Political parties are a key ingredient of the democratic process. They are formed on the basis of a particular ideology and those who subscribe to it join and become members of the party. A political party will have one principal objective, and that is to attain the power to govern.
Source: Political parties, pillar of democracy – NewsDay Zimbabwe March 15, 2017
With attainment of power as its primary goal the political party must organise itself into a unit and formulate rules that outline the unit’s structure and govern the conduct of members, it must select its leadership and then safeguard its existence by ensuring that it has adequate funding to sustain its structures, campaign and win elections.
OPINION: Stembile Mpofu
Because political parties are a cornerstone of the democratic process, their condition defines the wellbeing of the democratic system itself. If the political party system is defective, this in turn compromises the larger democratic process. I would like us to first examine the process under which political parties elect their leadership. Leaders, who should in the event the political party attains power, be individuals competent enough to govern a country. After examining the processes that take place within the party, I would also like us to explore how the political parties sustain themselves.
Selecting political party leaders
In selecting its leadership a political party will choose individuals to fill specific positions within the party.
The most common practice is for members to be nominated for a position and then elections held to select a preferred candidate. To be elected into a position of leadership a candidate must win the most votes. While criteria outlining the qualifications needed for the position may be in place, the final selection ultimately lies with the membership.
Each candidate is given the mandate to convince party members to vote for him or her. A candidate seeking election must receive support from the majority of this diverse group, who may not necessarily be motivated by what is best for the party and country, but the desire to serve their own self interest. Whatever strategy is used to win the election it will be crafted in a way that satisfies as many of the members’ expectations as it can. Some members may want future positions in exchange for their vote. We witnessed this within the Tory Party after David Cameron’s resignation.
A leaked email from Sarah Vine to her husband Michael Gove (Justice minister at the time) revealed her urging her husband to secure a specific job offer from Boris Johnson (Brexiter and former London Mayor) before Gove pledged his support for Johnson’s Prime Ministerial bid. Others, who may have influence over a particular constituency, may want favours in return for getting their constituents to support a candidate.
Then there are those who may need reassurance that their particular issue will receive priority once the candidate has attained power. In poorer nations a bag of maize meal may be enough to seal the deal.
Ethnically-diverse countries may see members voting purely on ethnic lines. In addition to all this the party’s financial backers must be assured that their particular agenda will be fulfilled if the candidate wins. The candidate, if s/he is to be elected must be all things to all people. By the time s/he is elected to the post s/he is already beholden to many people and groups.
It is here where the first systemic flaw reveals itself. Despite the fact that the political party is supposed to provide its most competent leaders to govern, candidates who win are not necessarily the most competent, but are the most popular.
This is because the leadership selection process is not designed to assess competence. It is designed to determine who the most popular candidate is. The process of selecting the leadership of the political party has little or no correlation to the ultimate goal of providing competent governance for a country.
The purpose of any system is to achieve a particular goal and the process to reach this goal must relate to the outcome. So for example if 10 100-metre sprinters are brought to the Olympics with the goal being to determine who the fastest sprinter is, they would be asked to run a 100m race. The race being the process through which the goal of finding the fastest sprinter is reached.
Here the process has a clear correlation with the outcome. Imagine if instead of asking the athletes to run a race, each is asked to convince a combined group made up of their peers, training partners, coaches, fans and sponsors that he/she is the fastest sprinter. If this group is then asked to vote and determine the fastest sprinter it is highly unlikely that they will choose the fastest sprinter.
They are likely to choose the athlete who uses the best strategy to convince the voting group, whatever strategy that may be. This is because this process has no relation to running, but is designed to reward the athlete with the greatest skill in persuasion. In fact it may not even reward the most persuasive but it could reward the athlete from whose victory the voting group stands to benefit the most. The process provides the voting group with the opportunity to use the voting platform to advance their own interests or agendas as sponsors, fans or coaches.
No matter how beautifully you define a given goal, if the process of reaching that goal is defective then your goal cannot be reached. A political party may define its goal as the attainment of power, so that it can successfully govern according to its chosen ideology. To achieve this goal it must have leaders with the competence, skills and character to lead a country to prosperity.
