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Can democracy flourish even as political parties decline? Open in fullscreen

Robert Springborg

Can democracy flourish even as political parties decline?

Americans react to Trump's presidential election win - November 2016 [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 October, 2017

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Comment: For democracy to appeal to those who do not live under it, and retain the commitment of those who do, it has to work properly, writes Robert Springborg.
Political parties in established democracies are ailing. 

In election after election the share of votes captured by "historic" parties has declined, as most recently was the case in the German election.

The French election in June was won by En Marche, scarcely a year old. In the US, Donald Trump essentially kidnapped the fragmented Republican Party, as Bernie Sanders almost succeeded in doing with the equally fragmented Democrats. 

Votes lost by historically dominant parties are not being won by long-standing, third party rivals, such as Germany's Free Democrats and Greens, or the UK's Liberal Democrats.

Instead, the big winners are recently mobilised movements, as in the case of En Marche, Italy's Five Star Movement, or Germany's Alternativ fur Deutschland. While these newcomers to the political scene have some of the trappings of political parties, they lack the organisational depth and ideological breadth, to say nothing of the political experience, of traditional parties.

More protest movements than political parties, they may fade away when their protest succeeds or, for that matter, fails. 

While the effervescence of protest politics could be seen as a sign of vigour rather than lassitude in the body politics of established democracies, that would be an unduly optimistic diagnosis.

The bumpy path of Italy's Five Star Movement as it has tried to move from protest movement to a governing party illustrates the difficulties of channeling popular discontent into a political organisation and then onward and upward into the shaping and implementation of public policies.

Rome's rubbish continues to mount despite Five Star having gained control of the city's government. Chronic fractiousness in Marine Le Pen's National Front is characteristic of these nascent political organisations as they try to mature from personal coteries into institutionalised parties.

 Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Paris, on May 7, 2017 [Getty]
 Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Paris, on May 7, 2017 [Getty]

The steady decline in card carrying membership of established parties is not being compensated for by expanding, committed membership in the newer wannabees.

Their members' commitment tends to be more conditional and ephemeral, rendering the task of organsation-building all the more difficult.

It is as if these prospective supporters are doing their political shopping online, not taking the trouble to go and try on the merchandise.

Why then, this decline in political parties which the upsurge of protest movements cum nascent parties has yet to arrest, if indeed it ever will?   

One reason is the overall decline of social capital in advanced economies. It is not just Americans who are "bowling alone," to use the title from Robert Putnam's classic study. The English, French, Germans and other Europeans are also doing pretty much everything on their own, including engaging in politics.

The all-enveloping political parties that emerged in the early years of parliamentary democracy and engaged their members in political, welfare, educational and other activities, cannot buck the ebbing away of social capital, propelled as it is by residential, vocational, technological, cultural and other factors. 

Hammering together a party platform that is both broad enough to appeal to large numbers of voters and yet specific enough to generate enthusiastic commitment, is an ever more difficult task

As the citizenry becomes more diverse, the challenge grows of crafting public policies that will be both effective and appeal to broad constituencies. Historic parties had all-inclusive platforms, typically united around core values for which the parties stood.

Achieving ideological and policy coherence was not so demanding when populations were more homogeneous and interactive, and globalisation not so pervasive. In that bygone era parties offered prix fixe political menus which their constitutents happily consumed.

Now, potential party supporters prefer to dine a la carte, selecting from a wider range of issues and choices to better suit their individual preferences. This is classic liberalism run amok, with every citizen now valuing his or her personal preference above potential benefits of solidarity.

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Hammering together a party platform that is both broad enough to appeal to large numbers of voters and yet specific enough to generate enthusiastic commitment, is an ever more difficult task for all political parties. 

Changes in the institutional distribution of power in these democracies have also undermined the role of traditional parties. Decision making has increasingly been concentrated in executives at the expense of legislative bodies. The US House and Senate meet in plenary sessions, for example, much less than even a decade ago, while their legislative output has declined precipitately.

European parliamentary parties have seen their roles eroded by party leaders. Backbenchers play ever more marginal roles in legislatures that are themselves being eclipsed by executive branches. Political parties are rendered less relevant by administrative decision making, which is less public and unlikely to consider a wide range of policy alternatives. 

