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Can Democracy Live Without Political Parties Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3330 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In its simplest meaning, the term ‘democracy’ is used to refer to people’s rule. But the connotation of ‘democracy’ essentially is a convoluted one that in the first place needs a definition of who these people are. Consequently Abraham Lincoln’s definition tends to encapsulate the essence democracy in a single sentence, as he says, “A democratic government is by the people, for the people and of the people”. A denotation of “people” yields the fact that in democracy people rule people. In other political systems except democracy, obviously the same term “people” connotes two different groups: one group who rules and the other group who are ruled. But in democracy ‘people’ refers to the same entity of population who rule themselves. But in order to put this theory in practice, modern democratic political system creates a shadow group -of people’s consent- who will rule the people according to their consent. “Theoretically democracy may allow -if people want- any other ideologies including socialism and communism that are supposed to be the opposite of democratic zeal. Indeed in this regard democracy may seem to self-destructive and self-consuming. Yet there is a way-out of this paradoxical nature of democracy in the fact that democracy is not any political ideology; rather it is a political system. It can embrace any ideology as far as the ideology does pose any threat to the democratic political system of a country” (Dahl 49-93).

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But the question that arises here is whether there is any safeguard that will ensure the sustainability of democracy. “Necessarily the answer is that only a strong group in opposition to the ruling people can prevent the people in power from being derailed from the track of democracy. This opposition group is essentially called a political party in modern democracy. Therefore the political parties seem to have their roots in two origins: first they are the shadows of people’s consent and opinion and second they are the safeguard of democracy” (Keane 47-68). Consequently a theoretical basis of democracy cannot be imagined without political parties. Still the decline in modern political parties worldwide has provoked the scholars to think of the future of democracy and political. Now there has been a significant debate over the prospect whether democracy is possible without political parties. This paper will explore the theoretical basis and importance of political parties in the context of modern democracy. It also will deal with the question whether democracy can live without political parties. In doing so, democracy in the Czech Republic will be kept in focus as a case-study.

Representative Democracy and Origin of Political Parties

The political parties have its origin in representative democracy that began to emerge in political systems of the European countries around the 11th century. Initially the political systems in Europe began to allow broader space for the local landlord, dukes, etc with public consent to rule different areas of a country. Indeed public consent was increasingly considered as one of the basic qualities of a local ruler in order to avoid uprisings and revolt in public front. Thus along the passage of time, the ruler began to be considered more as the representatives of particular areas than a ruler who inherits the power of ruling by birth. “But the disintegration of feudalism, the rise of the working class during the industrial revolution, emergence of innumerous civil society organizations in the beginning of the 19th century and the introduction of individual freedom in different scholars’ writings claimed increasing participation of the individuals in choosing their representatives in the existing political systems of the country. The claim to see the people’s representatives in the political system was further inspired by the emerging social organizations with different interests” (McPherson 34). “These civil society organizations played significant roles to inspire people to raise their voice for different polities with their respective interests. Soon these representatives in the political systems became assimilated with the civil groups moving with the most popular political interests. Consequently different groups with different political interests emerged -in the later half of the 19th century- as specific political parties in the representative democracy in European countries” (Keane 47-68). In fact both democracy and political parties emerged as a response to the greater changes -in the 18th century European political context- that were instigated by various geo-socioeconomic phenomenon. Obviously the emergences of various interest groups as political parties were not uncontested.

Prospect of Democracy without Political Party

“Since its emergence in the representative democracy of Europe, the overall structure and role of a political party has undergone several basic changes. These changes are significantly visible in the political parties of both Europe and America. Recently these changes in the role and structure of the major European and American political parties have given birth to the question what the future of democracy it” (Julander 2-5; Keane 48). “Again a school of scholars wonder whether the party system is going to be replaced by any newer form such as “socio-political party”. But a detailed analysis of these changes and effects significantly reveals the fact that whether the political party system is going to be replaced by a newer form or not, the importance of a political party is context-specific. As theoretically any political system that ensures the rule of the people can be called a democratic political system. “But such democracy may not be sustainable if the process that is responsible to restore democracy is not strong enough to create the democratic culture among the people and at the same time to face any undemocratic whims of the people in power” (Dahl 143; Julander 5; Norris). Indeed the political party system in modern democracy is a self-supporting democratic culture to choose the representatives of people’s choice. It not only sorts out the representatives of people’s choice through elections, but also it retains a sustainable democratic culture. So if the political parties are replaced by a newer form of democratic political culture and if this newer form can provide enough support to the democratic culture, democracy will survive fairly.