Therefore, if a political party seeks to select the most competent leaders from amongst its membership, it must implement a process that will assess competence and not popularity. If the process is designed to assess popularity then the goal of each candidate will be to be the most popular and not the most competent. The system will produce the most popular leader, who may not necessarily be the most competent.
This is a politician’s rite of passage to a position of leadership in a political party. I believe that politicians are not different to you and I. However, the system within which they operate is designed in a way that will shape and promote a particular type of behaviour. If one is to achieve success in politics one does not necessarily need to be competent but must be popular.
Politicians are generally perceived to be dishonest because they must keep their audience entertained. They must constantly reinvent themselves and churn out promises to maintain their popularity. We, therefore, should not be surprised by the fact that politicians’ statements are vague and elusive. The political party system will inevitably result in the public having diminished trust in the individuals it produces.
Sustaining a political party
The democratic system upholds political parties as ideologically driven entities able to form a government for the people once they assume power. This is simply not true and is where the second systemic flaw lies. It is in the fact that political parties are not independent entities, but dependent entities. They are not dependent on their individual members or the electorate that vote them into power, but on their funders.
A political party does not produce any goods that will generate independent income for the party. Its source of revenue is dependent on well-wishers who may consist of individuals within the party, corporations, foreign governments, governmental funds, well-to-do individuals outside the party and ordinary party members.
Each group will bolster the party’s coffers and expect something in return for their financial support. As a result the political party’s very existence is dependent on their funders. The funders’ ideological inclinations may or may not be different from those of the party but whatever the case may be, this means that political party’s cannot be independent. Their very existence attests to the fact that they stand beholden to multiple visible or invisible interests that have great influence over them. The American election, being the most expensive election in the world illustrates this point best.
The Washington Post reported that by November 28, 2016 Hillary Clinton’s election campaign had raised $1,4 billion, while Donald Trump’s campaign was lagging behind with a figure of $932,3 million. Sixteen percent of Clinton’s total funds were from small donations (under $200), while Donald Trump’s small fund donations amounted to 26 percent of the total funds raised.
Assuming that the small donations are from ordinary people and not large corporations or rich individuals, it is clear to see that only about a quarter of the funds raised are from ordinary people. With such a set-up which group is likely to have greater influence over political parties and their leadership?
In developing countries where millionaires are fewer and corporations and ordinary people poorer, the exact same dynamics are at play. The difference is that in addition to large corporations sponsoring political parties there is sponsorship by foreign governments that provide funding according to their own country’s interests. The political party’s dependency on the foreign government is nurtured through the sponsorship of political campaigns.
In addition, provision of various forms of aid and development packages can be provided to non-political groups within the country that will help in advancing the foreign government’s interests. These same packages will also be availed to political parties after they have attained power in order to nurture relationships that maintain dependency.
So where political parties in developed countries are beholden to large corporations and pander to the interests of big business, political parties in the developing world are beholden to the foreign governments that fund them. The democratic system is designed in a way that gives autonomy to big business in the developed countries and autonomy to foreign governments in developing countries. In both the developed and developing worlds, the electorate has minimal influence on political parties because they contribute little to their sustenance.
Most countries that use the democratic system have put laws in place to govern financial donations to political parties. This is an attempt to minimise the extent to which their sponsors can compromise political parties. The undeniable truth, however, is that sponsors sustain political parties. Political parties are dependent on them for their existence. We state that politicians look after the interests of business first before those of the common man as though it is a problem when in fact it is a logical consequence of how the system is designed. Can we realistically harbor a different expectation?
It is in this compromised state that the political party now offers its candidate to the national electorate for voters to choose their representatives. On Election Day, the crowds form long, winding queues at polling stations, each individual waiting for his/her turn to cast a vote. The ballots have been printed and each candidate’s face and the political party they represent are emblazoned on each ballot. The time has come to select a candidate who will govern for the people. In Part Three we take a closer look at the people waiting patiently in the queues to elect their representatives. The democratic system expects them to choose the competent leaders who will do what is best for the nation. Can they deliver?
Stembile Mpofu is an independent consultant focussing on systems thinking and analysis. She is a lawyer and has 15 years experience in the area of conflict resolution