Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Political Parties and Representative Democracy

What do the Norwegian bomber, the London rioters and the Madrid sit-in have in common? All questioned the capacity of the elected representatives to listen to their demands. All used the new media to organize themselves to commit and promote their acts. Politicians and the media have always been blamed for steering the extremism and madness of individuals and mobs. Such events are also invariable followed by repeated calls for regulation of the parties and the media. Let us consider then the case for more party regulation.

It is a well established fact that representative democracy needs to be complemented by constitutional liberalism and an independent judicial system to protect individuals and minorities from unwarranted interference of governments and oppression by the majorities. That is generally considered enough and therefore political parties were usually left to themselves. So, has something changed? Yes and no!

The mainstream parties lost most of their ideological imprint, leaving the confrontation of ideologies for non-parliamentary small parties. There has been also a growing trend towards rotation within a two-party system. Therefore political parties became murky grand coalitions of interests, relying on large secretive organizations fed by an ever increasing number of partisan jobs in government and the regulated industries. Their communication with the electorate is delegated to expensive marketing and public relations groups with enormous resources and privileged access to the mass media, which perpetuates them in a duopolistic position at the expense of the small parties.

The smaller parties (parliamentary and non-parliamentary) occasionally achieve ephemeral visibility but only by taking radical positions on single-issue policies. This is a self-defeating route. It bars them from participating in government or having their views considered by legislators and the public in general. They face a situation similar to that of the small suppliers of large corporations. Likewise they would benefit from a stronger regulation of big political parties to get closer to a leveling playing field in the electoral system.

It is true that technological progress towards internet-based media may give them a new opportunity to challenge the big players. But as the emergence of cheap email brought with it the need for anti-spam programs so will the public ask for protection against a spam of miniscule parties.

Therefore, any increase in regulation needs to address both big and small parties, but it needs to differentiate. For instance, while the public disclosure of membership should be required from both types of parties, rules on the selection of their electoral candidates should apply only to the big parties. Likewise, the same applies to many aspects of the regulation of their financing and access to broadcasting services.

One important area of the regulation of big political parties is the imposition of limits on their campaign spending. This is so because long media-based campaigning periods become absurdly long, and consequently expensive. This gives the incumbent leading parties an unfair competitive advantage. Moreover, it compromises effective public governance and generates “democracy fatigue”.

Yet, although the new realities require a better regulation of political parties, representation in democratic societies is still better protected by restricting it to clearly defined broad political associations like the political parties. Resorting to other types of associations, pursuing specific interests or confessional values, would easily degenerate into broken societies falling either in anarchy or totalitarianism. That is, we need to improve competition between parties rather than search for new players.

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