Political parties: Hard to work with, impossible to ignore

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Susan Dodsworth gives us the highlights from her recent paper, published with Nic Cheeseman, on political parties and democracy promotion. Susan is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow In The Political Economy of Democracy Promotion at the University of Oxford.

Thomas Carothers once described political parties as the ‘weakest link’ in new and less established democracies. He did so because they suffer a range of problems: they tend to be centred on a handful of key individuals, disconnected from society, and internally undemocratic. Many are poorly managed and inadequately funded. Consequently, they struggle to develop coherent policies and, especially in the case of opposition parties, to mount effective election campaigns. In many countries, the personalization of politics and a lack of internal democracy means that parties struggle to manage succession processes, with the need to select new leaders often triggering internal fragmentation and in some cases collapse. When this occurs, it sets the process of party institutionalization back considerably. As if this were not enough, these parties also tend to exist in contexts where it is very hard for democracy promoters to operate effectively, countries where the rule of law is weak, poverty is widespread and the legacy of authoritarianism has created a population deeply disenchanted with politics. In short, political parties are a challenging target for democracy promoters.

Yet political parties cannot be ignored; despite rising public disillusionment with political parties (both overseas and in the UK), most agree that they are an essential part of any robust and healthy democracy. In our latest policy paper (available here), Nic Cheeseman and I draw on the experience of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to identify how democracy promoters can develop more strategic approaches to supporting political parties overseas. Its work on political parties – implemented primarily by UK political parties – takes place in many different countries around the world.

Our analysis of that experience – presented in more depth in the policy paper – led us to make several suggestions. One key suggestion focuses on the issue of co-ordination. In international development more broadly, coordination has become a key concern, with organisations becoming keenly aware of the dangers of fragmented approaches. All too often, however, when program designers say they are taking a ‘co-ordinated approach’ they are only trying to avoid duplicating the actions of others. The proposals we surveyed from UK political parties and the feedback on those proposals from the WFD’s Board and FCO staff operated within this definition of coordination. In our paper, we push for a fuller notion of ‘co-ordination’, encouraging democracy promoters to actively identify areas of collaboration and complementarity with other programmes. This approach encourages proposals to go beyond identifying the gaps an intervention will fill to explore how this intervention might reinforce the efforts of other democracy promoters. By reconfiguring our definition of ‘co-ordination’ we may make it just a little bit easier to support these political actors, who are hard to work with but impossible to ignore.

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