Political party | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru

Political party

(Relevant for Sociology optional for UPSC CSE)
Paper-1 ,Unit-7 : Political party

Political party

What is a political party?

  1. Political parties are a special form of social organisation. “A political party is a team of men seeking to control the governing apparatus by gaining office in a duly constituted election” (Antony Downs,).
  2. The Italian scholar Giovanni Sartori defined a party as: “any political group identified by an official label that presents at elections, and is capable of placing through election, candidates for public office.”
  3. Political party is a group of people who come together to contest election and hold power in the government. They agree on some policies and programmes for the society with a view to promote the collective good. Since there can be different views on what is good for all, parties try to persuade people why their policies are better than others. They seek to implement these policies by winning popular support through these elections.
  4. Even if these definitions demonstrate some difference in the understanding of political parties, they all emphasize the participation in elections and the interest to gain public offices and mandates as essential elements that characterise political parties. They must meet certain criteria which can be summarized as follows.
  5. In other words we can define Political party as an organization of people interested in and working to control or influence the power structure of a community or society in a way they regard as best for their interest and presumably for the best interest of the community.
  6. Thus, parties reflect fundamental political divisions in a society. Parties are about a part of the society and thus involve partisanship. Thus a party is know by which part it stands for, which policies it supports and whose interests it upholds. A political party has three components:
    • The leaders,
    • The active member and
    • The followers
  7. Political parties are visibly one of the most visible institutions in a democracy. For most ordinary citizens, democracy is equal to political parties. If we travel to remote parts of our country and speak to the less educated citizens, we could come across people who may not know anything about our Constitution or about the nature of our government. But chances are that they would know something about our political parties. At the same time this visibility does not mean popularity. Most people tend to be very critical of political parties. They tend to blame parties for all that is wrong with our democracy and our political life. Parties have become identified with social and political divisions.

Criteria to identify political parties:

  1. A party strives to influence the formation of political opinion and aims to have a general political impact. The active influence of political opinion-making is aimed at a longer period of time as well as a wider region and should not be concentrated on a local level or a single issue.
  2. A party is an association of citizens holding individual memberships, and shall have a minimum number of members, so that the seriousness of its targets and the prospects of success remain clear.
  3. A party has to demonstrate the will to consistently take part in the political representation of the people during elections. It, therefore, distinguishes itself from unions, non-governmental organisations and other initiatives that do not want to carry any political responsibilities for larger sectors but only try to have selective influence, and that do not participate in elections.
  4. A party has to be an independent and permanent organisation; it shall not be formed only for one election and cease to exist afterwards.
  5. A party must be willing to appear in public.
  6. A party does not necessarily need to win a seat in parliament, but it has to fulfil all the other criteria.

Parties can therefore be understood as permanent associations of citizens that are based on free membership and a programme, and which are anxious to occupy through the path of elections, the politically decisive positions of the country with their team of leaders, in order to materialize suggestions for resolving outstanding problems. The means of elections implies the competition of at least two parties.

Parties not only strive to participate in the formation of political opinion. They also aspire to participate in the representation of the people in parliament. This presumes that parties take part in elections. A party’s political contribution as well as its political “weight” is closely tied to elections. The will of the voters is of significant importance for the parties. Typical for parties is their “fighting spirit”—their readiness for political action and political confrontation—and their aspiration to takeover and retain governing power. This competition among parties is the instrument to gain political power and the whole organisation of a party is ultimately subject to this aim. Only those parties that participate successfully in this competition can obtain posts of political representation. This is also the main stimulation to participate in party activities and makes a party especially interesting once it is a part of a government.

Even the less attractive opposition role offers interesting elements for active participation. Political parties are always the centre/ for debates and discussions about political reforms and political change. Those interested in politics will mostly find a party that reflects the own perception, may it be a party in government or opposition. Parties in opposition exercise an important function in a democratic system as a “watchdog” of government policy and as a political alternative in the future. Opposition may be considered awful, but it is essential for the functioning of democracy.

Contrary to Interest groups, a party is expected to express itself on all issues relevant for government. One expects parties to propose views on domestic and foreign policies, economic and social policies, and youth and civil policies etc. In order to meet these requirements, each party should have a programme, in which its fundamental positioning in various areas is retained. Furthermore, one expects a party to have a consistent organisation.

