The crucial role of party assistance for strengthening democracy

By Matthias Catón

Political parties are not exactly the darlings of public opinion. Just like politicians, parties usually get a bad rap: parties only want power, they abuse government and look after themselves rather than the public good. Sounds familiar?

The public perception of parties in young or established democracies doesn’t differ that much either. But like them or not, modern representative democracy cannot do without political parties.

The functions of political parties

Political parties provide the connection between politics and society. In this sense they fulfill four crucial functions.

First, political parties develop policies and programs. This is the content side of their responsibility. It ensures that there are different choices in the political marketplace – not only in terms of candidates but also in terms of ideas. Once in government, a party can start implementing these ideas.

Second, parties pick up demands from society and bundle them into packages. Demands are numerous and sometimes conflicting. Parties are able to discuss and evaluate these issues and shape human needs into policy alternatives. In so doing they are an important part of the political process.

Third, parties are the main vehicles for recruiting and selecting people for government and legislative office. Although they are often criticized for filling posts with their own people, this is what they are supposed to do: high level public positions, that is, those considered political rather than technical, need to be filled somehow and parties provide a responsible vehicle for that.

Fourth, parties either oversee or control government depending on whether they are in government or opposition.

The reality

Unfortunately, political parties often fail to perform these roles adequately or with sufficient credibility. Some are fundamentally weak and rely heavily on the personal appeal of their leader. If parties are not properly connected to society, they will remain distant from voters’ concerns. Finally, the best person will not occupy political office if candidate selection is based on nepotism rather than on merit.

These shortcomings become a concern when they start to impact adversely on the functioning of democracy. To prevent this from occurring, the international community is able to offer crucial assistance to political parties.

What is party assistance?

Party assistance varies greatly. It includes the provision of training courses, knowledge resources or specialized advice. Depending on the nature of the problem, assistance can be provided to strengthen the internal functioning of political parties or to improve the external regulation of political parties.

Yet party assistance itself can suffer from a lack of clarity about what it is supposed to achieve. This makes choosing the right approach more difficult. It also means that there is no proper evaluation at the end of a project – so it can remain unclear whether the assistance is a success or a failure.

International IDEA is committed to making party assistance as effective as possible, precisely because it is so important. To this end, the Effective Party Assistance initiative was launched in January 2007 at a workshop in Stockholm. The aim of the initiative is to find a consensus about how party assistance projects should be planned and implemented. Although the discussion has some distance to run, International IDEA strongly supports the development of principles covering the following areas:

(1) an approach that deals with the central functions of political parties;
(2) better integration of party assistance with other areas of democracy support; and
(3) needs assessment, monitoring and evaluation.

International IDEA recently took the debate further and presented a policy paper on these issues at workshop in Ottawa on 27 November 2007. International IDEA will use the coming year to work with others to develop firm principles of what constitutes effective party assistance.

Matthias Catón is a Programmer Officer at International IDEA in Stockholm, responsible for the Effective Party Assistance initiative


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