The Australian Labor Party is currently conducting a nationwide postal ballot of its membership to elect the next national president from a field of five candidates.

Voting ends on June 12, and the new president will take the chair at the federal conference in Melbourne on July 24.

The early expectation was that the resurgent left-wing faction would win the position. That is no longer certain because the left has managed, almost predictably, to shoot itself in both feet.

Firstly, the left vote is split between federal member Mark Butler from Adelaide, and Victorian cabinet minister Jane Garrett, MP for Brunswick.

The contest has created a yawning breach in left solidarity. Butler has received the endorsement of the executive of the NSW Socialist Left, led by opposition infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese and union official Rose Jackson.

Garrett, Minister for Emergency Services, Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation in the Andrews government, has collared the Victorian vote and is being supported by Labor women in other states.

As one of the two current national vice-presidents, Garrett was expecting automatic election to the top job until Butler threw his fedora into the ring.

The factional clash between Butler and Garrett has raised another question among left supporters: how will a federal shadow minister and a state cabinet minister find time to conduct the affairs of national president? Aren’t their current jobs arduous enough?

If he wins the current ballot, Butler, MP for Port Adelaide and opposition spokesman for the environment, climate change and water, will play a key role in the next federal election campaign, but he will be wearing two titfers — party president and Labor’s salesman on environmental and climate policy. Confused? The voters might be.

The left’s division has created an unexpected advantage for the right’s favoured candidate, WA barrister Tim Hammond, who has dubbed himself as “the rank and file’s ambassador to the parliamentary party”.

Backed by right-wing union leaders in the eastern states, Hammond is running a party-reform ticket that has not impressed Robin Rothfield and Shane Prince, national conveners of Labor for Refugees.

In a circular to ALP members, the refugee advocates address Hammond directly, saying: “Well, Tim, many of the rank and file want a more humane policy on refugees and asylum seekers. We cannot behave in government next time as we did when last in government.”

The other candidates are former senator Louise Pratt from WA, and Melbourne-based Dr Henry Pinskier, descended from a Polish shoemakers’ union official.

In the recent past the ALP’s national president was unelected. The officeholder was chosen by the national executive in Masonic-like secrecy.

The successful nominee was traditionally male and from the party’s gallery of elder statesmen — Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Barry Jones, etc. But since adopting Kevin Rudd’s “reform” agenda, the position has become fiercely contested because it represents a pivotal point of influence in party affairs. This is despite the fact that the national president plays a non-voting role on the national executive.

The departing national president, the eminently successful Jenny McAllister, who recently replaced John Faulkner in the Senate, is from the Socialist Left and was widely expected to be succeeded by 44-year-old Butler.

However, a division in the left camp and the right-wing Centre Unity juggernaut backing Hammond has shattered the previous predictions.

A post-election stewards’ inquiry may yet be necessary.