Washington has been rocked this week by the unexpected news of the defeat of Eric Cantor who was seeking re-election to a Congressional District in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. Eric Cantor is no ordinary member of the Republican Party. He is the Majority Leader in the House, the “heir apparent” to be next Speaker, a position of tremendous political power in the country. Eric Cantor, over and above all these, has represented the Congress seat from Virginia for 7 times in the past and would have gone to the House of Representative for an eighth time!
Eric Cantor was so confident of his victory that he spent the day of the election taking care of his legislative business as the Leader of the majority party in the House instead of any worries about the outcome of the election. He is a key Congressman in two major issues before the Republican Party and the Congress as the country heads towards elections for the Congress later in the year that also will have a major impact on the presidential election to take place in the end of 2016.
Paul Kane, writing the headline story in The Washington Post on June 11, 2014, stated that Eric Cantor “was considered the necessary linchpin in any possible breakthrough on a number of difficult issues facing Congress, from an overhaul of immigration policy to fiscal and tax reform. “ With Eric Cantor now out, Speaker John A Boehner who after an initial period of difficulties found in Eric Cantor a “loyal deputy”, will now find himself in a difficult situation in dealing with the Democrats on the tough issues related to fiscal, tax and immigration reforms. He will be under increasing pressure from the Tea Party members of the party as the gather force to derail the possibilities of compromise on these issues. Without compromise on these issues, the Republican Party would no doubt please the Tea Party members and their extreme conservative followers but could end up losing nationally as the country gears towards elections to the House of Representatives later this year. The fall of Eric Cantor did not just end the career of a politician almost without warning when he was on course to reaching the top. It has brought out into the open a host of other possibilities about US politics that are not just matters of concern for the Republican Party but for the country. One of course is that fact that it will put at jeopardy a possible compromise between the Republicans and the Democrats on “ an overhaul of immigration policy to fiscal and tax reform.”
Eric Cantor lost to a Tea Party candidate, David Bratt, a Professor who was not considered a serious challenger as he was not well known and his campaign was underfunded. His candidature received a last moment shot in the arm that took him ahead to take the primary with 55% of the votes after Eric Cantor made comments about the pending immigration bill just days before the primary election. Talking to a CBS affiliate in the US city of Richmond, the House Majority Leader had advocated citizenship for the children brought to the country illegally. That was enough to swing the voters as David Brat accused the Congressman of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, a highly sensitive issue among the conservatives. Eric Cantor’s defeat has also been attributed to the fact that he has been too busy with national issues and issues of the Republican Party and has lost his touch with his district.
Readers may keep in mind the fact that the election that Eric Cantor has lost is what in US politics is known as the primary. He is still a member of the Congress and will remain so till the elections to the 435 seats of the Congress are held in November. The primary is a system unique in US and some western democracies that narrows down candidates of the parties for the main election. It also transfers the power of nominating candidates for national elections from the party leaders to the people.
The political parties do not choose the candidates who contest in national elections, to the Congress and White House, in the United States. The candidates choose themselves by contesting in the primaries. These primaries are conducted at the grassroots without the direct interference or influence of the party leaders at the top level. The primaries also underline the way democracy as reflection of people’s power works in both these parties. Any member of the party can nominate himself/herself and contest in the primaries. There is no limit to how many members can participate in any one constituency in the primary. The candidate who wins the primary wins the nomination of the party.
The party does not choose on its own even the candidate it nominates for the presidential election.
Any ordinary member of either party can declare himself/herself to become a candidate for election to become the President of the United States. He/she must do so by declaring his/her candidature at the primaries. For the presidential election, the two parties have a fixed number of primaries and the candidate that takes the majority of electoral votes in these primaries is the candidate that the party must nominate as its choice for the presidential election. This is why it was possible for someone like Jimmy Carter in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1992 to become presidential candidates although at the top level of the two parties, both the former Presidents were practically unknown political figures when they were nominated. Likewise, the candidate who just ended the promising career of Eric Cantor is a political unknown in the top level of the Republican Party. Yet he won the right to become the candidate of the Republican Party from Virginia seat defeating the candidate who is one of the top political leaders of the country.
In Bangladesh, the system we have is in direct contrast to the system at work in the United States. All political parties, and in particular the mainstream ones, consider it almost their God ordained right to nominate candidates for national elections at the top level of the party. The party supporters at the grassroots have simply no influence or input in choosing the candidate in their constituency for the parliamentary election.That is not all. The mainstream parties have meanwhile transformed their God ordained right to nominate candidates to all the constituencies as a very lucrative business and fund raising opportunity as candidates offer mind boggling sums for receiving party nominations. This system has also allowed individuals with money, both legal earned through business and illegally, to become members of parliament for they have the money to buy their nominations. This is also one reason why the country’s politics is so corrupt.
In the United States, the system of primaries emerged out of the progressive movement that began in the early part of the last century. The movement called progressiveness is still evolving. It helps bring issues into politics that people want because the primaries allow them to send to the elected offices those they choose. Perhaps it is time for such a movement to begin in Bangladesh. Perhaps such a movement that could bring primaries to Bangladesh could be the answer to the current ills of the country’s politics that is taking the country towards great uncertainty.
The writer is a former career Ambassador. His email id is