Why do parties exist?

  1. Within every society there are different opinions, needs, expectations and views over daily issues; likewise “big” questions on the social organisation, its norms and procedures also exist. Something like a common will of the people or a predetermined common good does not exist. In contrast, in every society there are rivalling interests that often collide very hard. In order to peacefully mediate conflicts, the formation of political views must take place in an open process of debate between different opinions. A minimum of common conviction is necessary. This is the common sense of democracy. It is based on the principle that each citizen has the right to represent his opinion and conviction in a peaceful competition of minds.
  2. This assumption of conflicting interests within every society, which in principle are legitimate, is called pluralism or “competition theory” of democracy. According to this theory, the formation of political opinion in the pluralistic society is achieved through an open process of competition between heterogeneous interests. Due to the diversity of opinions and social conflicts there is no perfect solution to problems. Decisions have to be made on the basis of consent and approval of a majority of the citizens. Nevertheless, there may be no “tyranny of the majority” that offends democratic rules and violates inalienable human rights. Even majority decisions may imply deficiencies or even injustice. Therefore, a distinct and constitutionally guaranteed protection of minorities on the one hand, as well as the recognition of voting or election defeat of the losing side on the other hand—provided that it is a (largely) free and fair poll—are constitutive elements of this concept of democracy.
  3. Within the context of democratically managed conflicts of interests, political parties represent particular interests. Only once the contrasting interests are openly expressed and the parties accord other parties the right to represent particular interests too, and when the parties agree to the principles of the political game—for instance, if they agree principally on the democratic constitution—then it is possible to resolve conflicts in a society and form political compromises in an appropriate manner.
  4. We can also think about it by looking at the non-party based elections to the Panchayats in many states. Although, the parties do not contest formally, it is generally noticed that the villages get split into more than one faction, each of which puts up a ‘panel’ of its candidates. This is exactly what the party does. That is the reason we find political parties in almost all countries are big or small, old or new, developed or developing.
  5. The rise of political parties is directly linked to the emergence of representative democracies. As we have seen, large societies need representative democracy. As societies became large and complex, they also needed some agency to gather different views on various issues and to present these to the government. They needed some ways, to bring various representatives together so that a responsible government could be formed. They needed a mechanism to support or restrain the government, make policies, justify or oppose them. Political parties fulfill these needs that every representative government has. We can say that parties are a necessary condition for a democracy.

Parties and party systems:

  1. Of course, the freedom of parties must be ensured in the process. That means that the creation of political parties has to be free of political constraints. Nevertheless, there may be some limitations with regard to the creation of parties who openly reject the democratic constitution of a country. In principle, however, citizens must posses the right to create a party, to belong to a party and to express themselves freely in it. Freedom of parties also includes the notion that nobody can be forced to adhere to a specific party or to remain in it against his will—as was the case in some countries and still may be. The affirmation of the diversification of parties is a corollary of the recognition of pluralistic democracy.
  2. This competitive concept of democracy stands opposed to the vision of homogeneity, which supposes a uniformity of the will of the people. The French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 78) had created this vision that in theory denies the legitimacy of conflicts and defines democracy as the identity of the government and the citizens. This concept does not accept a for a plurality of parties. They are not regarded as legitimate, as they would inevitably falsify the “common will” by their particular behaviour.
  3. Deviations from the imposed and mandatory common good are not tolerated by this theory. However, it is obvious that this concept is characteristic of totalitarian states where the diversity of parties is banned and where the “common will” is defined only by a small ruling elite. Consequently, totalitarian states are identified with Rousseau. It should be noted that even Rousseau could not clarify how this “common sense” would be discovered and decided. We have to be aware that modern societies are characterized by a diversity of interests and world-views. They need political parties as central instances for the representation of this diversity of interests within the political system.

Functions of political parties:

To participate successfully in the political process and to contribute to the consolidation of democracy, political parties have to demonstrate certain capacities. In political science, these capacities are called “functions”.

