Sunday, December 9, 2007

American Democracy does not come cheap

With just less than a year to go for the American Presidential elections, there is a lot of noise in the media about the likely candidates. Democrats have some three or four front runners. Republicans have more or less the same number. There is still time for dark horses on both the sides to emerge.

The first primary to be held in New Hampshire is just a few weeks away. That will set the tone for the subsequent primaries. Primary is a peculiar American invention. Who should be the official candidate of either of the two major parties is left not to the party leaders or selected luminaries of the parties, but to the general public. So whoever emerges finally as the official candidate of either party happens to have had endorsement from the grassroots, namely the voters in the Presidential election. Of course, the way it operates in practice is not very simple. Different states adopt different systems of primary. There are open primary, closed primary, semi-open primary, semi-closed primary , blanket primary etc.

Closed system permits only registered members of the parties to vote in the primary election. The registered members of the Democratic party vote in the Democratic Primary and the registered voters of the Republican Party vote in the Republican Primary election. This is very logical. States such as Florida, New York and Massachusetts follow this system of primary. More complicated is the Open system. In this system, any registered voter can vote. He does not need to be a registered member of any party. Worse, he can participate in the primary of either of the parties. It does not matter if he being a traditional Republican voter in the Presidential election participates in a Democratic Primary. Or, the other way about. The disadvantage of this open system is what the political pundits call as 'Raiding'. What does Raiding mean? If I , my uncle and my neighbour happen to be Republican party supporters and fear that no Republican candidate can beat Hillary Clinton in the Presidential election , we can try stopping Hillary's nomination by participating in the Democratic primary election and vote for a weaker candidate , say John Edwards. States like Texas and Tennessee have open primary. Then there is semi-open primary in some states and semi-closed primary in some others.

Primary as a tool to ensure that the candidates nominated by the two political parties must have some support from the grassroots is a noble ideal. Probably, it serves the purpose too. But at what cost? I read that millions of dollars are being collected for the war chests of the candidates. According to the newspapers, Hillary Clinton has collected the maximum. Obama is not far behind. Undoubtedly, money is required to fight Presidential election. Crisscrossing the country, TV campaigns, huge supporting staff. These do cost a bomb. But the candidates do the same in primaries too. In the Presidential election, only two candidates namely the official nominees of the parties spend big money. But in primaries, a dozen candidates spend big money. After all who donates this money? Not just the traditional voters and sympathisers of the two parties. The big business. Lobbying groups. Vested interests. Those who want policy changes made in their favour. With what confidence could one say that whoever becomes the President ultimately will choose to act in favour of the greatest good of the largest number of people? What if the greatest good of the largest number is in conflict with the interests and wishes of the special interests groups? So, what has one achieved by these primaries ? Juicy news bits for the media. Some entertainment for the general public. Heartbreaks for the losing candidates. How would it be less democratic if one does away with these primaries campaigning in which start a year in advance edging out more important issues from the national consciousness ? How would a candidate be less representative if a few thousands of the party's higher forums choose instead of several millions of people? Why have a costly dress rehearsal when the main event too is going to be a costly affair? Well, the answer is that nothing in the United States can be done on a small scale. Compactness is just not OK. Every thing has to be gigantic. Larger than life. That, I suppose, is the American way of life. So, primaries too will continue to be expensive and time-consuming.

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