Should we abandon the sister-party approach to democracy promotion?

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Susan Dodsworth and our Co-Editor, Nic Cheeseman, interrogate whether partnering political parties with purportedly similar political ideologies is a helpful means of democracy promotion. Their paper will be available here, later this week. 

Support to political parties is perhaps the most difficult, and most criticised, form of democracy promotion. This is particularly true of programmes that use the sister-party approach, a model of political party support that centres on relationships between parties with similar ideological positions, and which is favoured by UK political parties. In our most recent policy paper (which we’re launching this week, and will be made available here), Nic Cheeseman and I draw on the body of practice accumulated by UK political parties, through programmes funded via the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), to work out what the sister-party approach has to offer. We argue that the sister party approach has value but that shared ideology should be just the start; sister-party programmes work best when parties have something more than ideology in common.

Why are people dubious about the sister-party approach?

The limited research we have accumulated to date suggests that the results of political party support are at best limited, and rarely transformative. There is some evidence that other forms of party support can make a difference, but scepticism about the value of sister-party programmes is particularly deeply entrenched. This is partially because democracy promoters are often working in countries where the left-right ideological spectrum that has defined politics in the West is blurred or non-existent. In such a context, finding genuine, sister parties can be a stretch. It is also because there is less evidence available about how sister-party programmes work in practice. Sister-party programmes rely heavily on relationships of trust and confidence and often touch on politically sensitive issues. This has reduced transparency: those providing support to political parties have been unwilling to let outsiders see their programmes at work. Luckily, as our collaborative project with WFD demonstrates, some democracy promoters are now more willing to open up their work to outside eyes.

Why is the sister-party approach worth saving?

A shared ideological position, even if it only exists at a relatively abstract level, makes it easier to establish a relationship of trust and confidence between parties. It is that relationship – not the shared ideological position itself – that accounts for much of the value of sister-party programmes. In political-party support, the presence or absence of trust can make or break a programme – and this can be very difficult to build for actors who are not politicians themselves. A relationship of trust and confidence brings a number of advantages. Where such a relationship exists, party leaders are more willing to listen to advice and more willing to be honest about the weaknesses or short-comings of their parties. A strong, sister-party relationship can allow those providing assistance to tell party leaders things that they do not want to hear. It can also foster strong, personal relationships between key individuals in both parties. This is critical. No matter how well a programme is designed, if the leaders of the party being assisted do not support it, or at least tacitly accept it, it is unlikely to change anything.

An important caveat is that these are potential advantages. Simply using the sister-party approach won’t generate them automatically. They are far more likely to arise if the sister-party approach is used in the right circumstances.

When does the sister-party approach works best?

This, of course, raises the question: what precisely are those ‘right circumstances’? In our policy paper, we argue that the ‘right circumstances’ are when political parties share not just ideology, but something more. Often, that something more is a similar structural position in the political system. This refers to several things, including the relative size of a political party, whether it is part of a coalition, and – in the case of opposition parties – whether it seeking to regain power (having been in government previously) or to gain power for the first time.

These kinds of similarities cropped up again and again in all of WFD’s most successful political party programmes. For example:

  • The Liberal Democrats gave the Liberal Democracy Party (LDP) in Serbia tough advice about the weakness of its position on LGBT rights, prompting them to establish a new human rights council within the party. According to someone familiar with the programme, ‘the key was getting them to accept that they were always going to be a junior party in any coalition or government’ and so did not need to adopt ‘catch-all’ policies. This harsh truth was far more palatable coming from a party in a similar position to that of the LDP.
  • The Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) has supported the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) in South Africa. The ACDP had struggled to attract media coverage on issues other than those seen as having a moral or religious aspect. The DUP experienced the same problem in the past. It drew on its experience to help the ACDP to develop a stronger communication strategy, one that expanded the range of issues on which it received media coverage.

What are the implications of this?

The advantage of having more in common than ideology has, paradoxically, made it easier for smaller parties to do effective sister-party work and harder for larger parties to do the same. Newer, less-established democracies tend to feature a lot of small parties; smaller UK political parties can often find several parties with whom they share a similar structural position. It is rare for larger political parties to find this kind of match. In the countries where political-party support is needed, large parties with experience in government tend to be the ruling (and often distinctly authoritarian) party. The opposition is often fragmented into a number of smaller parties; no large opposition party exists. This means that it is more difficult for larger parties to do sister-party support well. They have to be far more selective about who they work with, and more strategic about what they do. Abandoning the sister-party approach to democracy promotion would be a mistake, but we do need to be more careful about where we use it.

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