Over in the US, the presidential primaries are still making news as millions of ordinary citizens vote on who may become their party’s next presidential candidate. Meanwhile in the UK, the fallout of Prime Minister David Cameron’s involvement in the Panama Papers tax scandal as well as the upcoming EU referendum is prompting some commentators to suggest that he may soon be forced to resign. Should he do so, it will be his party, not the public, who will decide on his replacement.

This highlights two different ways of electing a leader; directly and indirectly – and knowing how a leader is elected can add a new level of political intrigue to your fictional setting. Does your leader need to convince the people, or just his party? Let’s take a look.

While the US presidential election (with its electoral college system) is technically not a direct method of election of the kind used in Mexico, it resembles one in the sense that voters cast their votes for a specific person. A candidate’s chances of being elected leader therefore rely almost entirely on their ability to convince as many voters as possible (in some cases, such as in Brazil, the winner must also reach a minimum percentage of the votes cast).

In most indirect elections, such as most parliamentary systems, the public votes only for the representative for their constituency. The representatives, in turn, then elect the government (usually from among their own number). In Westminster systems, the leader of the largest party usually becomes Prime Minister, without further public input.

Example: Grand Lord Wykal has a problem; he’s losing control in the Court of Mages. The public still adore him. Of course they do; his continued support for education and the training of mages across the land has brought on a new age of prosperity. Unfortunately, the sudden influx of new mages has created more competition for the Mage Consuls; with Consul Xiatha in particular likely to lose her position to some young upstart in the next Choosing. As she sees it, Wykal’s policy was designed purposely to remove his rivals from their positions and replace them with his supporters who are newly trained mages and thus unqualified for the job. This position is gaining traction in the Court, and Wykal is beginning to fear that Xiatha and the other Mage Consuls will attempt to remove him from power before the Choosing comes, and undo all of his good work.

We can see here an indirect system of elected governance; the people elect the Mage Consuls from among the local mages, and the Mage Consuls in turn elect the Grand Lord. This has allowed a situation where the Grand Lord may well be removed from power despite being enormously popular with the public at large, because he lacks the support of the Mage Consuls – who are acting, in this case, in their own self-interest in order to retain their positions.

We could just as easily turn this on its head; a leader who is very unpopular with the public, but has the full support of the other Mage Consuls. We might imagine this being the case if Xiatha persuades enough of the other Mage Consuls to remove Wykal and elect her in his place. We might imagine her stance on undoing much of Wykal’s training schemes and barring new mages from standing in the Choosing being very popular among the self-interested Mage Consuls, but not so much with the general public.

Example: Yvette Zanto should be president. That’s not just her opinion. It’s a fact. President Armand Barea had managed to remain in power on 32% of the popular vote. If he hadn’t scrapped the 50% minimum requirement, he wouldn’t have had a chance. Everyone off-world had voted for him. All of those pro-Mars policies that had plunged most of Earth into poverty to prop up failing Martian infrastructure had won him every single vote from the colonies. It had cost him virtually every single voter on Earth at the same time, and he knew it. He knew it enough to get the minimum scrapped by his friends in the Solar Court. Knew that it would abolish the runoff elections and split the vote among his competitors. Yvette’s 28% hadn’t been enough, but she’d have smashed Barea in the runoff elections, and both Barea and the voters knew that too. She should be president.

Here we see a direct electoral system for the presidency. Until recently, a president must gain at least 50% of the vote (much like the Brazillian system), and if no candidate reached it on the first ballot, the election was re-run with only the two highest-scoring candidates. However, recognising that he would likely lose such a runoff election, President Barea has changed the rules (perhaps publicly justifying it by appeal to the expense of running a second election in difficult financial times).

What’s the likely outcome of this? All of Barea’s supporters are off-world, while the majority of Earth’s voters have seemingly adopted an “anyone but Barea” stance, and would vote for Zanto in the runoff election if one had been held. Are these voters likely to simply sit back and accept the election result which many may see as rigged against them? Or are we likely to see the beginnings of a civil war, with Zanto at its head?

If your fictional world is a democratic one, how are your leaders elected? What factors do they need to keep in mind in order to achieve and retain power? And who, exactly, do your leaders need to keep on side?