Important Functions of political parties are:

  1. They articulate and aggregate social interests: Parties express public expectations and demands of social groupings to the political system (= function of political opinion-making).
  2. They recruit political personnel and nurture future generations of politicians: They select persons and present them as candidates for elections (= function of selection).
  3. They develop political programmes: Parties integrate various interests into a general political project and transform it into a political programme, for which they campaign to receive the consent and support of a majority (= function of integration).
  4. They promote the political socialisation and participation of citizens: Parties create a link between citizens and the political system; they enable political participation of individuals and groupings with the prospect of success. (= function of socialization and participation).
  5. They organise the government. They participate in elections to occupy political charges. Normally in party democracies, a good part of government authorities arise from political parties (= function of exercising political power).
  6. They contribute to the legitimacy of the political system: in establishing the connection between citizens, social groupings and the political system, the parties contribute in anchoring the political order in the consciousness of the citizens and in social forces (= function of legitimating).
  7. Parties contest elections. In most democracies, elections are fought mainly among the candidates put up by political parties. Parties select their candidates in different ways. In some countries, such as the USA, members and supporters of a party choose its candidates. Now more and more countries are following this method. In other countries like India, top party leaders choose candidates for contesting elections.
  8. Parties put forward different policies and programmes and the voters choose from them. Each of us may have different opinions and views on what policies are suitable for the society. But no government can handle such a large variety of views. In a democracy, a large number of similar opinions have to be grouped together to provide a direction in which policies can be formulated by the governments. This is what the parties do. A party reduces a vast multitude of opinions into a few basic positions which it supports. A government is expected to base its policies on the line taken by the ruling party.
  9. Parties play a decisive role in making laws for a country. Formally, laws are debated and passed in the legislature. But since most of the members belong to a party, they go by the direction of the party leadership, irrespective of their personal opinions.
  10. Parties form and run governments. As we noted last year, the big policy decisions are taken by political executive that comes from the political parties. Parties recruit leaders, train them and then make them ministers to run the government in the way they want.
  11. Those parties that lose in the elections play the role of opposition to the parties in power, by voicing different views and criticizing government for its failures or wrong policies. Opposition parties also mobilize Opposition to the government.
  12. Parties provide people access to government machinery and welfare schemes implemented by governments. For an ordinary citizen it is easy to approach a local party leader than a government officer. That is why they feel close to parties even when they do not fully trust them. Parties have to be responsive to people’s needs and demands. Otherwise people can reject those parties in the next elections.

Political party systems:

  1. The entire group of parties in a country forms the political party system. The party system reflects the pattern of relationships between individual parties in relation to each other. The composition of a party system results mainly from two factors. On the one hand it is the structure of social conflicts and interests. Classical conflicts are for instance those between capital and labour or those between secular and religiously oriented parties. On the other hand, the party and electoral laws also exercise considerable influence on the configuration of the party system depending on how liberal and free or restrictive the creation of new parties have been laid out and if the electoral system facilitates the representation of a larger number of parties in the parliament or not. Yet, in pre-democratic times the existence of one party provoked at least the emergence of another party.
  2. Throughout history, party systems have in principle developed along social and/or ideological lines of conflict. Party systems can be classified by different criteria. Most frequently it is the number of parties that are fighting for power that serves as the criteria for the description of a party system. In this way, one can differentiate one, two and multi-party systems. In a “singleparty” system only one party dominates and there is practically no political competition between parties. A “single-party” system is, as mentioned before, a contradiction in itself since a “party” should only be part of a larger group. Single party systems are therefore characterised by the oppression of political competition and democratic freedom. “Two-party system” means that two parties primarily dominate the political competition, while other, smaller parties only play a subordinate role. In a “multi-party system”, more than two parties have an effect on the political competition.
  3. The existence of a two-party or a multi-party system depends on several different factors: political traditions, the development of political institutions, the socio-economic circumstances, and the relevance of regional cleavages, and ethnical or confessional conditions. The specifications of the electoral law can have certain, but not decisive, influence on the composition of the party system. The majority voting systems (first-past-the-post-systems) rather favour the evolution of a two party system (or a system comprising only of a few dominant parties), whereas a proportional voting system is more likely to favour a multi-party system. However, there is no distinct connection between electoral and party systems.
  4. The system of government influences the development of parties and party systems insofar as a parliamentary system offers more influence for political parties because the government emerges directly from the parliament, which is dominated by the parties. In a presidential system, it is the head of government—the president—who is directly elected by the people and thus its legitimacy is based not primarily on the parliament.
  5. In addition, he mostly exercises, beside the parliament, also legislative and other functions, and he normally has a right to veto parliamentary decisions or even has the authority to dissolve the parliament. So, at first glance, in presidential systems parties play a minor role. On the other hand, in presidential systems the separation of powers is usually more evident because the parties are not linked so closely with the government. In parliamentary systems, however, the identity and especially the relationship between the government and the ruling party or parties is greater. Even so, in a presidential system the president also needs the approval of parliament and a parliamentary majority. The relative independence from the government which the parties enjoy in a presidential system is of considerable relevance. The number of parties represented in parliament is only slightly influenced by the system of government. This is rather a question of social cleavages, eventually also the ethnic and other cleavages in a country, the structure of conflicts and interests and the electoral system.

