02/24/2012 08:10 EST | Updated 04/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Wake Me When the NDP Chooses a Leader


Try to restrain your shock, but I'm finding it hard to care much about the NDP leadership race.

Regardless of what one thinks of the party itself (and for what it's worth, I don't think that much), it must be conceded that its uninspired quest to provide the nation with a new opposition leader has hardly been an inspiring advertisement for the glories of Canadian democracy. Now posed to enter its seventh and final month, this forgettably long campaign to lead the party of openness has done little but expose how closed our party system really is.

Attempting to follow the ins and outs of the NDP campaign is a bit like trying to watch a horse race in the dark: you can place bets, but the fun ends there. It's an election that has produced no reliable polls and uses a voting system so convoluted and opaque it's almost impossible to make any sort of meaningful prediction regarding who actually has a shot at winning the thing. One has to pity all the poor political reporters across the land being dispatched to "cover" a race which they now openly profess to be analyzing solely on the basis of random hunches and pet theories.

As is fast becoming standard practice, the NDP's new boss will be selected on March 24 via preferential ballot, that fashionable system where voters rank all candidates in numerical order of preference before magical computers tally the final winner. Those New Democrats willing to hork out the $349 delegate fee and head down to the glamorous Metro Toronto Convention Centre ("rated #1 in superior convention services!") are of course welcome to devote their Saturday night to voting the old-fashioned way, but it's estimated that at least 80 per cent of the faithful will have e-balloted well in advance.

Since only 128,251 card-carrying NDPers (or about .3 per cent of the Canadian population) are eligible to vote in the leadership election, it's a near logistical impossibility for any organization beyond the party itself to conduct an accurate poll of likely voters, and even the inaccurate polls, such as the contradictory, self-serving ones released by the Mulcair and Dewar campaigns, are ultimately of little use since they only survey "first" and "second" preferences. 

With at least six candidates all polling at over five per cent (if we are to believe the Mulcair-Dewar numbers), the race could easily require at least four rounds of recalculation under the party's very forgiving rules of staggered elimination, meaning the eventual victor is likely to be chosen, in part, by extraordinarily unpredictable variables such as which candidate is fourth-most-popular among Martin Singh's followers.

The good people of Alberta are of course well-versed in the sort of weirdness this system can produce. As William Poundstone noted in Gaming the Vote, a wonderfully cynical book on the inescapable hopelessness of all electoral systems, instant run-off contests mainly prevent elections from being corrupted by unelectable spoiler candidates by giving the unelectable spoiler candidates an honest chance at winning. The phrase "Stephane Dion Syndrome" is starting to be whispered in increasingly frightened tones.

All this impenetrable ambiguity is particularly troubling because the stakes are, in fact, quite high. Current polls notwithstanding, the leader of the NDP will likely be one of only two viable candidates for prime minister in the next federal election, and the genuinely significant philosophical and strategic differences between the various candidates vying to hold that spot that could absolutely have long-term consequences for the future of Canadian political debate.

Yet with such an infinitesimally small segment of the Canadian population involved in a selection process few could summarize without getting winded, it's hardly surprising public name recognition of the seven wannabe-PMs floats (at best) in the high 30s and the most dominant themes of the campaign centre around parochial establishment concerns like French proficiency.

After I penned a recent article praising the American primary system that's currently being used to select the leader of the Republicans down south, a number of readers angrily retorted that the excessively open nature of U.S. democracy was responsible for exacerbating many of the the worst sins of American political culture, including plutocratic spending, vulgar regional pandering, and crass anti-intellectual populism. And they were right, but so too has the alternative system practiced by the NDP emphasized much of what's most distasteful about the way Canadians have come to govern themselves.

Following Jack Layton's death, I was one of the few people who felt it would be most appropriate for the party to just install his widow as leader, and declare the matter closed for the next four years. It would have been elitist, it would have been undemocratic, and it would have been arbitrary. But at least it wouldn't have pretended to be anything else.