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What Do Political Parties Do?


Most political scientists believe that political parties are central to the process of democratization in poor countries. However, leaving aside a few relatively well-studied cases such as India, we know little about the role of political parties in much of the South, and especially not in the more fragile democracies or semi-democracies. There is a massive research task here, encompassing a great deal of fact-gathering as well as conceptual and causal analysis. It would be too much to expect any single publication to have made major inroads into this task. However, the recent issue of Democratization (Volume 9, No 3, Autumn 2002) offers some very useful case studies and a very helpful stimulus to thinking about the role of political parties in democratic consolidation. For those who want to think or research further on this issue, here is a good place to start.

The collection comprises a mixture of comparative studies across regions (Africa, the Southern Cone of Latin America, the Third World) and national cases. The latter may be especially interesting because they deal mainly with countries with weak democratic traditions that rarely appear in the literature on democracy - notably Cambodia, Chad, Mauritania, Kenya, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is however the Introduction by editors Vicky Randall and Lard Svasand that non-specialists will find most useful. They present a revised version of an older conceptual framework, in which the potential functions of political parties are conceived as operating on three levels:

1. (Oriented towards the electorate)
Representation: expression of people's demands; simplifying and structuring electoral choice.
Integration: integration of voters into the system, political education.

2. (Linkage-related)
Aggregating (and channelling) interests.
Recruitment and training of political leaders.

3. (Government-related)
Making government accountable; implementing party policy, exercising control over government administration.
Organizing opposition and dissent.

It is particularly useful at present to be reminded that political parties can play a major, positive role in aggregating voters' demands: sifting through the multiple, competing interests and demands of myriads of groups and organisations, and renegotiating, reorganising and reframing them until there are broad platforms and ideas on which voters can agree and parties can compete. For current development doctrine is unduly obsessed with the notion of voice, and the idea that the key challenge is to get popular voices heard. But voices are typically competing and inchoate. Without aggregation processes, multiple expressions of voice can easily cancel one another out and, if followed by frustration with consultative processes, actually undermine democratic values and institutions. "Although civic organisations voice group demands, they cannot aggregate them……civil society cannot substitute for parties." It is however incidental that this collection reminds us of important, neglected truths. Its broader value lies in showing us some paths toward thinking more clearly about the role of political parties in poor countries.

Source: Democratization, Volume 9, Number 3. Democratization is published quarterly by Frank Cass Publishers (

Keywords: political parties, democracy

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS, (August 2002)

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