Typologies of political parties:

Likewise party systems, also the political parties itself can be distinguished by certain criteria. Such typologies help to sort the heterogeneity of social phenomena, in order to better understand it. To identify parties, one can consider the characteristic features in order to note commonalities and differences between individual parties.

Parties can be classified according to a number of different criteria: according to their level of organisation, their socio-political targets, the social classes that they want to represent and approach, or their positioning towards the political system. Some parties can be classified also by their names, which often express special socio-political objectives that the parties want to be identified with. By their names, parties demonstrate how they want to be perceived, and that means how they want to be classified. This confirms that the classification or construction of typologies is not a mere academic exercise, but part of the political competition of parties. The typologies emerged initially in view of the multi-party systems in Europe but can also be applied to other regions. Several typologies are introduced below:

  1. Differentiation of parties by their degree of organization:
    • Electorate parties: such parties attach less importance to a large membership, but are particularly active in the scope of elections. The bond of the voters to such a party is usually weak.
    • Membership parties: such parties seek a large membership, preferably in all parts of the country. Traditionally, it is usually the popular parties and labour parties that strive for a wellorganised party apparatus and a large membership (“mass political party”). At the minimum, this facilitates the financing of the party through membership fees.
  2. Differentiation by socio-political objectives: With regard to the criteria of socio-political objectives, which are aspired to by political parties, one can distinguish between those parties that seek social or political changes in the frame of the existing democratic order and parties that strive for changes by radical, extremist or revolutionary means. The first group is composed of conservative, liberal, Christian democratic, social democratic, in-part socialist, and also parties that define themselves by religion or confession as long as they do not represent extremist positions. To the second group belong mainly extreme rightist or leftist parties and among those the communist parties, beside others.
    • Conservative parties: Such parties want to retain the “approved” order or restore it; they are sceptical of innovations and changes, for instance, with regard to the perception and the role of the family, and alternative models of life (for example, same-sex marriages). They also do not like the transfer of national sovereignty to supranational institutions, but they do acknowledge that traditional ideas, values and principles cannot be continuously maintained without moderate reforms.
    • Liberal parties: such parties espouse the rights of individual freedom and emphasise the democratic character of the constitution. Traditionally, they are anti-clerical and mostly committed to a free market economy.
    • Social democratic parties: such parties mostly emerged in close relation to the labour movement and their political concepts are based on social equality of the people; they assign the state with a strong regulating role in the economy and society.
    • Socialist parties: such parties also emerged in close contact to parts of the labour movement, but they represent a more radical approach to achieving social equality; the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and a state-driven economy are central targets of these parties.
    • Parties defined by religion are special forms of parties that are characterized by their social-political objectives. Worldwide, a vast number of parties are more or less strongly based on religious convictions. There are Christian or Christian democratic, Islamic and Hindu parties that establish their programmes on the values and standards of their religion or confession. This can lead to considerable differences in the political programmes and political objectives of such parties, depending on how individual parties consider their respective religion’s stand with regard to individual human rights and individual freedom or to political democracy. The European Christian Democratic parties, for instance, are committed to individual freedom, social solidarity and justice, self-responsibility of the citizens and a discrete role for the state under the supervision of economic and social actors.
    • Extreme right-wing parties: such parties preach nationalistic ideologies, which are often inter mixed with a vague ethnic ideology and possibly racist perceptions.
    • Communist parties: such parties propagate the dictatorship of the proletariat and assume a predetermination of history.
  3. Differentiation according to the social classes which they intend to approach:
    • Popular parties: such parties attempt to consider the interests and needs of as many social groups as possible and therefore try to integrate as many citizens as possible of various social origins within their party rank and file and to aggregate different social and political aspirations in their programme.
    • Parties of special interest: such parties feel responsible for the interests of a very specific group (a social, confessional, or regional group) and do not claim to be equally eligible for all parts of the population.
  4. Differentiation according to their positioning towards the political system:
    • Parties conforming to the system: such parties accept the political system in which they are active and wish to either stabilize the political order or improve it gradually with reforms.
    • Parties opposed to the political system: such parties do not accept the basic principles of their political system and pursue a change of the system, mostly with aggressive programmatic proposals.

