Political parties

Political parties are the main vehicles for organising political representation, political competition, and democratic accountability. They link the state and civil society, can influence the executive, formulate public policy, engage in political recruitment, structure electoral choices and facilitate coalitions. But political parties in developing countries are often weak, which decreases democratic competition and representation.

Why do countries struggle to fully operationalise multi-party political systems? How can donors assist the institutionalisation of political parties? These and other questions are addressed on this page.

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Institutionalising party systems

How do stable, institutionalised party systems evolve and what factors contribute to their survival? What political, social and economic factors prevent the establishment of strong party systems?

Lindberg, S. I., 2007, ‘Institutionalization of Party Systems? Stability and Fluidity among Legislative Parties in Africa’s Democracies’, Government and Opposition, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 215-241
What can the interaction between political parties tell us about achieving stability in African countries? How do stable, institutionalised party systems evolve? This article from the journal Government and Opposition uses a range of indicators to examine party stability in Africa. Contrary to the existing literature, it finds that institutionalisation of party systems does not occur over an extended period and is largely unrelated to the electoral system.
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Hicken, A. and Kuhonta, E. M., 2011, Shadows From the Past: Party System Institutionalization in Asia, Comparative Political Studies, vol. 44, no. 5, pp. 572-597
This article explains variation in levels of party system institutionalisation in Asia by testing available data against several major hypotheses in the literature. The authors make three contributions to the literature on party system institutionalisation: 1) Historical legacies are a crucial variable affecting current levels of party system institutionalisation. 2) For a significant number of institutionalised party systems, historical legacies are rooted in some element of authoritarianism, either as former authoritarian parties or as semi-democratic regimes. 3) Precisely because authoritarianism has played an important role in the origins of institutionalised party systems, the authors argue that the concept of institutionalisation needs to be strictly separated from the concept of democracy.
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Resnick, D. (2013). Do electoral coalitions facilitate democratic consolidation in Africa? Party Politics, 19(5), pp. 735-757
Do pre-electoral coalitions in Africa facilitate democratic consolidation by contributing to incumbent turnovers as well as creating competitive, institutionalised party systems? This quantitative study finds that coalitions rarely result in incumbent defeat. It also finds that a significant share of a country’s total electoral volatility is often due to fluctuations in voting for opposition parties that enter and exit coalitions. This shows that coalition members are unable to build loyal constituencies and become institutionalised over time. This paper argues that this is because many of these coalitions are primarily office-seeking and consist of parties that are distinguished mainly by the personality of their leaders rather than by a distinct political programme that is relevant to citizens’ concerns.
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Wright, J. and Escriba-Folch, A. (2012). Authoritarian institutions and regime survival: Transitions to democracy and subsequent autocracy. British Journal of Political Science, 42(2), pp. 283-309.
How do authoritarian parties and legislatures ensure regime survival? This quantitative study finds that while authoritarian legislatures increase the stability of dictators, authoritarian political parties can destabilise dictators. This is because authoritarian parties influence the distribution of power in a new democracy by helping to protect the interests of authoritarian elites. They therefore increase the likelihood of democratisation.
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Political parties and the quality of democracy

Political parties and party systems are seen by many as central to the effective functioning and eventual consolidation of democracy, but this is contingent on the nature of political parties as institutions and the support they command. Some argue that parties do not add to the overall popular legitimacy of the political system, but are in fact one of its ‘weakest links’.

Randall, V., 2007, ‘Political Parties and Democratic Developmental States’, Development Policy Review, Vol 25, No. 5, pp. 633-652
What contribution do, or could, political parties make to the emergence of a democratic developmental state? This article from the Development Policy Review finds that their contribution is very limited, in terms of either democracy-building or policy-making, recruitment, ensuring accountability or policy implementation. Reasons include weak institutionalisation and the prevalence of clientelism. External assistance is likely to be limited in impact and should ideally be indirect, as autonomous party development is important.
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Carothers, 2006, ‘The Standard Lament’, Chapter 1 in Confronting the Weakest Link: Aiding Political Parties in New Democracies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, New York
What are the problems faced by political parties in transitional democracies? How can international aid to political parties be improved? This book from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace draws on extensive research to analyse political party aid. A low regard for political parties is common in developing and post-communist states but little is known about the impact of this and the effectiveness of party aid. Party aid should work at a deeper level by focusing attention on power and politics.
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Political parties based on ethnic or religious lines can be divisive, particularly in divided societies or societies emerging from conflict.

