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Carothers: Context is key to successful democracy support to political parties

Thomas Carother discussing with the Danish Parties

Political parties around the world face a common challenge: they lack popularity!  But the underlying problems of political parties in the developed and developing countries are very different – and in case of the latter more severe.

When supporting and strengthening the democratic functions of political parties in the global south, there is therefore a need to understand the political context in which they are formed. This was the key message of one of the leading experts on democracy support, Thomas Carothers, when he 27 November 2012 visited DIPD to discuss democracy support with the Danish political parties.

The seminar was part of the DIPD Democracy workshop series for the Danish political parties to guide their partnerships with political parties in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Thomas Carothers discussing party support with the Danish political parties

Thomas Carothers discussing party support with the Danish political parties

Political Parties: unpopular – but vital

Parties are corrupt, personalistic and lack clear ideological positions! A standard chorus often repeated, when political parties are the subject of debate – and a key explanation for the scepticism facing organisations as DIPD involved in democracy support to political parties in developing countries.

Parties nevertheless remain pivotal for democracy, Carothers argued, and in order to support and strengthen representative democracy, there is a need to look to the root causes of the challenges facing political parties in the global south.  Carothers highlighted four features of the political context in the global south that in particular affects political parties:

1. The History of Authoritarianism

Many parties in developing countries are established at the backdrop of authoritarian rule and face a pressure to deliver from day one. Consequently, parties are left with limited time for grass-root mobilization and instead take on the role as electoral vehicles very quickly. A tendency which is further pushed by the presence of electronic media.  The authoritarian inheritance also causes “psychological damage” for parties, leaving a political environment marked by distrust, polarization and a lack of cooperation.

2. Weak Rule of Law Environment

Parties are by nature power seeking animals supposed to operate within well defined rules of interest representation and negotiation. However, the overall rule of law environment needed to guide and oversee the actions of parties is in many developing countries extremely weak, leaving a lack of accountability and the playing field for power struggle wide open.

3. Citizens are vulnerable

The socio-economic context is often characterized by poverty and a lack of education and basic state regulation. Survival and protection is therefore a key preoccupation for many citizens, making patronage politics one of the frequent features of party-citizen interaction.

4. Lack of Policy Choice

Most poor countries have little actual policy choice due to the global economic order, which leaves the left-right policy spectrum very narrow.  Instead of discussions on fundamental reform policies, the public debate tend to focus on the characteristics and virtues of the individual leader

According to Carothers, any successful attempt to support political parties to grow more democratic and more popular needs to start off by asking the fundamental question: what determines the life for the parties in the specific context in question?

More Information

Thomas Carothers also participated in a DIPD-DIIS seminar on political party support 28 November 2012. See Christian Friis Bach:Democracy is Dialogue 

Read more about the Danish Political Parties and DIPD partnerships   

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