Political parties rarely correspond completely to one of these classifications. There are fluent transitions and mixed forms. A membership or mass party for instance can also be an “interest party” if it represents only the interest of a certain social sector or class (the labour class for example). Furthermore, other criteria are also possible: for example, government and opposition party, regional party, protest party, etc. Nevertheless, the classifications allow the identification of the typical attributes of a party, which is a relevant element in the process of political competition.

Parties and ideologies:

  1. Ideologies and specific worldviews are of particular relevance for political parties. Ideologies are comprehensive visions of societies and social developments, which contain explanations, values, and goals for past, present and future developments. Ideologies inspire and justify political and social action. They are an essential element for political orientation. The term “ideology” has been and is still used mainly by leftist, communist and socialist parties to characterize their worldviews and political positions. Nevertheless, other streams of political thinking can also be denominated as “ideologies”, like, for instance, liberalism, conservatism, nationalism or fascism.
  2. Sometimes, there are comments about a supposed “des-ideologization” of politics. This refers to the fact that nowadays many parties are stressing their ideological roots less than their pragmatic approach with regard to social and political challenges.
  3. The above-mentioned concepts, however, make it clear that ideologies still are of considerable relevance for the identification of worldviews and political positions. We never reached the “end of ideologies” as has been proclaimed by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama at the end of the Cold War. He supposed that liberal democracy would finally be enforced against all other forms of governance, and therefore all ideological debates could come to an end.
  4. Those who are, or will become, politically engaged should know the different ideological strands. This is relevant not only for defining one’s own political position, but also for evaluating other political positions and eventually for combating them.

Challenges before political parties:

We have seen how crucial political are for the working of democracy. Since parties are the most visible face of democracy, it is natural that people blame parties for whatever is wrong with the working of democracy. All over the world, people express strong dissatisfaction with the failure of political parties to perform their functions well. This is the case in our country too.

No matter how democracy has been organised in any individual case, and in any political system, the political parties are the main institutions of democracy. Without parties, there can be no democracy. The basic functions of political parties have already been discussed. However, the parties do not have a monopoly in carrying out these functions and are nowadays—more than in the past—in competition with other organisations that also carry out these functions, at least in certain areas, and thereby compete with the parties. The essential differentiating characteristic of a party is and remains therefore its participation in elections.

Even though parties fulfil essential functions for the political system and democracy, they also face special challenges in modern democracies. Political parties need to face and overcome these challenges in other to remain effective instruments of democracy. Social change and the efficiency (or inefficiency) of dealing with the consequences of changing societies in the area of politics are the main reasons for these new challenges for political parties.