Roles of Political Parties in Modern Democracy

In a single sentence it can be said that ‘the role of a political party to promote democratic culture in a country’. By promoting the democratic culture in a country, political parties (in a democratic political system, the term ‘political party’ must refer to two or more than two parties) first ensures an environment that guarantee the election of the people who are supposed to reflect the mass people’s opinion. Second they prevent the people in power from implementing any undemocratic whims by creating strong opposition in line with pubic support. Regarding this preventive role of a political party, Julander says, “Political parties are essential to democracy because they check abuse of power by elites and keep the government accountable; because the law is ineffective at holding officials responsible, parties undertake to control public authorities.” (10). “Though “direct”, “participative” or “deliberative” democracy is supposed to provoke the people to directly take part in the government without being contaminated by partisan bias, in the context of modern society over a large geographical area the practice of direct democracy was supposed to be futile until the beginning of the 21st century” (Julander 8). Pippa Norris summarizes the role of a political party in the following: “The long list of their potential functions can be summarized under five key headings: (1) the integration and mobilization of citizens; (2) the articulation and aggregation of interests; (3) the formulation of public policy; (4) the recruitment of political leaders; and (5) the organization of parliament and government” (4).

In addition complicacy of modern individual life and the disinterest of various competitive political interest groups were another two discouraging points to the implementation of direct democracy. But the rapid development of science and technology, the availability of information -due to the proliferation of mass electronic media- that play a significant role in reducing the parties’ role to communicate the citizens of the state regarding any political issue, the corruption of the political leaders, etc together have inspired both the scholars and the publics to think of practicing a new form of direct democracy. “In this new form of direct democracy, first hand discussion of political issues, determination of priorities and direct participation in the policy making of a country may not be possible due to the convoluted individuality of modern people, but people will certainly be able to take their own decisions regarding any political issue directly depending on the available information without being usurped by an apparently corrupt political leaders” (Polsby 69). Thus in the face of increasing emergence of social interest groups, the availability of information the traditional role of the political parties has been reduced to a form passive group of representatives who are found to communicate actively with the voters only during the months of election. Yet a democratic political system continues to exist in modern states because of its vital role to retain the democratic culture, whether the culture is the election system or the representation and reflection of the people’s opinion.

Context-Specificity of the Necessity of Political Parties’ Role

But the question is whether all of the political parties in the countries of the world face the same situation. “Studies in this field show that these symptoms of the declination of political parties and the factors at work behind this declination are viewable in a handful number of developed and few other developing countries where blessings of communication technologies are accessible by mass population” (Polsby 39) and “socio-economic condition of the people are affordable to enough to provide minimum education” (Schlesinger 94). In those countries except those developed ones, democracy must depend on the political party system to reach the stage at which democracy in the developed countries is: “The safeguard of one or more political opposition parties and a stable democratic culture are strongly necessary for a country where there is not a number of social interest groups does not exist to feed the political culture with democratic zeal; a significant portion of the population is not educated enough to take part in community discourse over political issues like in a direct democracy” (Burnham 134); “where people do not have access to a number of electronic mass media to get fair information, depending on which they can make their own political choice” (Polsby 39) and ” people are not habituated for a long time with democratic culture” (Burnham 134). Political parties are imperative for both sustainable development as well as democracy in these countries, because “democracy provides them with the scope to push through the self-perceived path of development and only strong and dedicated political parties can sustain democracy through raising public awareness, provoking the people to actively take part in the discussion over the political interest; creating barriers to the government’s anti-democratic whims and also protecting public’s interest” (Macpherson 98-105).

Political Party: An Essential Instrument of Democracy

Political scientists opine that political parties are the essential instruments of democracy. In reality, political parties may be the essential instruments, but they are not the essential component of democracy. If any substituting groups can fulfill the functions of a political party partly or collectively, democracy can still survive, though any renewed form of political party is needed to raise the voice of these non-party groups in ruling and policymaking machine of the state. Regarding the importance of political parties in modern democracy, there appear two apparently contradicting views. Reflecting the first view, William M. Thomas says, “there is no other organization in American society that can replace the citizen-based political party as a vehicle for self-government” (155). Again Schattschneider notes in this regard, “The parties created democracy, or perhaps more accurately, modern democracy is a by-product of party competition” (34). This view in the first place ignores the fact that numerous other civil society organizations can be a great share of the roles that are played by political parties in modern democratic state, as Donald Robinson notes, “Parties . . . or something like them are widely seen as essential instruments of democracy” (18).