European parliamentary parties have seen their roles eroded by party leaders

The way in which parties have responded to these challenges is a further cause of their decline.

In a word, they have corporatised, like most other institutions in advanced capitalist systems. They have centralised power and internal decision making. Their professional staffs have developed apps that dictate not only where the party will concentrate its campaign efforts, but which policies and candidates will be supported.

Funding is vital to this corporatisation. Money is sought from wealthy corporate and personal donors, or from crowdfunding, rather than membership fees. Parties, in short, have come to be dominated by experts in finance and management, who have sidelined more traditional politicians inspired in greater measure by ideals and linked more tightly to constituents.

What relevance does the decline of western-style political parties have for the Middle East?

At a general level, it renders democracy less attractive as it points to the shortcomings in that form of governance. The growing appeal of authoritarianism, whether Russian, Chinese, or some other variant, is the flip side of the declining appeal of democracy.

If voters in established democracies are so disaffected, why should Middle Easterners adopt a system that produces this alienation

If voters in established democracies are so disaffected, why should Middle Easterners adopt a system that produces this alienation? Why not instead opt for say the Chinese model, based as it is on a "Confucian" style Communist Party that recruits and trains the best and the brightest to manage the country, albeit in authoritarian fashion.

More specific to the Middle East is that its political parties preceded the decline of those in established democracies.

The once robust parties of the nationalist era, such as the Wafd in Egypt, the Bath in Syria and Iraq, the Communists in the latter and the Neo-Destour in Tunisia, have ended in the dustbins of history of postcolonial authoritarian rule. 

The single "parties" that replaced them, such as Egypt's National Democratic Party, have nowhere taken root. Mass politics are now monopolised by lethargic, top-down state instrumentalities, or by energised, bottom up tribal, regional, ethnic or religious groupings.

The hope of the Arab Spring, that citizens mobilised into street politics would then join political parties and shift the arena of political contestation from streets into parliaments, was not fulfilled, with the partial exception of Tunisia. But even there, the now dominant party is a legacy of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras.

Morsi supporters celebrate his election victory in Tahrir Square

Morsi supporters celebrate his presidential election victory
in Tahrir Square June 2012 [Getty]

Although the Islamist movement has spawned parties such as Egypt's Muslim Brothers' Freedom and Justice Party, they are in all cases, with the possible exception of Tunisia's al-Nahda, appendages of Islamist movements rather than independent entities.

They were created as tactical moves to take advantage of public space offered by elections and parliaments, not as strategic commitments to party based democratic politics.

Islamist movements are tightly organised, quasi-cults that provide a totalistic economic, social, and political context for their members. In this regard they more closely resemble historic rather than contemporary labour parties. But their internal workings are less democratic than were those in labour parties in Europe, and their commitment to democracy much more negotiable.

The inadequate performance of political parties in established democracies and in the Middle East raises the question of whether democracy can flourish in their near absence. The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. At least no viable alternative to organising citizen participation in a democratic fashion has yet been devised.

The inadequate performance of political parties in established democracies and in the Middle East raises the question of whether democracy can flourish in their near absence

So-called e-governance, which amounts to registering citizen opinions remotely in response to policy alternatives, offers some hope, but it has yet to resolve the difficulties of moving beyond electronic referenda into the vital, personal, face to face bargaining of democratic politics.   

So there seems no alternative but to try various ways to invigorate political parties, both in established and aspiring democracies. Public funding of political parties should be generous and widely available, thereby reducing the influence of wealthy donors and professional party fundraisers.

Electoral systems should be re-engineered to encourage turnout and more accurately reflect voter preferences, which proportional representation combined with allocation of preferences on the Australian model, possibly supplemented with mandatory voting, would achieve.

E-governance models should be further developed to enhance the roles of parties in municipal, regional and national decision making.

The list can be extended, but the key point is that if democracy is going to appeal to those who do not live under it, and to retain the commitment of those who do, it has to work well.

That in turn depends in considerable measure on the effectiveness and representativeness of political parties. Their decline is thus worrying and should stimulate concerted action to arrest it, not only for the benefit of citizens of advanced democracies, but also to enhance the flagging appeal of democracy in the Middle East.     

 

Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff
  

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