Keyword post: How does the Prime Minister end up Prime Minister?

It seems a few readers have been looking for information on the procedure for electing a Prime Minister.

In a parliamentary system such as we have in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc., the Prime Minister is not directly elected by the voters. They are a Member of the legislative body in question, and so elected as the representative of whichever constituency they run in. They are also the leader of a political party. They only become Prime Minister if their party ends up forming the government, either on its own or as part of a coalition or other arrangement.They do not have to be the leader of the party which has the most seats in the legislature – rather, they are the leader of the party which can command the confidence of the House. For example, in the UK, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, was elected to the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Witney. Because the Conservatives formed the government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron is now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Similarly, in Canada, Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, was elected to the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for Calgary Southwest. The party won a majority of seats in the last general election and so forms the government, making Harper the Prime Minister of Canada. Voters in the UK did not vote for Cameron directly for the post of Prime Minister, nor did voters in Canada vote directly for Harper as Prime Minister. They were elected in their constituencies as an MP.

Political parties choose their leaders by various means, but to simplify, there is usually a leadership contest, where interested persons can put themselves forward as candidates. To be a candidate they have to be a member of the party, and each party will have certain other requirements that will have to be met, such as gaining the support of a certain number of party members or sitting Members of Parliament, etc. The leadership campaigns will usually include debates between the various candidates, and the candidates will travel across the country meeting party members in different parts of the country to try to gather their support.

Most parties will then have a leadership convention, where party members will vote for which candidate they want as leader. Again, each party will have different procedures in place. Some parties elect delegates from each constituency to attend the convention and cast votes. Others give each member a vote if they attend the convention. Others will mail out ballots to every member so that they can vote even if they don’t attend the convention, etc.

Some political parties in some countries limit the choice of leader to members of the party’s elected caucus, meaning only the party’s elected MPs will choose the next leader. Party members have no say in the matter. Some parties combine both – the caucus will do the initial selection of candidates and narrow the choice down to two candidates, and then the party membership at large will have the final say between those two individuals. In the end, the result is the same, one candidate will be elected the leader of the party. (If you want to know how a specific political party chooses its leader, I would recommend visiting that party’s official website and finding the party’s constitution. That document usually details the process the party follows for selecting a leader. If that information is not readily available on the party’s website, you could also try contacting an elected representative of that party and asking them how the party chooses its leader.)

If that party is already the governing party, the new leader automatically becomes Prime Minister. They don’t have to wait until a new election is called. Often, a new leader will decide to call an election soon after they take over the party in order to seek a new mandate from voters for the party under their leadership, but they are not obligated to do this. They can just as easily serve out the remainder of the parliamentary term before going to the polls.

Sometimes, there is no actual leadership contest. For example, when Tony Blair announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown became leader without facing any leadership contest. This wasn’t because no one else was interested in the position, it was because an agreement had been reached that Blair would step down and Brown would become leader. A similar situation occurred in Canada when Jean Chrétien stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party. It was expected that Paul Martin would be the next leader (it was Martin’s supporters who pushed Chrétien to resign). One other MP did enter the race, Sheila Copps, but it was a foregone conclusion that Martin would win, and he did, with 94% of the vote. Sometimes, the party might feel there isn’t time for a proper leadership race, and so the party caucus decides on a leader. This occurred in Canada following the 2008 election. The Liberals did not do well in that election, and the party leader, Stéphane Dion, announced he would resign. However, because it was a minority government situation, the party felt it couldn’t afford to go through a normal leadership process and so the caucus decided that MP Michael Ignatieff, who had finished second to Dion in the previous leadership contest, would become party leader.

Sometimes a party chooses a leader who doesn’t have a seat in the legislative body. In those instances, the party appoints an acting leader among sitting MPs to deal with business in the House (if the House is in session at the time) until the actual leader can win a seat, either in the next general election, or via a by-election. For example, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Christy Clark was elected leader of the Liberal party to replace outgoing leader and Premier Gordon Campbell. Clark had been out of politics for a few years, and so did not have a seat in the provincial legislature. She won the party leadership on February 26, 2011, and was sworn in as premier on March 14, 2011, even though she did not have a seat. When Campbell resigned as leader, he also resigned his seat as an MLA, and a by-election was held on May 11, 2011, which Clark contested for and won.

It is important to remember that voters in countries such as Canada and the UK elect parliaments, not governments, and that it is the elected parliament that determines which party or parties will command the confidence of the House and form the government. Who leads that party is not what matters – what matters is that government maintain the confidence of the House. For example, when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party, and by default became Prime Minister, there were frequent accusations made in the media that he didn’t have a mandate because he had not been elected to that office. What people meant is that Brown had not called an election soon after taking over the party leadership, to see if Labour, with him as leader, could win another mandate from the people. However, it isn’t accurate to say he had no mandate because he wasn’t elected. The 2005 general election had resulted in Labour winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons, and thus the party was fully entitled to serve out the entirety of its term.

The fact that Labour had changed leaders during that term was essentially an internal party administrative matter; it did not impact the configuration of the House of Commons, and Labour still commanded the confidence of the House. Brown was elected as an MP, he was also selected by Labour as their leader. To say he wasn’t elected Prime Minister is unfair – no Prime Minister is elected by the people to that post, they are only elected as a local MP. Similarly, as mentioned above, Christy Clark became Premier of British Columbia when she won the leadership of the Liberal Party earlier this year. British Columbia has fixed-term elections, and the next election is scheduled for May 2013. There is nothing in the fixed-term election act that requires an earlier election because the governing party changes leader at some point during a parliamentary term. The only thing that would potentially prompt an earlier election is if the Liberal Party lost the confidence of the Legislative Assembly, or if Clark decided to ignore the fixed-term election law and call an early election.

This may strike some as bizarre and undemocratic, but it isn’t if one understands how the system works. We elect MPs, who form a parliament. Parliament decides which party or group of parties will command the confidence of the House and form the government. Who leads that party is up to the party to decide.

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