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Is The Role Of Political Parties In Decline Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2352 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Before one speaks of a consolidated democracy, one must first ensure that the three minimal, but necessary, conditions are satisfied. Firstly, one can argue that there must be a state for democracy to exist. In other words, there must be the existence of a state which is a modern polity; which holds free elections; protects the people’s rights, and ensures the efficiency of the rule of law. Secondly, democratic transition must be complete before consolidation takes place, and it is deemed to a necessary condition to hold free elections which are rid of authoritarian control at this stage. Thirdly, for a regime to be called democratic – the rulers must govern democratically, that is, governments must not infringe the constitution, or violate individual rights, and must rule within the bounds of a state of law.

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Hence, when one refers to a consolidated democracy one is not referring merely to liberal nondemocratic regimes, or hybrid democracies. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan [1] assert that a ‘consolidated democracy’ is a political regime in which democracy, as a complex system of institutions, rules, and patterned incentives and disincentives has become ‘the only game in town’. Moreover, democracy becomes the only game in town when no significant political group attempts to overthrow the democratic regime or to promote domestic or international violence in order to secede from the state. [2] 

Political Parties and Their Roles in Society

Political parties have been deemed necessary since the early societal grouping of man. Men would find a pattern of the state that would subsume societal conflict and which would allow the rule of law to function and apply it to their state. Thus, one can argue that political systems deal with conflicts and the political institutions they create. Giovanni Sartori [3] defines a political party as ‘any political group identified by an official label that presents at elections, and is capable of placing through elections candidates for public offices.’

It has been argued that political parties are necessary and cannot be replaced by civil society or by any other organized structure created to give representation to citizens because political parties have formed the cornerstone of democratic society and serve a function like no other institution. Hence, in a modern society, democracy cannot seem to function properly without political parties. The active support and collaboration of strong, inclusive political parties in partnership with an effective civil society is fast gaining acceptance as the correctly balanced formula to achieve a somewhat more transparent and participatory system of government. In strengthening democratic institutions in consolidated democracies, it is not a matter of having to choose between building a strong civil society or strengthening political parties and political institutions such as parliaments. The real challenge lies in balancing support for democratic institutions and organizations that are more accountable and inclusive, while at the same time continuing to foster and nurture the development of a broadly based and active civil society.

In recent years, it emerged that the positions of political parties in the politics of consolidated democracies have decreased drastically. Many argue that the reason behind this decline is primarily the change in the roles of the parties, and in fact Hague and Harrop [4] argue that the question for the twenty-first century is whether political parties are undergoing a crisis or whether is merely a change in their role. It is important to emphasise that the parties have not declined in the sense that they have ceased to be important in government, but they have changed, and today perform rather different functions or perform traditional functions in a different manner.

Declining role of political parties?

Hague and Harrop [5] question whether parties are facing a crisis or whether they are declining into weak, decentralized organizations. Amongst other reasons, they argue that major parties no longer offer radically different visions of the good society, and electors’ party loyalties are weakening as traditional social divisions decay. Furthermore, they state that party members are older than the average person and are becoming less active; and party membership is falling at a fast pace and will continue to do so as older members leave the electorate; young people are more likely to join single-issue groups than parties, and parties have become charity cases, relying for funding on state handouts. Moreover, the trust in parties is lower than for other political institutions, and is declining. On the other hand, Crotty argues that the demands of society have changed, and thus parties change to meet them. Too often, models of what parties ‘ought’ to be like are drawn from the narrow experience of Western Europe in the twentieth century. Today, it is rather unrealistic to expect the rebirth of traditional mass membership parties with thousands of working-class members and their supporting pillars of trade unions. In an era where mass media and electronic communication play an important role such an organisational format is gone for good. Instead, we have a rather new format of parties found in the consolidated democracies which are somewhat lean and flexible, with communication from leaders trough the broadcast media and the internet. Rather than relying on outdated notions of a permanent army of members, new-format parties mobilize volunteers for specific, short-term tasks, such as election campaigns. The form of parties will continue to evolve but their purpose of giving direction to government continues unchanged.

According to Hague and Harrop [6] , political parties are said to perform four main functions:

Directions are given to government by ruling parties and thus some political parties have the vital task of ‘steering the ship of state’;

Political parties function as agents of political recruitment, and serve as the major mechanism for preparing and recruiting candidates for the legislature and executive;

Political parties serve as devices of interest aggregation, filtering a multitude of specific demands into more manageable packages of proposals. Thus, parties select, reduce and combine policies; and

Political parties also serve as a brand for their supporters and voters, giving people a lens through which to interpret and participate in a complicated political world.

