How political parties choose their candidates to win elections
More than ‘representativeness’, political parties select candidates for their ‘winning ability’
In a well-functioning democracy, we should expect political parties to select candidates that best represent the interests of voters. Yet, as this column has previously demonstrated, Members of Parliament (MPs) leave a lot to be desired when it comes to serving these interests.
For instance, wealthier candidates are associated with poorer parliamentary attendance and spending on constituency development — all the more worrying as the scale of wealth has grown significantly in Indian electoral politics. If parties are not selecting candidates for the purposes of representativeness, what criteria are used to select candidates?
Whether at the state or national level, party tickets for candidates are typically decided by a few party elites — a phenomenon political scientists describe as “low intraparty democracy.” The centralised nature of making laws in the Lok Sabha, combined with the fact that MPs are barred from “defecting” against their own party when voting in parliament, almost nullifies any institutional role they can play in policymaking.
But if MPs are largely excluded from the policymaking process, then parties have little incentive to select candidates that represent the interests of voters. Furthermore, there is little sense in expecting voters to vote for candidates based on how well they represent the interests of voters — it’s the party as a whole that must be held accountable.
On the other hand, any serious political party aims to be in power, so the “winnability” of a candidate (namely the capacity to self-finance a campaign) is an important determinant in choosing candidates. We find ourselves in a scenario in which most candidates are selected neither for their ideological commitment to a party, nor for the extent to which they seek to represent the interests of voters — they are chosen because they can win elections. Because candidates may trade their own capacity to win elections for party tickets, and have little role in policymaking, they have little reason to be deeply committed to any political party.
The issue of candidate selection is fundamental to understanding Indian politics. Unfortunately, there exists no systematic data on how parties choose to hand out tickets to the candidates — as parties are understandably unwilling to let outsiders observe their selection processes.
To get some sense of candidate selection, this analysis looks at candidates who contested the 2009 election and received at least 20% vote share (irrespective of whether they won or lost) – a universe of 1020 candidates — and classifies whether they received a party ticket again in the 2014 election.
Only 354 of the 1020 candidates in the sample, approximately 35%, were re-nominated in 2014. The data demonstrates that the winnability of a candidate is indeed a strong factor in renomination.
A candidate that was elected in 2009 had a 53% chance of being renominated, while a candidate that did not win the election in 2009 had only a 19% chance of being renominated.
But renomination and incumbency are two very different phenomena, as winning is far from a sure thing upon renomination — even if a candidate won in 2009 and was re-nominated, he or she only had a 50% chance of winning again in 2014. The data also demonstrates that candidates are quite fickle in their partisan loyalties. About 12% of those renominated switched parties between 2009 and 2014 (with 23% of unelected candidates in 2009 switching parties upon renomination).
To understand how the background characteristics of MPs affected renomination rates, the analysis focused on three important characteristics: the moveable wealth of the candidate, which is important for financing campaigns; the existence of serious criminal cases pending because criminality is correlated with organizational capacity of the candidate; and whether the candidate has a post-graduate degree, which potentially describes a candidates capacity to do the job.
A statistical model that measured the chances of renomination of a candidate as a function of these three characteristics (wealth, criminal cases, education) provided some interesting results.
The model suggests that a candidate that has a postgraduate degree is about 28% more likely to be renominated as compared to a candidate without one, and a candidate with serious pending cases is 27% more likely to be renominated as compared to a candidate without them (see chart 2).
A similar relationship is seen with wealth. A candidate with between Rs 10 and 50 lakh in moveable wealth has about a 34% probability of being renominated, while a crorepati (in terms of moveable wealth) is about 14% more likely to be renominated (see chart1).
Further statistical analysis suggests that the positive relationship between renomination and wealth and criminality is due to the fact that those characteristics are associated with greater electability.
Clearly, the institutional structure generates incentives for parties to select candidates who do not represent the interests of voters — rather focusing on those candidates more able to win elections. With the growing costs of elections, and little ideological integrity to parties, we can only expect a greater disconnect between voters and their representatives in the future.
(The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research)