Roles of Political Parties in Czech Democracy

The history of Czech democracy is an exemplary phenomenon of the role of political parties in developing and sustaining democratic culture in a country. The past seventy years history of Czech Republic shows that the country had been introduced with democracy for several times before and after the Second World War. Czech democracy has suffered communist rule and Soviet influence mostly after the war. A close analysis of political parties in the history Czech democracy would reveal that the it was the political parties that played a significant role both to restore and at the same time to destroy democracy in the country. The fact that political parties played a significant role to destroy the democratic environment of the country may be problematic to pursue. But it destroyed democracy in two senses: first it actively functioned as an anti-democratic force, though it was elected through a democratic political system. This anti-democratic zeal was showed by the Communist Party after the victory in the 1948 election. Second the opposition political parties were not strong enough to face the anti-democratic challenge of the socialist democratic government of the Czech Republic in the 1948 (US Department of State). In the following discussion, the role of political parties in the ups and downs of Czech democracy will be explored.

Role of Civil Society Organizations in the Velvet Revolution

The history of Czech democracy seems to reveal a more complicated relationship between the political parties and the civil society organizations in term of their role to survive democracy. “The restoration of democracy backed by Velvet Revolution in the 1989 was in the first place a response to the mass awareness of in the public fronts that were contributed to by a large of number of known and unknown civil society organizations. Like other revolutions the background forces of the forces of the Velvet Revolution were not power-hungry. Almost all of these organizations were indifferent to the politics of the country. Yet they were interest in politics to the extent that the changes in politics could fulfill their interest. Even any leaders of these organizations did not have any political craze in both of Civic Forum in the Czech Republic and Public Against Violence in Slovakia” (Simmons, 48-60). In this regard Steven Saxonberg says, “None of these organizations had worked out a political or economic program during the initial period of mass demonstrations. Rather than striving to conquer the state, they demanded future elections and the resignation of the most hard-line leaders.” (25) “These organizations played roles to prepare the nation to face a change towards democracy by creating a strong democratic culture among the mass people” (Horacek, 89-95). Though not participating in direct political activities, they functioned as the public think-tanks of the country’s politics and played most of the roles -in reviving democratic culture among through their participation- that are supposed to be played by the traditional democratic political parties. In the context of the Velvet Revolution, political parties simply appeared to be an instrument to implement the agenda of these non-political organizations.

Effects of Disintegration of CSOs and Extreme-end Orientation in the Country Politics

In the context of Czech democracy, “the civil society organizations were the non-political background determinants of the political system of the country before the Velvet revolution. But after the revolution, there took place an extreme orientation in the roles of the political parties and these organizations. These loosely organizations happened to be disintegrated in the post-revolutionary period” (Hermansson 260). They either emerged as fully political role-playing parties or as civil society with non-political interests. These orientations in the roles of the political parties and the civil groups are different from the current trend in the politics of the developed countries like the USA and Britain where the roles of the political parties are complementarily played by both the political parties, civil society organizations and media. “Obviously the extreme-end orientation in the politics poses a threat to democracy by detaching and differentiating the public fronts from the political groups and in this way by providing the political entities with more space to hold a corrupt democratic zeal; to usurp the will of the majority; and to become weaker to create strong opposition against any undemocratic whim of the ruling party” (Bradley 46). The result is vivid in the failures of the parties to fight against the ruling Communist Party’s attempt to strangle democracy in the 1950s. This failure can essentially be attributed to the absence of any strong democratic organizations in the public front, lack of democratic culture in the population and the presence of corrupt and weak political parties.


Theoretically, democracy is possible without political parties, but the question whether democracy can live without political parties is context-specific. Its answer fully depends on several factors such as viability of democratic culture, proliferation of media, availability of pressure groups in the public fronts, the potentiality and strength of the social groups to defend the undemocratic whims of the ruling people etc. In modern society the increasing presence of both print media and electronic media, development of communication technology and the emergence of civil society organizations have reduced the political parties to, more or less, a passive instrument that is supposed to reflect the people’s opinion under the pressure of the public front. The non-political groups in the society played a major role to restore Democracy in Czech Republic. But in the post-revolution period the social pressure groups of the Velvet became disintegrated and at the same time, the political parties tended to assume their traditional roles. Therefore, it is not that democracy cannot live without political parties; rather democracy cannot live without certain conditions that are supposed to be fulfilled by political parties.


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