Article written by Teona Lavrelashvili, Schuman Fellow in the European Parliament, Visiting professor in Georgia
In democratic political systems political parties are traditionally considered as indispensable part of the political process. It is conventional wisdom that in such systems political parties articulate interests of various social groups, and aim at reaching power in order to ensure that those demands stemming from people are fulfilled, by enacting policies that reflect their values, ideology, political agenda, and vision. It is further argued that in a democracy any segmental interests of society can be reflected, expressed and promoted through political pluralism, while political parties serve as main instruments for this.
However, along with creation of political parties as an institute, there emerged opinions that alternative organisation and expression of public preferences within a democratic political system is not just possible, but maybe even preferable. Recent political developments in many Western societies clearly challenge the existing political patterns and question the legitimacy of political parties as dominant political institutes.
First of all it is a fact that electoral participation is dwindling as less and less people express their willingness to participate in party politics or support any parties. When polls reveal the total percentage of the electoral participation that rarely exceeds 50% or 60% in the best cases, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the decision-making by the elected politicians in the name of democracy, as the core principle of democracy – legitimacy through representation – is violated. Roughly said, elected politicians may represent just a half of adult citizens whereas another half remains underrepresented.
The reason for decreasing political participation varies across cultures and countries, however, two tendencies might be singled out. First, increasing numbers of citizens become frustrated and cynical toward the political process considering most politicians to be corrupt while their narratives as populist lies – as frequent political scandals, easily and quickly spread around by electronic and social media strengthen such perceptions;
Second, as societies and communities get more complex and multifaceted, while citizens become more individualistic and self-sufficient with increasingly diverse interests and needs, the population gets progressively de-aligned from general political values, party agendas, rhetorics and ideologies that look excessively rigid and alien, but also so similar to one another. Voters, if they even decide to vote, choose to support those political parties, which would serve their current and short-term individual interests in a better way. Such political consumerism prompts political parties to adjust their behaviours and rhetoric vis-à-vis new and diverse demands from non-homogenous societies, and in an attempt to pragmatically redefine their ideological stances, ideological difference among traditional parties (along the left-right spectrum) becomes even thinner and focus on a range of issues that blur the traditional ideological definitions, while these differences move to more concrete matters such as specific foreign, environmental or taxation policies. Such ideological rapprochement and blurring does not seem to be a good solution for reviving the popularity of party politics, because the level of citizens political participation remains low.
While it is believed that citizens’ political participation contributes to the quality of democracy and legitimises the government, underrepresented individuals may choose some other ways of expressing themselves, which may promote political passivity and indifference, but may also nourish radicalism, xenophobia, asocial behaviour, or even terrorism.
While political parties have undergone modest real change throughout decades, technological progress makes the old search for non-party political alternatives increasingly realistic: on one hand making it easier to turn individual political participation such as voting a simple procedure by introducing opportunities for distance voting through internet or other means; on the other hand, new opportunities are offered by internet-based social networks to self-organise and mobilise public support by groups of individuals around certain issues and policies without the need to get involved in party politics.
Currently, such issue-based self-organisation is mostly used for campaigning, e.g. organising mass protests or crowdfunding for some initiatives. However, one may expect increasing institutionalisation of interaction between such ad-hoc and issue-based self-organised groups and campaigns with existing political structures, such as political parties.
As political parties appear to be rigid and sometimes even obsolete institutions, non-party political activism is expected to get increasingly integrated into the political process ensuring wider public participation and therefore more legitimacy to respective political decision-making in some areas, reviving the ancient tradition of agora and direct democracy.
Ongoing technological progress emerged not only as facilitating factor of these types of initiatives to be possible, but also is a pushing factor for these changes. Technological tools are also available, but what is needed is a new political philosophy that would expand and enrich the currently existing range of political instruments for democratic procedures and decision-making.
However, the challenge is also clear as direct democracy realised in primitive form of permanent referendum may involve public participation in making decisions in areas where professional knowledge and skills may be needed, or are simply necessary – the problem resolved in representational democracy by professionalising politics and governance. Therefore, non-party politics should by no means replace representational democracy, but it should rather refine the system of voting not simply based on party affiliation but rather on the profile of competence and opinions with regards to certain ranges of policy issues. Again, such approach may mean the weakening position of the proportional voting system and replacing it by majoritarian electoral systems, which possess well-known deficiencies too. It is early to think of any concrete solution to existing challenges, but one thing is clear – current trends prompt political scientists to look for the ways as to how optimise the mechanism of, on one hand institutionalising the interaction of ad-hoc groups with existing political institutions, and on the other – how to design political procedures so as to enable stronger presence of non-party representational politics, at the same time avoiding the deficiencies and dangers of over-relying on direct democracy approaches facilitated by technological progress.
Ideologised politics should empty some more room for the issue-based politics, which means both functional as well as institutional changes: political parties should deal in real time with the issues emerging in the society; while they should also give up monopoly over political process and provide the issue-based ad hoc associations of citizens more opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. Democratic pluralism may be interpreted as not just providing choice in political actors, but also choosing the nature of such actors and the mechanism of exercising political power. By admitting that political parties should not be the only game in town any more, democratic governance may become more functional for the service of citizens.