  1. A classic dilemma for political parties is the impossibility to meet all expectations directed at them at the same time. As they occupy the political decision-making instances, people expect concepts and decisions for problems and demands. Several groups, however, will always feel disadvantaged or develop new demands, which can usually never be completely satisfied. One just has to think of the expectation that the state should provide public goods at the same time as internal and external security, a well-developed road network, public schools, hospitals, and public housing or benefits, without increasing taxes or pushing up the national debt. Parties, therefore, are caught in a constant conflicting relationship between unfulfilled expectations and solutions perceived to be inadequate.
  2. New challenges has emerged from social change and the development of fragmented societies, which are characterized by the dissipation of traditional milieus, the erosion of previously stable value systems and the commitments based on it, a higher level of education, the pluralism of informative sources, as well as the individual organisation of personal relationships. “Shifting values”, “individualisation”, “event society”, and “fragmentation of interests” are notions to describe social phenomena that are directly reflected on the attitude of the citizens towards the parties. Where social relationships become lost, the commitment with political parties also gets weaker. Parties feel this effect not only in the form of decreasing memberships, but also in the decline of stable voter milieus and unpredictable election forecasts and election outcomes.
  3. The change in the mass media and the way of reporting, the growing competition for attention and audience, as well as the extension of “investigative” journalism have led to a new form of reporting about politics, in which ideas, values and results are less important than emotionalisation, moralisation, scandalisation and personalisation in the form of “infotainment”. Political scandals and personal behaviour and misbehaviour of politicians are known faster nowadays. This is certainly a gain in transparency and democratic control but it can also contribute to the disenchantment and sometimes also the trivialisation of politics and its players. The first to feel the negative consequences of that are the parties.
  4. The “modern” dilemma of political parties stems from globalisation. At a national level, globalisation and its consequences have reduced the room for political manoeuvres and have shifted decision-making power and management capabilities to supra-national or international players. Although citizens expect national political actors to decide on their demands and expectations, important issues cannot be resolved by national political decision makers. Consequently, political parties face a loss of confidence in their capacity to decide on important issues of national interest.

These developments have serious consequences for parties and party systems:

  1. Party systems are nowadays much more prone to modifications and more fragmentised.
  2. The time of big mass parties seems to be over. At the very least, although some parties can still maintain large memberships, it is today much more difficult to organise large mass rallies.
  3. The past virtual monopoly of the parties as the source and place of political information and reflection has been negated in the era of mass media, modern information techniques like the internet and alternative areas for political participation outside of the parties.
  4. Parties find it very difficult to retain so-called loyal voters of certain milieus in the long term.
  5. The overall trust level of the population in the parties and in politicians has dropped and the willingness to engage politically has declined, especially among young people.
  6. Mass media publish more reports about political scandals and about the real or alleged shortcomings of parties and their top leaders’ inability to manage and resolve problems. In the same way that the difficulties of political management have increased in the era of financial, political or ecological globalization, the technical possibilities for critical reporting has also increased.
  7. The increased competition among TV channels and print media has also contributed to the tendency to report more about real or alleged misbehaviour of politicians.
  8. The respective roles played in the past by the governing and opposition parties are not as clear anymore, as the big opposition parties do not necessarily benefit from voters’ dissatisfaction, but instead also lose votes to small or newer protest parties.
  9. Lack of internal democracy within parties. All over the world these is a tendency in political parties towards the concentration of power in one or few leaders at the top. Parties do not hold organizational meeting, and do not conduct internal elections regularly. Ordinary members of the party do not get sufficient information on what happens inside the party. They do not have the means or the connections needed to influence the decisions. As a result the leaders assume greater power to make decisions in the name of the party. Since few leaders exercise paramount power in the party, those who disagree with the leadership find it difficult to continue in the party. More than loyalty to party principles and politics, personal loyalty to the leader becomes more important.
  10. Dynastic succession is related to the first one. Since most political parties do not practice open and transparent procedures for their functioning, there are very few ways for an ordinary worker to rise to the top in a party. Those who happen to be the leaders are in a position of unfair advantage to favour people close to them or even their family members. In many parties, the top positions are always controlled by members of one family. This is also bad for democracy, since people who do not have adequate experience or popular support come to occupy positions of power. This tendency is present in some measure all over the world, including in some of the older democracies.
  11. The growing role of money and muscle power in parties, especially during elections. Since parties are focused only on winning elections, they tend to use shot-cuts to win elections. They tend to use nominate those candidates who have or can raise lots of money. Rich people and companies who give funds to the parties tend to have influence on the policies and decisions of the party. In some cases, parties support criminals who can win elections. Democrats all over the world are worried about the increasing role of rich people and big companies in democratic politics.
  12. Very often parties do not seem to offer a meaningful choice to the voters. In order to offer meaningful choice, parties must be significantly different. In recent years there has been a decline in the ideological differences among parties in most part of the world. For example, the difference between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in Britain is very little. They agree on more fundamental aspects but differ only in details on how policies are to be framed and implemented. In our country too, the differences among all the major parties on the economic policies have reduced. Those who want really different policies have no option available to them. Sometimes people cannot even elect very different leaders either, because the same set of leaders keep shifting form one party to another.
  13. The Iron Law of Oligarchy: In a classical work on party research, Robert Michels had, in 1911, demonstrated the “iron law of oligarchy” (“Reign of a few”). According to the research, every organisation inevitably brings forth a ruling class, which it cannot control effectively in the longterm. Accordingly, party leaderships and party structures also become more and more independent, given the advance in information technology and the increasing specialisation of politics. The accumulation of responsibilities and monopoly of power are symptoms of increasing oligarchy, which constitutes a problem for the democratic formation of opinion within a party. An improvement in democratic procedures and in the exchange of views can contribute to the removal of stiff party structures.

