.

The result, Aspinall further observes, has been a “significant hollowing out of the parties” combined with “the politics of patronage and particularism gripping Indonesia ever more tightly.” Unlike in the old system, which already had its own shortcomings, one can now see broader and deeper patterns of “money politics,” or what Aspinall refers to as distinctive new patterns of “fragmented and decentralized electoral fraud.” 

The importance of name recognition and the role of celebrity has been similarly enhanced under open-list PR. For instance, the speaker of parliament lost his Jakarta seat to a comedian and actor, who, like nearly 70% of parliament, was a newcomer to national politics. This process that has strong echoes of the Philippines, and it is not surprising that some scholars speak of the “Philippinization” of Indonesian politics.

The Indonesian experience illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of open list voting. While it has bought candidates closer to their constituents, it has also created internal problems of party cohesion as members of the same party compete for votes. This has increased the costs of elections markedly, while weakening the role of parties and greatly accentuating candidate-centric patronage politics. 

This shift is perhaps best exemplified in shifts in campaign appeals: whereas in 2004 Indonesia campaigns were still dominated by party flags, by 2014 they had been replaced by the posters of individual candidates.

Promoting accountability thus appears to be something of a double-edged sword. As Indonesia’s move from closed to open lists shows that small changes can make a big difference, and what may seem like technical distinctions between open and closed lists can in fact have very large consequences. As Aspinall concludes, “the open-list system must be viewed as an experiment that has failed.”

Lessons for the Philippines

This experience suggests that if the Philippines wants to build stronger and more cohesive political parties, one of the most effective ways of doing so would be to institute a closed-list proportional representation system. 

The strongly party-oriented focus of a closed-list system, as explained above, has the negative consequence of undercutting voter choice over individual candidates. Following the example of Japan and South Korea, this could be addressed by instituting a “mixed-member” system in which some proportion of seats are elected via closed-list PR while another significant proportion of seats are elected via a single-member district plurality system – similar to the current system by which most members of the Philippine House of Representatives is elected. 

With such a mixed arrangement, a substantial degree of voter choice over individual candidates could be retained in the district system – and thus serve to complement the considerable potential of a closed-list PR system to nurture stronger political parties. –

Professor Benjamin Reilly is dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.

Read the other articles in the “Elections: What PH can learn from the world” series:

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