Setting tenor for democracy: Why political parties matter

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BY NDUNG’U WAINAINA

An associational life of people in pursuit of their common interest and good takes different forms. Political parties are such forums, for people to mobilise and organise. They are basically supposed to be democratic platforms for citizens seeking to influence the affairs and processes of governance of their country. 

Political parties are an essential component of a well-functioning democracy. Like them or hate them, in representative democracy, they are the drivers of politics, notwithstanding how they are structured and governed. Representatives elected through them should be guided by the policies and decisions of their parties. Political context and culture, legal situation, availability of resources, and the political and governance system are some of the factors that determine the level of development and institutionalisation of political parties. 

Political parties are supposed to provide a crucial connection between politics and society. They ought to serve the common good of all their members and act as instruments in the service of the welfare of the country. Parties are means to end. Unfortunately, Kenyan political parties, which are highly personalised, disorganised and moribund most of the time of the election cycle, fail to perform their roles adequately and with sufficient credibility. 

Political parties, while their ultimate focus is taking political power or retaining it, are supposed to be well developed and institutionalised, with proper structures, clear decision-making processes and legal tools regulating their internal democratic functioning.   Adaptability, complexity, autonomy and coherence in nomenclature and engagement in public affairs demonstrate the level of institutionalisation of a political party. 

 

Without strong and independent political parties, social and political stability, as well good governance, is muted. Political parties should protect effective representation and participation through well-informed vibrant policy debates and competition. This requires a political environment in which political parties are developed and conscientious political education among citizens promoted.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organisation that supports sustainable democracy worldwide, political parties have four functions. First, they develop policies and programmes. This is the content side of their responsibility. They ensure 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 criticised for filling posts with undemocratically selected 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.

Apart from occasional press conferences and party top level executive committees’ meetings, majority of political parties in Kenya are fundamentally weak and rely heavily on the personal appeal of their leaders. They lack sustained and proper connection to society and voters’ concerns. Rarely do they produce and consistently conduct cogent policy advocacy. They are largely conveyer belts of individuals to political office. Their conduct, despite the existence of governing legal framework provided by the Political Parties Act, is unpredictable, episodic and wobbling. 

The transition from single-party rule to multi-partyism brought with it a dynamic increase in the number of political parties. This has led to new challenges, not least how to regulate the registration, operation and role of parties in the democratic system. This political party’s proliferation phenomenon continues to be contentious and crucial to the desired development and stabilisation of democracy. 

The relationship between the political parties and the public, though full of suspicion and distrust, keep changing. The notion of “top-down leadership” is being challenged with the idea that political parties should be based on the impulses and activities of its members from the lowest echelons, and should be open to internal renewal and change. 

The deepening of democracy in the country is forcing political parties to adopt internal democracy. Fierce leadership contestations inside parties is sending the message that they  are less and less  “machines” with “bosses”, “oligarchs”, and “barons”, and more of (at least they ought to be) transparent organisations in which individual members – and their voices and votes – carry greater weight. The law requiring public funding of political parties has also started to see their opening as public goods, from which much is expected and demanded. 

Higher levels of accountability and openness towards the media, civil society and the public at large are all required of parties today. Both of these levels – the relationship between parties, and the relationship between the public and parties – are crucial to political parties’ role in the political processes. 

Parties are vehicles to transmit ideas and interests of citizens from the grassroots into the institutions of governance. Indeed, the relevance of political parties has now been firmly anchored within the overall institutional architecture and processes of the democratic state. However, if this mechanism is to work, there are three fundamental conditions necessary. 

First, there needs to be a way for the ideas and interests of party members and supporters to actually make themselves known to party leaders. Internal party democracy is a key vehicle for generating genuine political choice that has roots in society. Second, in real  political pluralism, honesty about the way in which barriers deliberately enacted can limit and deter wider civic participation is necessary, and think carefully about how regulation can be designed that does not hinder the rights of citizens to participate in the political processes. This is crucial if multi-party democracy is to have any meaning at all. Third, beyond legal barriers, the ways in which real representation can be hindered by how the political systems impact differently on diverse groups in society is real. For instance, women remain underrepresented in political life – not enough of them are elected into institutions of governance from political parties. 

Political parties, as key vehicles of representation, are major obstacles to change as well as forces for reform in this aspect. It follows that those who run them need to pay attention to the internal functioning of their structures and systems, and adopt initiatives to enhance women’s equal access to party resources. 

Political parties are fundamental to structuring the work of Parliament in providing discipline and clarity in policy positions and voting procedures. They are supposed to offer a choice and contrast of policies in society at large. Parties in parliament must represent a spectrum of voices, ideas and interests in any given political process.

In modern democracy, the legislature is the only branch of government where the multi-party system is permanently recognised. How Parliament deals with the political parties sitting within it should thus be a key measure of how pluralism is respected as a whole. Parliament is the institution where political parties should be able to compete and collaborate for the good of society. 

Where one party dominates, and the opposition is excluded from policy processes in Parliament, politics becomes tense, polarised and “zero-sum”. As a result, Parliament becomes its worst caricature; a chaotic arena of bitter confrontation, leading many to question its use. Multi-party democracy and pluralism with its wealth of ideas, diversity of views, and tolerance of dissent cannot be said to fully exist, if it is not reflected in Parliament. 

Likewise, Parliament cannot fulfil its role if diversity of views is not adequately reflected in it. Furthermore, Parliament is as forum of debate, discussion and decision making is crucial for helping to shape the essence of multi-party democracy of alternatives and choices. When Parliament fails to debate and decide, parties not in government cannot have a chance at presenting themselves to citizens as alternative stewards of the people’s trust. 

Equal and fair participation in parliament requires that all parties – government and opposition – be responsible stake holders in public debate. Parliament is one of the greater stabilising mechanisms in a democracy. When parties in opposition have participated fully and fairly in Parliament, it becomes more likely they will act as stake holders in the system of government as a whole. On the other hand, when the opposition is suppressed in parliamentary debates and procedures, or even out of parliament as a whole, the opposition is only likely to grow weaker or more radical. 

Weak parliaments and weak parties feed on each other in a vicious circle. This undermines the creation of robust multi-party democracy, with a plural and strong parliament. Political parties have not always pursued inclusive policies or maintained high levels of integrity. Moreover, there has not always been true representation of many segments of society. The popular perception is often that narrow interest groups receive special treatment and are able to control political parties.

 

Scandals surrounding political parties and their leaders have had a negative impact on the level of trust and confidence society places in political parties and democracy at large. Political parties need to rebuild their relations with voters in order to protect the pivotal role they have in democracies and preserve their function. Ensuring vibrant political parties is one of the major challenges to the foundation of multiparty democracy in the 21st century. Multiparty democracy is only as good as its individual parts, and the extent to which transparency and accountability of political parties is enforced.

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