What are the problems faced by political parties in transitional democracies? How can international aid to political parties be improved? This book chapter from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace draws on extensive research to analyse political party aid. A low regard for political parties is common in developing and post-communist states but little is known about the impact of this and the effectiveness of party aid. Party aid should work at a deeper level by focusing attention on power and politics.
The troubled state of parties in new or struggling democracies constitutes a weak link, often the weakest link, in democratisation. They are frequently beset with persistent problems of self-interest, corruption, ideological incoherence, and narrow electoralism. In developing and post-communist states, there has been a large increase of political pluralism and multiparty elections. There has also been a growth in the number and range of political parties, but political parties are held in extremely low regard. This summary focuses on the book’s first chapter, ‘The Standard Lament’.
There are some common conditions in developing democracies in which parties attempt to establish themselves and in which international aid operates. These challenges are as follows:
- Parties are perceived to be corrupt, uncooperative with other each other, inactive, ill-prepared to govern and to have vague policy platforms.
- Citizens new to pluralistic politics find it difficult to detect which negative features of parties and politicians are inevitable constituents of the democratic process and which are signs of difficulty.
- There is a tendency to blame political parties for harsh conditions and poor service delivery that result not from the parties themselves but from state weakness.
- Many civil society organisations have weak links to the citizenry and instead tend to be self-appointed representatives of an assumed public interest.
- Parties act as a connecting mechanism between citizens and the state but they are affected by a wider set of socio-political conditions and institutions. The fragmented nature of many states, with low levels of trust and weak associational life, often undermines the ability of citizens to work together to express their interests.
- International political party aid is often more separate from other aspects of democracy assistance and is considered problematic because parties are political organisations and have a reputation of being corrupt.
The most negative consequence of weak party development is the inadequate representation of citizens’ interests. Citizens’ frustration is usually rooted in the sense that the government is not responding to their needs and interests. Troubled political party development damages democratisation and some of its further consequences are that:
- Parties often do little to help citizens understand the how and why of democratic participation beyond voting.
- Parties’ own ideological incoherence confuses rather than clarifies citizens’ choices.
- Parties’ involvement in money politics distorts the nature of contacts they have with citizens and the political values they embody.
- When parties come to power or participate in government, they tend to import their internal pathologies. Party elites used to working in hierarchical, personalistic, and untransparent organisations carry those habits into governmental roles.
- Parties dependent on powerful, behind-the-scenes financial backers bring unhealthy ties into government.