A Party in Agony

On Sunday, members of the centre-right UMP party went to the polls to choose their new party leader. The winner would become the unofficial leader of the opposition for the next five years and a front-runner for the 2017 Presidential campaign. Results were expected Sunday night, but despite a victory speech late that night from underdog and current party chief, Jean-François Copé, on Monday morning the results were still too close to call.

On Monday evening the Party machine announced that Copé had won, but by a razor-thin margin of 0.03% (98 votes). But in light of accusations of the stuffing of ballot boxes on both sides, François Fillon’s threat to go to the courts to have the result overturned and the startling admission by the Party itself that its apparently final tally left off three overseas federations, the Party is still in chaos.

A brief sigh of relief

The end of a bitter campaign brought a sense of relief to many in the Party who had disliked the nasty personal twist that both candidates’ messages had taken in the final weeks. That relief began to dissipate on Sunday itself when it was apparent that the vote had been badly organised. Turnout was high but not astronomical (176,000 people or 56% of those eligible to vote), but in some areas members waited several hours to vote late into the evening and the polls closed late to deal with demand. To reinforce the point, François Fillon voted in his local constituency in central Paris on Sunday evening and waited in line for an hour with the TV cameras trained on him.

During the course of Sunday evening the closeness of the vote became apparent. Pollsters had only been able to question likely UMP voters (recording information about political party affiliation breaches privacy laws) and they had massively expressed support for Fillon (the last polls put Fillon at 67% with Copé at 22%) and Copé’s surge took many by surprise.

The very long week

On Monday evening, TF1, the main private TV channel, had invited the new President for an interview in its main news bulletin. Instead, its headline talked of chaos within the UMP, as the votes were still being counted. At the same time allegations of ballot box stuffing flew between each side.

Now a week later a last ditch attempt by party grandee and former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, has failed. It is said that Copé refused to set aside party procedures to give Juppé a free hand in redrawing the election, something that Fillon demanded.  Fillon claims that the party machine has been instrumentalised by Copé – he even suggested the party was akin to a “mafia”. Fillon is now claiming that he will turn to the courts.

In the hands of the lawyers

What happens now? The courts will probably struggle to make sense of the obscure party statutes and the various allegations of misdeeds, and may even reject the case due to its hot button nature.  Legally speaking, the internal organisation of a political party is a simple matter of contract, and unless the UMP’s internal organisation can be shown to have acted willfully against the interests of one of the candidates, the courts may not be able to intervene in the way Fillon apparently hopes.  Copé’s supporters are relaxed about any court case, and they may be right: the argument that Fillon knew the rules when he decided to play the game and is now seeking to have them set aside, has some bite.  Whichever way the court goes, and let’s remember the inherent unpredictability of litigation, any result determined by the courts (whether for Fillon or Copé) is an embarrassing albatross around the neck of the winner (although George W Bush would remind us that it doesn’t necessarily prevent the winner from exercising power).

The future of the party

What future for a political party who, whilst in this carnation is only 10 years old, can trace its roots back to Charles de Gaulle himself.  The UMP is unlikely to remain as a big-tent party. It would seem more sensible for all concerned if Fillon and his clan split off and formed another group, perhaps associated with the new UDI of Jean-Louis Borloo (former government minister, perhaps as a separate more “Christian Democrat” style movement.  This would be a return to the normal state of affairs on the right, where the longtime duality of the Centrist UDF and the more conservative RPR.  For now, there is little sign of elected official jumping ship, apart from Pierre Méhaignerie, but he was one of the wetter members of the UMP. This taboo suggestion is starting to be voiced openly by some of the more centrist members of the party.  Others on the left of the party, including future leading lights like Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, have called for the vote to be re-run.  Juppé this morning suggested that only Nicolas Sarkozy could save the party.  When your only saviour is the guy that just lost the election, there is clearly something wrong.  To look at a parallel situation, there is little evidence that Mitt Romney will play a leading role in rebuilding the GOP in America.

Two parties

Regardless of who is brought in to give the UMP its last rites, the split between both the party membership and the elected officials shows that this is a 50/50 party, and no party in that state can survive for long.  Copé may be banking on just that, hoping that his victory will drive out the wets, with Fillon leading a new splinter group.  Given time, Fillon might wither in the political wilderness between the hard right new UMP and the Socialists. However, Copé and his clan have yet to answer one question that hangs over the election : the divergence between the opinion polls of UMP voters and the result of the vote by party members. That members of a political party are more extreme than the general voters is no surprise, and is patently clear on the left. But during the Socialist primaries in 2007 (comparable to this year’s UMP vote, members mirrored the wider opinion polls because they wanted to choose someone who could win a general election, not simply someone who made their ideological socks roll up and down. UMP members however have indulged themselves – Copé is, today, much less popular than Fillon among the general public. It is not clear that he, with his avowedly hard right approach and decisive political strategy, can broaden his appeal towards the centre. That is crucial, because, in the face of a left-right duel in the next Presidential election, swing voters in the middle will determine the result. Hollande needs them to win.  Fillon could win them over.  But if he is so damaged and isolated that he can’t make it to the election, let alone the second round, Hollande would stand a better chance against Copé.

And yet, many in the UMP have been seduced by open primary elections to choose the presidential candidate, following the Socialists exemplary demonstration of force in 2011. Given the wider electorate, that could be Fillon’s come back.

He needs to survive that long of course. In the meantime, the opposition is mute. Despite the Socialists’ evident glee, that’s no good thing for democracy.

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4 thoughts on “A Party in Agony

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