Criteria for sustainable and successful party work

Parties have to be continuously striving to perform their functions under changing social circumstances. Independent of the regional or national social peculiarities, or the electoral and government system, there are several criteria that every party should respect and fulfil, in order to participate successfully in the political competition.

  1. A party needs a sufficient, identifiable electoral base. It needs to strive to root itself in the electoral and interest groups that it wants to represent, in alignment, obviously, with its basic values and its programmatic profile.
  2. A party has to build an extensive organisation in order to practice closeness to citizens and to be able to mobilise voters.
  3. A party has to build an open membership organisation. Membership is fundamental for the recruitment of its future leaders and should also be a relevant element for its financial basis. An active membership organisation, however, requires inner-party democracy, i.e., members who participate politically and who are able to determine the party leadership and set the course of the party.
  4. A party has to be communicative, both internally and externally. It needs a functional inner-party information system for all its rank and file on all levels and for its members. Furthermore, a constant link to the media is necessary. They are the “gatekeepers” of the political system in the developed media democracy, generating public awareness.
  5. A party has to develop its own programmatic profile, differentiating itself from others by formulating targets and ways of solution in keeping up to the real problems of the time. The objective of the programme work is to enable the party to integrate public expectations and demands and to promote identification with the party by the citizens.
  6. A party has to show a high degree of inner party governability. This is the capacity to balance between a unified appearance towards the public and the inner-party’s controversial dialogue. Part of this governability is the selection and support of the younger generation of party members and party leaders.
  7. A party has to be capable of integration. This is the actual key to success and to the growth of a party. What is meant here is the constant strive to expand its electoral base, to win over new voters with different interests and young voters with other lifestyles and to establish a constant connection to these voters.
  8. A party must be capable of campaigning. It has to be able to present important topics and its own profile effectively in public and it must lead flawless election campaigns with few topics and a clear message for “focused communication”.
  9. A party must be capable of forming coalitions. As it is difficult for a party, if not impossible, especially in the context of past-thepost voting systems, to obtain absolute majorities in parliament, a party has to be able to form stable coalitions with other parties to demonstrate governability. The problems of governability reflect directly on the reputation of the parties. In coalition formation it can be necessary to overcome deep programmatic and/or personal rifts. This is a moment where political leaders may show their competency.
  10. A party must prove its governability and capacity for solving problems at the local level. In all countries, the citizens should have the most direct contact with the parties and its representatives in local politics. Only if the parties can prove competency and citizen proximity at this level, can they can expect trust on a national level.
  11. A party must be capable of learning the expectations, and implementing political programmes that meet the demands within the society. Considering the increased significance of social nongovernmental organisations and interest associations, the parties have to intensify their efforts to be in touch with these intermediate organisations, to understand the expectations of the people, and to translate them into policies.
  12. A law should be made to regulate the internal affairs of political parties. It should be made compulsory for political parties to maintain a register of its member to follow its own constitution, to have an independent authority, to act as a judge in case of party disputes, to hold open election to the highest posts.
  13. It should be made mandatory for political parties to give a minimum number of tickets, about one-third, to women candidates. Similarly, there should be a quota for women in the decision making bodies of the party.
  14. There should be state funding of elections. The government should give parties money to support their election expenses. This support could be given in kind: petrol, paper, telephone etc. Or it could be given in cash on the basis of the votes secured by the party in the last election.
  15. Citizens can put pressure on political parties. This can be done through petitions, publicity and agitations. Ordinary citizens, pressure groups and movement and the media can play an important role in this. If political parties feel that they would lose public support by not taking up reforms, they would become more serious about reforms.
  16. Political parties can improve if those who want this join political parties are pro- reform. The quality of democracy depends on the degree of public participation. It is difficult to reform politics if ordinary citizens do not take part in it and simply criticize it from the outside. The problem of bad politics can be solved by more and better politics. But we must be very careful about legal solutions to political problems. Over-regulation of political parties can be counterproductive. This would force all parties to find ways to cheat the law. Besides, political parties will not agree to pass a law that do not like.
Quota for women and minorities:
  1. Even though most constitutions all over the world stipulate equal treatment of men and women, women are under-represented worldwide in parties and political leading functions. In many countries efforts are being made to achieve stronger participation of women in politics. An intensified contribution in parties is a basic requirement for this purpose.
  2. In order to give women a larger space for political contribution and involvement, a statutory female quota has been set up in many countries with different regulations. Usually, the point is to reserve a minimum number of party offices and positions for women during elections. Experience shows that such quota regulations—where they work!—can in practice actually contribute to a higher percentage of women in politics.
  3. However, experience has also shown that quota regulations are often not put into practice, so the outcome is that there are no more women in the parliaments than before. Hence, there must be effort to ensure that the female quotas take effect and that there is an increase in the percentage of women in politics, i.e. also in parliaments. This is certainly a question of political culture that needs time to develop.
  4. Some parties apply quota regulations to guarantee certain minorities’ appropriate cooperation within their rank and file. Policies to guarantee ethnic minority representation take place in two forms: candidate nomination quotas in political parties and legislative reservation. Legislative reservation includes reserving seats for specific groups and only members of a group can vote for the representative of the group.
  5. This leads to a separate voters roll for the minorities. This system is not very favourable in a multicultural society as it undermines any incentive for political inter-mixing between communities. The participation of ethnic or racial minorities in legislatures often raises the questions as to what level these groups are represented in the parties and legislatures and to what extent they can influence policy and decision-making.
  6. There have been significant efforts among political parties to increase support by ethnic minorities. They are recruited through the establishment of ethnic liaisons units by political parties in order to increase the parties’ profiles within the ethnic communities. This can play an important part in local elections because unless the ethnic minorities get their share in representation, no aspiring ruling party is going to get their support in return.

