Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Anatomy of Power Inside Political Parties

Before we discuss how to apply the principles of representative democracy to political parties, we need to understand the allocation of power inside them. Power struggles within organizations in general and within parties have many features in common studied in organizational theory.

One feature that is salient in political parties is the extreme greed for power, well expressed in the popular saying: “In the other parties I have adversaries; in my party I have enemies”. Another distinctive feature of party organizations is that members tend to be aligned in groups. However, this form of tribal or feudal organization often ends up in two opposite forms of power sharing. In some parties the contenders defeated are selectively invited to join the winners while in others they ostracized into permanent opposition or expulsion.

Such groups are formed in many different ways, including the sharing of ideals or ideology, but generally they fight for power over mundane issues. For instance, the most common is to fight over some obscure amendment to the Party’s charter, which is immediately forgotten once the fight is over. Another bizarre form of fight for succession in communist parties was over the organization of the burial ceremony of deceased leaders. Many leaders also run the parties in a courtier system and therefore give a lot of power to those with the door keys to the courtroom.

In my brief experience as member of a Party Directorate I identified three major sources of power within political parties. These are the Leader’s entourage, the Administration in charge of liaison with the local sections of the party and the Fundraisers. The Leader’s Cabinet is usually made up of at least four or five people: his head of cabinet and secretary, media and intelligence liaison officers and the head of administration.

Among them they manage a network of official and unofficial political advisers. Their role can be quite distinct and there are those who do not seat in the party’s elected bodies and some who are not even party members. There are many that come and go as policies shift and there a few with lasting influence over the leader. The later are the most powerful and are usually on the unofficial or undisclosed list of advisers, often including family members and party financiers. The Cabinet and Administration heads are essential for the relationship of the Party Leader with the party members and interest groups in general.

The second-in-command is usually the Head of Administration (with a title of Secretary-General, Chief of Staff or similar). Because of the role he plays in the control over the party membership, he is essential for the reelection of the leader. His influence derives from the power to distribute resources among the various sections of the party, and, most importantly, from his role in organizing all party events and elections. However, the way the party is organized in terms of local sections and the process of selection of its members to national elections may mitigate the influence of the Head of Administration.

Finally, the third most influential members are those responsible for fund raising. These may include three different types of fund raisers: a Party Treasurer, who in some cases has a simple accounting role without political influence, wealthy supporters of the Party, who are also some of the biggest party donors, and non-donor fund raisers. The second may have some influence in policy setting, but the later are the most active and influential in selling political favors and legislative votes to special interest groups. Among these we often find some obscure and dodgy characters that the parties reward with sinecures or by letting them take a cut in the donations received.

So it is against this background of organizational power within parties that any regulation aimed at improving representative democracy within parties has to be discussed. This will need to consider the relationship within local sections of the party and their role in the selection of candidates for national office as well as the role of the various national bodies representing the party.

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