Outline the central functions of political parties in liberal democracies. What factors help to explain the reduction in political party members?
A political party is defined as a group of people who are organized to gain and exercise political power. Political parties emerged in their modern form in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century, which also led to the evolution of electoral and parliamentary systems. Since then the term party has been used for all those structured groups of people who seek political power by democratic means or through revolution (Duverger, 2008).
Previously, during monarchical, pre-revolutionary and aristocratic regimes, the political process took place within narrow circles in which cliques and factions gathered around certain nobles or influential personalities, who were opposed to each other. The creation of a parliamentary regime and the emergence of parties in the beginning did not change this situation much. Cliques created around businessmen, merchants, bankers and industrialists were added to the cliques created around princes, docks, counts or marquises. Administrations supported by aristocrats were replaced by administrations supported by other sets of elites. These narrow established political parties were then more or less transformed into mass-dependent parties in the nineteenth century in the USA and Europe.
Political parties around the world expanded in the twentieth century, however the underlying principles on which these parties were formed differ from country to country. In some underdeveloped countries, large modern political parties were based on traditional associations, for example âethnic, tribal or religious affiliations.â In addition, many political parties in underdeveloped states were âpartly political, partly military.â
Democracy, as EE Schattschneider claimed, is âincredible only in terms of parties.â Similarly, many modern democratic thinkers recognize parties as organizations that consolidate electoral contests, embody different social interests, resolve social conflicts, intensify voter rationality, increase the electorate through mobilization, link people with their own government, act as a recruiting agent for government from below and limit the people holding power.
In developed democratic states, political parties are an inevitable part of the political system as political parties embody associations of diverse groups in a society. They offer ways through which contradictory features of similar interest are âreconciled, harmonized and then fed into the political system.â The parties educate and involve their members, who also offer significant workers for the democratic regulation of local and central government.
In liberal democracies, nevertheless, the concept of political party is rather broad. The term was, and is still used to denote those elitist groups that appeared in a legislature before the enfranchisement of general election, a process that did not commence in most of the governments that were to advance into liberal democracies until the end of 19th century. Well-defined elitist groups appeared and left the British Parliament several times from the late 17th to the mid-19th century, when parliamentary parties were converted into parties with electoral bases. Thus, a political party, an institution that acts and mobilizes people, represents their needs and interests, compromises opposing attitudes, and acts as a testing ground for the people in power. Some central functions of the political parties in liberal democracies are as follows:
- The political parties with their ideology and program are the institutes that provide common goal identification as individuals might not be able to attain their personal goals alone. It is relatively easier for them to identify their own objectives with the aims of a political party and back the party to see that the party attains its objectives. In this way, even an individual can achieve some of his goals.
- Communicating and accumulating social interests is another central feature of a political party. This means communicating and articulating interests within and through the party. Citizens change their interests and demands into governmental policies and decisions through political parties.
- One of the functions of political parties is arguably that of a connecting agent that connects the public with the political elite. This feature of political parties has long been identified by commentators studying parliamentary democratic systems. Sartori, for example, stated that âcitizens in modern democracies are represented through and by parties.â
- Political parties are fundamental institutions for transferring peoplesâ interest into public order. The parties not only communicate but also channel. They select, aggregate and ultimately change and distort. Opinion is shaped and manipulated by parties which makes political parties a two-way channel of communication.
- Structuring the vote is another function of the political party, however, it is the smallest function of the party in a modern democracy. This process includes imposing a model or order that enables voters to select candidates on the basis of their labels. Thus, in one way or the other, political parties, though not the only one, provide a basis for election choice. Voters can still make their own decision on some other grounds, for instance the appeal of a candidate, but party labels make it easy for the voter to come to a decision. Moreover, it can be said that a political party exists as long as it structures the vote even if it does nothing else.
It is believed that liberal democracies cannot work effectively in the absence of political parties as they have made a significant contribution to civic orientation. They aided in directing mass political movement towards constitutional political avenues. As agents of the exercise of control, political parties helped in the expansion of popular control on the ruling administration in liberal democracies. While many parties remained unsuccessful to deliver mass participation in the nomination of candidates, the selection of parties’ goals and policies, the political parties operated as a platform for political participation (Demir, 2000).
In recent years, however, party membership statistics have declined across parties and countries. Over the past decade, research has suggested a disinterest of citizens with political parties and with politics in general. The empirical evidence in support of this opinion refers, for instance, to a decrease in the number of citizens claiming to agree with a particular party, the decrease in the number of votes and trust in political parties, the decrease in the registration of party members and the increase in voter volatility. There were significant differences in attitudes towards political parties, and non-party members were skeptical about overall democratic performance, their effectiveness in bringing about political and social change and the ability of members to impact the decision-making of process parties. In addition, recruitment on the basis of family members seems to be the main route for the membership in the party for the young voters due to which a decline in political party members can be seen in various countries around the world and especially in Europe.
Thus, it can be said that though political parties will continue to be effective mediators in liberal democracies and will be able to function as representatives of democracy in the coming times, however, certain inefficacies of the political parties have led to a reduction in political partiesâ membership all over the world which has led to severe criticism on the efficacy of political parties.
- Huseyin, D., 2000. The role and treatment of political parties in liberal democracies with reference to the United Kingdom, Turkey and the European Convention on Human Rights (Doctoral dissertation, University of Leeds). https:etheses.whiterose.ac.uk4401uk_bl_ethos_250216.pdf
- Nivola, PS 2005, Why Federalism Matters, Brookings, Brookings.
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