“Do I know you?” Luxembourg’s intense focus on individual candidates for election

The campaign leading up to Luxembourg’s parliamentary elections on 14 October has been quite the sideshow. Don’t be surprised if, during your visit to the Schueberfouer funfair in Luxembourg City, someone in a suit and coloured tie hands you a flyer, a pen, some chewing gum, a fan or some other gadget to mark the fact we’re about to head into election season. The fact that Luxembourg’s candidates run around shaking hands before an election isn’t any different from those in neighbouring countries, but Luxembourg’s electoral system – unlike those in France, Germany or the UK – encourages all candidates to head out and try to win as many individual votes as possible.

Political parties establish lists, with the number of candidates corresponding with the number of seats available in each district (21 candidates for 21 seats available in the Central district, for example). Voters can decide to vote for the political party, thereby giving 21 votes to that party (one to each candidate). Or they can distribute their 21 votes to individual candidates, choosing, say, five communists, seven liberals, four centre-left candidates, three socialists and two environmentalists. In theory, this means that, even though prime minister Xavier Bettel is the lead candidate for his party, he doesn’t need to get any votes for his party to be successful. Political candidates don’t get any favours through the electoral system as they do in Germany, for instance, where the party establishes the order by which candidates take seats in the Chamber.

On the one hand, this system takes power from the parties and gives it to the people, allowing them to choose their favourites on a list. On the other hand, it also created a strange situation whereby candidates from the same party become adversaries during the election. Say you were a candidate for the Green Party, and, according to polling, you’re likely to be the third most popular Green candidate in your district. Your party, however, is expected to secure only two seats. You’re now incentivised to view the person polling in front of you as an adversary. Since party platforms are the same for each candidate – and diverging from said platforms is not very traditional in Luxembourg – parties rarely have strongly diverging factions within their movements. Candidates try to stand out from the crowd through “non-political” action. You’ll see them showing up at all their local birthday parties and wine festivals, making sure everyone hears their name.

Luxembourg’s election has become a charade, with parliamentary hopefuls stumbling over each other with the hope of making it into the daily papers. In a way, they can’t be blamed, as Luxembourgish voters encourage that behaviour. Candidates are expected to sech weise kommen (“show up to introduce themselves”) before elections because, in a country of half a million inhabitants, it’s not a far-fetched request to want to know your MP in person.

Voters, however, might get more than what they bargained for. For decades, it has been standard practise for parties to include on their lists the so-called Promi-Kandidaten – candidates for office who are already known for something else. That’s why you see TV presenters, sportsmen, musicians and the like suddenly running for parliament. And it’s all done with Luxembourgers turning a blind eye to the fact they were clearly drafted just to win a few more votes.

For those voters interested in getting a good personal feeling for a candidate, this system works wonders. For those interested in debating ideas, it is rather unsatisfying. Until the electoral system or voters’ perception changes, however, the glorification of individual candidates over party platforms and debate is likely to continue.

This article was first published by the Luxembourg Times.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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