What contribution do, or could, political parties make to the emergence of a democratic developmental state? This article from the Development Policy Review finds that according to the available evidence their contribution is very limited, in terms of either democracy-building or policy-making, recruitment, ensuring accountability or policy implementation. Reasons include weak institutionalisation and the prevalence of clientelism. External assistance is likely to be limited in impact and should ideally be indirect, as autonomous party development is important.
The original developmental states tended to be authoritarian, but an increasing emphasis on process as well as policy and accountability as well as effectiveness has brought political parties more attention. Parties have generally not lived up to expectations, however, either in strengthening democracy or in promoting a developmental state and good governance. There has also been a tendency to portray and measure parties in developing countries in relation to an idealised and outdated understanding of Western political parties.
Factors limiting parties’ contribution to democratic developmental states include the character of political parties, the nature of party systems and the wider social context:
- Parties do not add to the overall popular legitimacy of the political system, but may be one of its ‘weakest links’.
- Clientelism tends to undermine long-term processes including regularised processes of internal decision-making and supporters’ identification with the party or its platform.
- ‘Reverse clientelism’ in which party leaders exchange favours for financial support from wealthy sponsors is extensive and on the rise.
- Western pressure for democratic opening has meant that multi-party elections have arrived at extremely short notice giving limited time for parties to establish themselves.
- Highly fragmented party systems tend to be associated with fragile coalitions and regime instability, (even) less transparent policy-making and bargains struck behind the scenes.
- In practice, all political parties in developing countries say they favour development but they are typically very short on specifics and this is not party leaders’ primary concern.
What are the possible implications for international democracy-assistance efforts in strengthening Southern political parties? The international community should consider the following:
- External assistance in developing the capacity and institutional autonomy of state bureaucracies could help to reduce the opportunities for party clientelism.
- International lending and monitoring procedures should be more flexible, permitting national elites a greater sense of policy ownership.
- Strongly institutionalised parties are better placed to play an effective developmental role, but prospects for greater party institutionalisation in developing democracies are generally poor.
- The international community should not be over-hasty in judging parties’ performance, and should not measure them against a largely mythical model of Northern political parties.
- The international community needs to understand the constraints and imperatives that drive parties and respect their autonomy.
- ‘Indirect’ initiatives such as capacity development for MPs could encourage a more disciplined and policy-oriented parliamentary party.