Dowd, R. and Driessen, M., 2008, ‘Ethnically Dominated Party Systems and the Quality of Democracy: Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa’, Afrobarometer Working Paper no. 92, South Africa
Do ethnically dominated party systems affect the quality of democracy? This Afrobarometer paper measures levels of ethnic voting and tests its relationship to the quality of democracy. The evidence suggests that the extent to which party systems in sub-Saharan Africa are ethnically dominated negatively affects certain measures of the quality of democracy. Quality of democracy can be enhanced by implementing integrative electoral systems, and by promoting economic and social conditions that discourage ethnically based parties.
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Reilly, B., 2006, ‘Political Engineering and Party Politics in Conflict-Prone Societies’, Democratization, Vol.13, No.5, pp. 811–827
It is widely accepted that broad-based, multi-ethnic parties are good for democracy in ethnically diverse societies. There has been surprisingly little attention to how such parties can be sustained and fragmentation avoided. This paper from the journal Democratization draws on examples from new democracies in the developing world to identify four strategies of party engineering used to promote multi-ethnic political parties.
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LeBas, A., 2011, ‘From Protest to Parties: Party-Building and Democratization in Africa’ Oxford University Press, Oxford
Why do strong opposition party organisations emerge in some democratising countries, while parties in others remain weak or fragmented? Does polarisation undermine democratisation, or might it play an important role in party-building? This book examines differences in opposition party strength in hybrid regimes in Africa. In order to understand why some parties are able to transcend ethnic cleavages, the author points to differences in past patterns of authoritarian rule. The book also suggests that conflict can help build the institutions necessary for democracy just as surely as it can endanger them.
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Hamid, S., 2011, ‘Arab Islamist Parties: Losing on Purpose?’, Journal of Democracy, vol.22, no.1, pp. 68-80
Examination of the electoral behaviour of Islamist parties suggests that they deliberately lose elections, contesting on average only about one-third of total available parliamentary seats. This article considers the factors that lead Islamist parties to privilege self-preservation over political contestation. Islamists’ deference to regimes suggests they may be obstacles to democratic reform.
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Political party assistance

Critics have argued it’s difficult to distinguish between political party assistance and political manipulation in some contexts. A central dilemma for donors is providing party assistance in a non-partisan way.

Amundsen, I., 2007, ‘Donor Support to Political Parties: Status and Principles’, Christian Michelsen Institute, Bergen
How should donor support be provided to political parties in developing countries? This paper from the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) outlines the current status, modalities and practices of donor support to political parties and recommends core principles by which such assistance should be provided. Current donor assistance hampers political party capacity building by failing to integrate and harmonise party support with democracy support.
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International IDEA, 2007, ‘Effective Party Assistance: Stronger Parties for Better Democracy’, International IDEA, Stockholm
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Carothers, T., 2004, ‘Political Party Aid’, Report to the Swedish International Development Agency, Stockholm
The weak state of parties in many developing and post-communist countries is a serious problem for democratisation. This report, prepared for the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), analyses the role of political party aid in deepening democracy. One lesson is not to assume that the problems or attempted solutions in any one society are transferable to another. Party aid has to look beyond training and devote more attention to the systemic causes of the challenges to representative democracy.
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The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, 2004, ‘A Framework for Democratic Party Building’, NIMD, The Hague
How can political parties improve their performance? How can improvements be monitored? This handbook, by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (IMD), is the summary of an international workshop on criteria for improving the performance of political parties. It suggests that political parties are part of the problem of dissatisfaction with democracy but also part of the solution in terms of making the political system more responsive to the needs of the people.
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Political parties in post-conflict and fragile environments

How should the international community support the development of political parties in post-conflict or fragile environments? A key consideration is the relationship between party development and the potential for conflict mitigation or prevention.

Kumar, K., and de Zeeuw, J., 2008, ‘International support for political party development in war-torn societies’, Chapter 12 in ‘Political Parties in Conflict-Prone Societies: Regulation, Engineering and Democratic Development’, B Reilly and P Nordlund (Eds), United Nations University Press, Tokyo
How can the international community improve its support for political party development in countries recovering from civil war? This book chapter examines the challenges of political party assistance in post-conflict environments and the support strategies used by the international community. International actors can strengthen assistance by focusing on party laws from a conflict prevention perspective, working early on rebel-to-party transformation and addressing unequal power distribution in party systems.
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Women in political parties

Women are often under-represented in political parties. Socio-economic and political factors affect the extent to which parties seek to recruit women as members, or represent their interests.

NDI, 2008, ‘Assessing Women’s Political Party Programs: Best Practices and Recommendations’, National Democratic Institute, Washington
How can policymakers increase women’s political participation in developing countries? The National Democratic Institute (NDI) explores this issue by analysing the progress of its women’s political participation programmes in Morocco, Indonesia, Serbia, and Nepal. While there is a definite increase in women’s participation, there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of female political leaders. Future programming must focus on preparing women to take on these leadership roles.
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Holmsten, S. S., Moser, R. G., and Slosar, M. C., 2010, ‘Do Ethnic Parties Exclude Women?’, Comparative Political Studies, vol. 43, no. 10, pp.1179-1201
Do political parties that represent ethnic minorities tend to exclude women? This article examines patterns of female representation across 260 parties from 21 countries. It finds that ethnic parties – particularly those appealing to a religious minority – do tend to elect fewer women, but only under proportional representation (PR) systems that do not involve gender quotas. In single-member district elections ethnic parties actually elect more women than non-ethnic parties. Thus, a key conclusion is that PR elections facilitate the under-representation of women in ethnic parties. This could be because they centralise nomination decisions in the party elite: in ethnic and religious parties, the elite might be particularly patriarchal.
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Basu, A., 2005, ‘Women, Political Parties and Social Movements in South Asia’, Occasional Paper no. 5, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva
In South Asia, women have been heads of state, and vital grassroots members of social movements, yet are under-represented in political parties. What determines the success of political parties in recruiting and promoting women? At what stage do parties supported by women feel compelled to represent their interests? What impact have female heads of state had on women’s participation in party politics? Focusing on Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, this paper examines the relationships between women and political parties, and between political parties and social movements that organise women.
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