Let us look at some of the recent efforts and suggestions in Indian Society to reform political parties and its leaders:

  1. The Constitution was amended to prevent elected MLAs and MPs from changing parties. This was done because many elected representatives were indulging in defection in order to become ministers or for cash rewards. Now the law says that if any MLA or MP changes parties, he or she will lose the seat in the legislature. This new law has helped bring defection down. At the same time has made any dissent even more difficult. MPs and MLAs have to accept whatever the party leaders decide.
  2. The Supreme Court passed an order to reduce the influence of money and criminals. Now, it is mandatory for every candidate who contests elections to file an affidavit giving details of his property and criminal cases pending against him. This information is now available to the public. But there is no system to check if the information given by the candidates is true. As yet we do not know if it has led to decline in the influence of the rich and to decline in the influence of the rich and the criminals.
  3. The Election Commission passed an order making it necessary fore political parties to hold their organizational elections and file their income tax returns. The parties have started doing so but sometimes it is mere formality. It is not clear if this step has led to greater internal democracy in political parties.


  1. Despite all the weaknesses of parties and in spite of all the challenges that parties have to face, one thing remains certain: without parties, democracy cannot function. In a democracy the parties are still the most important connecting link between state and society. But indeed they have to adapt to the social changes so as to make sure they are not swallowed by them.
  2. The formation of political opinion and consensus in mass democracy are an endlessly laborious, partly ungratifying and constantly endangered process involving the lacklustre everyday life of committees, commissions and assemblies. The formation of political opinion, consensus building and government for the benefit of the whole society cannot bypass or even be against the political parties, but can only involve them.
  3. As much as citizens’ initiatives and social movements are necessary for political innovation, opposition and criticism, in the end, they depend very much on the parties to carry the responsibility in the long-term and the parties are the ones that therefore have to face the population at regular intervals in the context of elections.
  4. Parties carry out a political leadership role that a modern democracy cannot do without. Especially in times of changethis political leadership must be responsible and visible for the citizens and connected to the interests and demands of the citizens. As Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor and prime minister of the Federal Republic of Germany after the Second World War has stated: “Each political party exists for the benefit of the people and not for itself. Political parties, their members and leaders are therefore more than ever required to face this responsibility.”

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