The decline in the role of political parties has been identified mainly in terms of a constant erosion of the above listed functions. In what is already a highly fragmented political system, the decline of these functions has very often led to inefficient government and the wearing away of the legitimacy of institutions.

The parties have the task of bridging the link between parliament and the government, sine the party which gets an overall majority in parliament then forms the government. The parties also provide for the scrutiny and control of the government since the party which does not win the election and becomes the ‘Opposition’ then has the job of constantly attacking and criticizing the government and exposing its failings to the public – as well as putting forward alternative ideas of its own. However, in recent years amid the entire furore over the decline of traditional parties, not a single third party has emerged with even the slightest appearance of electoral strength. Third-party candidates have sometimes done very well, but they very often represent more of a protest vote than some distinct social movement. Weaker party identification is producing a more inconsistent electorate prone to sudden shifts in loyalty, to vote splitting and to voting for individual candidates or issues rather than according to traditional party ties. Generally, over the past few years these activists have become more candidate- and issue-oriented, one of their main motivations being to promote a particular candidate or to support just one special issue. Critics argue that these trends have weakened party organization and coherence even further.

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Parties are the main means through which democratic leaders are recruited and fed into the political system since parties provide us with the personnel who govern that state. There has been a dramatic decline in the membership of the major parties – people (especially young people) appear to be less willing to get actively involved in party organisations. Parties are said to provide the most important way in which people become involved in politics. This can be done on a number of levels. However, established political parties have experienced a declining membership that is ageing. Young people are hesitating to join or become associated with political parties. At the same time, support has risen for independent candidates, and interest parties. There has been a dramatic decline in party membership between the 1960s and the 1990s. In Scandinavia, Sundberg [7] argues, since the 1970s and the 1980s, membership decline has set in at an unprecedented rate. Denmark is a particularly extreme case, with membership falling from one in every five people in the 1960s to one in twenty by the 1990s.

By voting for a party, people are able to express their political opinion and help choose the government. It is parties which give people the choice at elections between alternative views and policies. The parties also provide the voters with a choice in elections – by presenting programmes and taking stands on issues parties allow the voters to choose between rival policy packages. Parties produce policies or ideas which they hope will win them power – so these ideas have to appeal to a large enough section of the electorate. The parties have to produce policies on a whole range of issues covering all aspects of politics if they are to be taken seriously as a potential government. This gives the voters a genuine choice of alternative packages to choose from.

Policy formulation is another role of the parties since they come up with the policy proposals which the voters can choose from and then put those policies into motion if they win the election. Hence, parties initiate the policies / ideas which then govern the nation in a wide variety of areas e.g. foreign policy, environment, health, education etc. In recent years, the parties have become less attached to a fixed set of ideas and are more willing to shape their beliefs and policies to respond to public opinion rather than leading people to follow them, and it can also be argued that parties now also deliberately keep their ideas and policies very vague and refuse to go into detail because this might antagonize voters and also open them to attack about the details. Nowadays, the number of programmatic parties has decreased, and they are in turn becoming catch-all parties. Programmatic parties tend to have definite and fixed set of ideas and beliefs which they firmly believe in and which they can apply in all circumstances. However, parties have now become pragmatic that is they are willing to change ideas to suit changing circumstances. While the former were more interested in transforming society to bring it in line with their ideas over a long period of time, the latter’s policies are designed to win the next elections and to deal only with current and short term issues. The programmatic parties aim to bring the people around to their way of thinking and to agree with their principles, while the latter seek to find out what the people want and then fit their ideas and policies to match so that they can gain popularity and elect candidates. Catch-all parties tend to change their policies on a regular basis to match changing circumstances and public opinion, while the programmatic parties tend to stick to long held policies and not change them.

Representation is also of the main functions of political parties in a democracy. They are to serve the interests of their people as party representatives, and they are also supposed to represent the nation as a whole. Through representation, parties help to link the government to the people because they attempt to match their policies to public opinion as much as possible and then if they win the election they can carry out those policies – hence, translating what the public wants into action. However, recently it has been argued that the parties are not ‘representing’ those who elect them properly because many MPs are elected by a minority of their constituents, for instance, in Britain, the first past the post system means that MPs do not have to be chosen by a majority of the voters in their area. E.g. some Scottish seats the MP were elected with only 1/3 of the vote. Furthermore, the government itself can be elected to rule with minority of the vote.


Therefore, one can say that the roles of political parties have declined, and this is evident if we compare


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