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How can we revitalise the role of political parties and rebuild the trust that is central to democracy?

The 2021 Global Forum on Democracy, hosted by Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) in November, considered, amongst many topics, the particular challenges that political parties currently face, particularly in the face of growing populism and authoritarian rule. Our Executive Director, Corinne Momal-Vanian, shared her thoughts on the topic in a panel discussion during the two-day forum. The following article captures her views and recommendations for revitalising political parties and rebuilding the trust central to a healthy and sustainable democracy.

Amongst the problems for electoral democracy posed by the rise of populism and authoritarianism are several distinct challenges for political parties. These challenges are compounding trends over recent decades, which have seen the relevance, popularity and influence of political parties decrease in many regions. However, while they may be under stress, the role political parties can play as instruments for social dialogue, fostering consensus among generations, and representing all social sectors is today more necessary than ever. In short, revitalising political parties is critical to revitalising democracy.

“…revitalising political parties is critical to revitalising democracy.”

Lack of faith in democracy

Foremost amongst the challenges is arguably the sense that democracy and democratic systems have largely failed to deliver on the aspirations of voters. This is particularly true when we consider young people, who increasingly view democracy as unresponsive to their needs. The Democracy Perception index published during the fourth Copenhagen Democracy Summit in May 2021, showed that while 81% of people still want democracy, only half think they live in one. There is a big gap between citizens’ expectations of their elected governments and perceptions of democratic delivery by these governments. A corollary to the lack of faith in democracy as a system is dwindling faith in political parties as a key element of that system, and their ability to act as representatives in social debates or to produce legitimate solutions to public demands.

“While 81% of people still want democracy, only half think they live in one.”

In some areas of the world, reduced party identification and diminishing party membership are due to higher levels of apartisan voters who tend to be more reliant on their own judgment, rather than a party, to determine how to cast their votes. Again, this is particularly true of young people. Globally, the 2016 UN Global Youth Report showed that adherence to political parties is lower among those under the age of 30 than among older adults. The report noted that only 4% of 18- to 29-year-old people were active party members as opposed to 5% of all adults.

Social media and new technology

Social media has further compounded these trends, as political candidates no longer need a party base or apparatus to reach a significant number of voters or influence the national political discourse. At the same time, voters now use social media to communicate directly with leaders or decision-makers, by-passing political party structures to have their voices heard.  Social media and other ICT’s have also facilitated greater access to information, eradicating the traditional role of parties in educating voters about complex problems so that they become more accessible for majority consumption. New communications tools have also facilitated the organisation of issue-based movements, as we have seen in the global movements around climate change or racism, and at a national level, for instance, on changes to agricultural laws in India.

Populist movements offering an alternative

Just as populists have criticised democracies as ineffective in addressing voters real concerns, traditional parties have been attacked as elitist and out of touch by populist movements which claim to offer an alternative.  These parties thrive when mainstream political parties are in crisis, with devasting consequences for democracy. Populist leaders often gain power through legitimate means, as we have seen in Hungary, Poland or Brazil, then use it to capture or weaken state institutions and undermine democratic norms in order to remain in power.  Resources are then directed to supporters; opposition parties are quashed, unable to play a meaningful role, and extending their rule becomes the primary concern of the governing Party, rather than delivering to citizens.

Political parties: capable of delivering change

However, political parties still continue to be the main structural element of most political systems, capable of delivering change when mass social movements struggle to do so. Consider the Arab spring – in which popular movements managed to topple several governments. In Egypt and Tunisia, it was the most organised political parties – the Muslim Brotherhood and Enahda, not the groups who led the street protests, which gained political power in the aftermath of these protests. Why? Because they were organised, had a centralised leadership and effectively deployed their Party structure to deliver electoral victory, even if that did not prevent their own subsequent downfall. This trend is mirrored elsewhere; despite the popularity or size of social movements, they have largely failed to replicate the capacity of political parties to formulate policy, organise elections and dictate parliamentary priorities.

What needs to be done to rebuild the trust that is central to democracy?

There are several ways to revitalise political parties and the central role they must play in healthy and sustainable democracies. First, they must be more inclusive and responsive to popular movements or social protests and not view them as rivals. They especially need to regain the confidence of young people who increasing see such social activism as the most effective vehicle to affect change.  Engaging with youth on their key policy issues can also translate in the long-term to a larger support base for parties. Youth wings of political parties, in particular, have the potential to engage with young people in a sustained and meaningful way, yet even youth wings often remain tightly controlled by older party members

We also require increased regulation of both social media and traditional media with a view to rekindling informed, deliberative debate. Weak regulation of political advertising and extensive amounts of disinformation often plays into the hands of authoritarian regimes and populist parties. At the same time, political parties must harness the power of social media to engage and mobilise citizens, increase inclusivity and build successful models to drive citizen participation.

In the face of governments with an authoritarian bent, opposition parties must work together and develop coalitions that can provide a meaningful alternative to the regime. In many countries, authoritarian rulers have remained in power simply by successfully playing opposition parties against each other, yet as we saw in the Czech Republic last month, opposition parties working in coalition can defeat entrenched regimes.

Finally, we should consider significant changes to the way in which political parties are or can be financed. This was an issue identified by Kofi Annan’s Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security back in 2012, which called for increased transparency for political financing to build trust and legitimacy both in political parties and democratic processes.

This list is by no means exhaustive and must be considered within local contexts, but they are a solid starting point that can help to revitalise the role of political parties and re-instil the trust which is central to democracy.

Main photo: Steve Sanchez / | New York City, New York/USA January 29, 2020 Protesters