A system of competing political parties that gives citizens a voice is widely regarded as one of the core principles of liberal democracy, and this feature is typical of a wide range of countries around the globe – even those where the quality of choice at the ballot box is questionable.
Political parties appear to matter in theory, but it is not always so in practice: in countries where more people are unaffiliated with any political party, popular support for representative democracy is also lower, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of public opinion in 35 countries.
Around the world, voters appear to be abandoning traditional political organisations, but can democracy survive without them? In 1796, President George Washington lambasted political parties for allowing “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” to “subvert the power of the people”. On the other hand, “in every political society, parties are unavoidable”, wrote President James Madison in resignation when the United States was only a few years old.
“Political parties are the core institution of democratic accountability because parties, not the individuals who support or comprise them, can offer competing visions of the public good,” write Ian Shapiro, a political scientist at Yale and his colleague Frances Rosenbluth. Voters, they argue, have neither the time nor the background to research costs and benefits of policies and weigh their personal interests against what’s best for the majority in the long run.
Many people have thought, and still do, that partisanship is a toxic by-product of broken political systems. Some politicians, rather dishonestly, have promised to depart from “the baneful effects of the spirit of party”. That promise has never been fulfilled.
Is the popularity of political parties waning?
The popularity of parties is at a nadir, with parties everywhere being widely condemned as not only unrepresentative but also hijacked by elites. Indeed, a steadily increasing share of voters identify as unaffiliated with either party. Across nations surveyed by the US’s Pew Research Centre, a median of 26% do not identify with any political party in their country, though that percentage ranges from as low as 2% in India to as high as 78% in Chile.
Not everyone agrees that political parties are weaker today than they once were. The extreme polarisation of the last two decades means that much of the public is more strongly attached to their own party, and party-led voter mobilisation efforts, in fact, make party leaders more powerful than ever. Still, many experts believe political parties have suffered a major loss in clout, which in turn has been a loss for democracy in general.
The fact is that politicians on either side of the political spectrum assume the worst of one another. In venomous attacks on governing parties and their leaders, those in Opposition accuse them of amassing power, increasing state debt, of being embroiled in corruption, and plotting “to betray the people”. One only has to follow the current scene in the UK to understand the political divide. The one in Malta and elsewhere is a carbon copy.
The political discourse is full of knives coming out quickly and often. The parties’ established mouthpieces in the media lambast one another. Gossip about the personal lives of leaders is a favourite topic, with “informed sources” providing good grist for the rumour mill. Ideological differences in democracies are unavoidable, but wounding suspicions and irritating charges seed a fatal gangrene into political life.
Political parties have a role to play
The mounting animosity towards parties has sparked a lot of debate among political scientists. Those who defend the traditional party system insist that democracy depends on strong, organised, and trustworthy political factions. “People in politics often try to go around parties, to go directly to the people. But without the parties, we’d have chaos,” says Harvard University political scientist Nancy Rosenblum, who explores the challenges facing political parties today.
On the other hand, a small group of scholars say we need to start visualising a more open and direct democracy, with less mediation by parties and professional politicians. Hélène Landemore, a political scientist at Yale University, says that, though such proposals were seen as “completely fringe” until a decade ago, they are now colouring the scope of debate.
Yet, it is not the case that anybody is proposing doing away with political parties. They still serve many other important roles, including facilitating compromise, says Russell Muirhead, a political scientist at Dartmouth University. There are many pieces of legislation on which opposing parties agree in principle and even on the more detailed provisions of laws under consideration in parliament. In spite of what people think, it is also the case in Malta.
One thing for which we can be grateful in Malta is that, except for the two years when the Nationalist Party boycotted Parliament in the early eighties, the two main parties have traditionally cooperated in acknowledging their opponents’ legitimacy. Other nations, such as Thailand, Turkey, and Germany, have banned political parties that their governments have seen as too destabilising to democracy. Even in the USA, we saw Donald Trump’s and the GOP’s attempts to delegitimise Joe Biden’s victory in 2022 and calling his election fraudulent, despite the total lack of evidence to the contrary.
So, yes, political parties throughout the world have lost considerable goodwill and influence. Yet, rather than banning them or further sapping their power, they need to be made more reliable. This could potentially be done by reforming campaign financing and eliminating the dangerous bidding by candidates to obtain voter loyalties, although that goal continues to be elusive.
Power to the people?
One other possibility being touted by political scientists is to randomly appoint groups of citizens, chosen much as today’s court juries are, to lead government, while rotating in fixed terms through a permanent ‘House of the People’. These citizens’ assemblies would be more representative than current parliaments.
Several European nations have already tried alternatives to party-driven democracy. In 2019-20, France held a Citizens’ Convention on Climate, calling on 150 randomly chosen citizens to help devise socially just ways to reduce greenhouse gases. In December 2020, the French President agreed to hold a referendum on one of the convention’s suggestions, the inclusion of climate protection in the national constitution.
Another example happened in 2016, when the Irish Parliament assembled 99 citizens to deliberate on stubborn issues, including a constitutional ban on abortion. A majority of the assembly proposed that the ban be struck down, after which a national referendum confirmed the result and changed the law – all accomplished without involvement of established political parties. In Malta, both ex-President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and current Presdident George Vella wanted to adopt this approach to Constitution-building. Regrettably, they were prevented from doing so.
Researchers are currently discussing intensively which opportunities various forms of citizen participation offer. For example, political decisions would probably be “better” because they would be taken by normal people who are closer to the needs of citizens. This can help alleviate disenchantment with politics, or rather with political parties. Participation would also help the citizens concerned to develop political skills and encourage them to be more proactive.
We know from countries with referendums, like Switzerland, that people are better informed on both local and national issues. Citizen participation can also make politics more inclusive because all segments of the population are truly heard – not just the core constituencies of the respective parties. Last, but not least, it should also increase the transparency of legislative procedures. All these are also the criteria by which the effectiveness of different forms can be evaluated.
My personal vision is that of a democracy in which direct and deliberative processes are closely linked to our representative institutions. Political issues would be discussed intensively among the population and, in some cases, also decided. Politicians would no longer live in a bubble, and neither would citizens have to air their grievances and views on that destroyer of consensus that is Facebook.