In many countries around the world we can observe parties introducing primaries (or – as some prefer to call them – membership ballots) to select their leaders or legislative candidates. These parties are empowering their members – or in some cases the whole electorate – to make these important internal decisions. In Germany, however, the selection of party chairs and electoral leaders through delegates at a party congress remains the norm. At the sub-national level, nevertheless, the two catch-all parties Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU) have in some instances opened up their selection processes to all of their members. Usually leadership races are uncompetitive in Germany – here primaries are not used. However, if there are two or more candidates, a membership ballot becomes a viable option. Since 1990 one third of all competitive leadership races at the regional level has been decided by party members rather than delegates. Contrary to other countries, this change of the selection mode is not permanent and primaries are used infrequently. This can mean, that a party branch made use of a primary once, but for its next competitive leadership race, the decision is again in the hands of the delegates – and not the rank-and-file. That makes Germany an interesting case to explore the question why parties, sometimes, adopt primaries to select their leaders. To answer this question, I will make use of theory-testing process-tracing. Four potential causal mechanisms are theorized and then tested empirically step-by-step in four case studies.
According to party literature, party change or party reform is driven by a combination of external and internal factors (Panebianco 1988). External factors do not produce change on their own. They need internal actors to pick them up. Internal factors, on the contrary, can cause change on their own (Harmel & Janda 1994, Deschouwer 1992). Moreover, based on Deschouwer’s (1992) argument, it is important to account for the perceptions of relevant intra-party actors (also Gauja 2017). Building on this, four mechanisms are theorized. Primaries are used: strategically to circumvent the middle-level activists; as a tool for peaceful conflict resolution because they provide greater legitimacy and the defeated side will be more willing to accept the result; as an instrument to recruit new members; after an electoral defeat in order to renew the party image and (re)gain voters.
By using a new, in-depth, within-case approach, this study will provide new insights into intra-party decision-making and the rationales for adopting party primaries. It is shown that there is not one central driver that can explain the adoption of primaries in all the cases under study, instead the renewal mechanism (triggered by electoral defeat), as well as the conflict resolution mechanism, and the strategic-use mechanism are supported by the empirical evidence. However, instead of merely showing correlations between a trigger and the outcome (primary) – as previous studies usually have done – a causal link can explain how exactly a trigger (such as conflict or defeat) leads to a party holding a membership ballot.