Leader Selection Process

The leader selection process determines whether the chosen candidate will have the support of the people and the leadership team.

The competence of political leadership depends upon the performance of the executive leadership team, as described above (  The team cannot work well unless its members support their leader. And political stability in the country depends upon popular support for both the leader and the team.

As described previously (6.3.1), authoritarian leaders come to power in various ways without the population being offered a choice (although a leader might nonetheless enjoy sufficient popular support for political stability, at least for a while).  Dictators seize power by being able to inspire, or at least control, their followers for example.  This does not necessarily mean that they would run a country in the interests of all the people.  A person who can seize power needs charisma, aggression, and self-confidence.  These are not characteristics that align with the need to listen to what the people want or, in the face of declining popularity, with the need to gracefully hand over power to someone else.

The leader selection process in a democracy can vary:

  Directly elected presidents

It might be assumed that popular support is guaranteed if a president is chosen directly by the people.  This is not as simple as it seems:

●  A French President is chosen in a two-round process. Proportional representation in the first round allows people to vote for the person they really want to be the leader, but they can only choose between the two leading contenders in a second vote.  President Macron only had 28% of the vote in the first round in 2022.

●  People might choose a president for negative reasons: that the alternative would be worse. Macron won more than 58% of the vote in the second round, largely because of the number of voters who would not support Marine Le Pen.

●  A similar negative calculation applied when Joe Biden won the American election in 2020. According to a Pew Research opinion survey, “When asked about reasons for the results of the 2020 election, two-thirds of voters (67%) say a major reason was that “many voters were excited to vote against Trump.””.

Elected presidents also vary in how much authority they have in practice.  America is deeply polarised (, so Presidents can be thwarted by Congress.

  Technocratic leaders

Italy has experimented with so-called ‘technocratic’ leaders who came from outside politics, to deal with difficult economic conditions for example.  They don’t always have political legitimacy, though, as discussed in an article Mario Draghi: is Italy’s addiction to technocratic leaders a cause for concern?  Elected leaders are “more democratically accountable.”

  Party leaders chosen by their colleagues

Elected Members of Parliament (MPs) chose their own party leaders until recently in Britain.  The leader of the winning party became the Prime Minister, who then selected cabinet members.  The leader of the second biggest party formed a ‘shadow cabinet’ in the same way.  This process ensured that party leaders had the support of their leadership teams.  They were likely to have been chosen for their ability to unite the party and to manage it well.

Party leaders receive more press coverage than other MPs.  They lead their parties at election time, so their public image and electability are important.  MPs want to be re-elected, so they are motivated to replace unpopular leaders – which is why Boris Johnson was replaced as the leader of the Conservative Party in 2022, as described above (

  Party leaders chosen by party members

The two major political parties in Britain have recently experimented with a ‘pseudo-presidential’ leader selection process.  They allowed party members, rather than MPs, to choose the party leader.  Party members are unlikely to have centrist views, though, so their choice of leader might not appeal to the wider public.  And the chosen leader might not have the support of the rest of the team.  As explained by The Economist, Britain’s prime minister becomes a rotten presidency:

“Candidates to become prime minister end up appealing to a narrow caucus of self-selecting members, rather than lawmakers chosen by the electorate at large.”

As noted on this website, the Labour Party chose Jeremy Corbyn by this method – and he was unelectable.  And the Conservative Party’s choice of Liz Truss was disastrous.  Neither of these leaders was the first choice of their parliamentary party.  Both of them had extreme views and they were not unifying figures.

Professional politicians represent a broader range of opinion, and have more political knowledge, than most party members.  And MPs are initially selected by party members, who should therefore trust them to select a leader they can work with.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6345c.htm.