- Assisting Political Parties
Political parties are widely regarded as the backbone of democracy, performing such vital functions as presenting candidates for office, mobilizing the electorate, structuring issues, representing various social groups, aggregating interests, forming and sustaining governments, and integrating citizens into the political process. Yet around the world parties appear to be underperforming, and trust and confidence in them are remarkably low, tempting one to venture that their shortcomings pose a major danger to today's brave new democratic world. At least that is the main impression one gets from this new study by Thomas Carothers assessing the state of political parties and of efforts to assist them from abroad.
Carothers's book explores two related sets of issues: First, what is wrong with parties in the struggling new democracies (if indeed something is wrong with them); and second, what impact has external aid had on their current state? As the uncontested pioneer of the scholarly study of democracy assistance, Carothers could hardly have overlooked this highly neglected topic. Although there are a number of institutions dedicated to providing help to political parties, remarkably little research has been done so far to assess the lessons learned from this support. It is rare to find on the websites of party-development organizations [End Page 167] from the West any analytical papers reflecting critically on their own programs. Instead, anecdotal evidence abounds, with donors claiming that their pet party won this or that election due to their support. Winning elections remains the most common performance indicator for political parties, but it has major shortcomings, not least of which is the difficulty of knowing whether it was donor assistance that did the trick.
A few years ago, a couple of American scholars sent a paper to the European Journal of Political Research that focused on the electoral success of the Bulgarian Union of Democratic Forces (UFD). The coalition was discussed in detail and offered as a model to the rest of the fragile, bickering center-right coalitions of the region. By the time the paper was actually published a couple of years later, however, the UFD was disintegrating rapidly, and it has remained in a shambles ever since.
The "standard lament" on parties, as described by Carothers, is well known. Parties are said not to be accountable to or representative of their voters. They are ideologically opportunistic, failing to fulfill what students are taught in school are the fundamental tasks of political parties: creating both policies and cadres for government. Parties often seem dedicated solely to the task of state capture, and therefore do not enjoy any public trust. In new democracies, popular leaders or civil society movements—both secular and religious—are the major recipients of public confidence. However indispensable parties may be, they often seem less important than these other political actors in new democracies. Even electoral results in free and fair elections sometimes fade into irrelevance between two electoral cycles, as flocks of representatives migrate with impunity from one party to another in search of the best deal on state capture, as electoral promises are completely abandoned, or as real power goes elsewhere. Membership in parties is extremely low in new democracies (1.6 percent of Estonian adults are party members, as compared to 6.6 percent in Denmark), and trust in parties is extremely low everywhere except in some South Asian countries.
Carothers refuses to dismiss these ills as mere "growing pains." In countries with longer democratic experience, as in Latin America, there are no signs that parties are doing better than in countries with only a more recent democratic past, as in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that a similar malaise exists in the "old" democracies. Reading Maurice Duverger, one could hardly have predicted the rise of a party like Jacques Chirac's Union for a Presidential Majority, and Giovanni Sartori's main theoretical writings belong to the epoch of ideological parties, before Forza Italia and the Lega Nord came to town.
While Carothers notes that the...