It is hard to imagine any modern democracy without political parties, but their very nature and modus operandi undermines the democratic process.
Political parties support their candidates by providing money and people during campaigns, and provide a consistent policy framework that any individual candidate would be hard-pressed to emulate.
However, it is in their nature as an organisation where their needs and that of the electors whose votes they are seeking begin to diverge.
A political party is a legal organisation, with its own charter, philosophical basis, and agenda.
Those, in themselves, must align somewhat with voter's expectations for the party to even be considered voting for.
Beyond broad policies directed at voters, most political parties immerse themselves in an ideological framework that may go well beyond what voters may really want in their representatives. Unfortunately, there is often not a lot of candidates to choose from to get one that is really aligned to what a particular voter wants.
Such ideologies may not be really what a candidate wants to fully take on board either, but again, their choices for fulfilling what they perceive as their role in life may dictate some compromise of their own ideals.
However, there is a lot more to being an organisation than its governing ideology, as the practicalities of getting elected and obtaining financial backing provide a lot more areas where serious compromises are needed, if not downright conflicts of interest.
The principal conflict of interest is that candidates are being fielded by one organisation with its own ideology and agenda, but those will not likely be completely aligned with the needs of the organisation actually paying the candidates, namely the country or territory being governed.
Getting a candidate elected requires money and resources, well before any successful candidates receive remuneration for their services.
The most extreme example of this, is in the election of US presidents, where the cost of the campaign is up to a billion dollars, aside from the thousand upon thousands of hours volunteers put in. Now, contrast that with the less than $2 million that a president gets during the whole of a four-year term. The point is, where does one expect their loyalties to be directed given such overt fiscal bias in the source of their being in that position to begin with?
It would be an interesting exercise to compare the remuneration each successful candidate gets during their term with the total expenses and time of volunteers converted to equivalent wages. I think we would then really see how much of test of loyalties we are really seeing candidates having to deal with, and perhaps rethink how much leeway we give political parties to fund candidates.
The agendas of political parties are largely defined by the underlying ideology they espouse. But those ideologies are not abstracts, but are the direct result of the influential people in a party largely pushing their own ideologies and agendas.
Therefore, a political party is a rallying point for those of similar ideologies to pool their influence to make governments fulfil their particular agenda, rather than that which may better fulfil the needs of the whole population.
To get their agendas to the forefront of government policy, political parties engage in a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation and lobbying, out of public scrutiny, just so there is less chance of discussions being derailed by other's, perhaps legitimate, concerns about the deals.
This lack of transparency is another area of possible conflict of interest, as there may be no consideration taken of what is better for the voters of the party, who end up footing the salary bill for the party's elected representatives.
Political parties, being a organisation, will largely aim to ensure their own survival, and thus seek to differentiate themselves from other parties, even though the best interest of those being governed is that parties cooperate to meet their needs.
After all, ALL elected representative are technically members of the government, but we have seen our democracies biased toward only labelling the majority party or alliance as the government, and relegating the rest to being largely sidelined in their contribution to government.
This results in us losing a lot of chances for more even-handedness in the framing of government policy, as it tends to leave out whole swathes of worthwhile considerations, merely because so many representatives are considered persona-non-grata, which is really disprespectful of those who elected them.
Platitudes that may be espoused when a winning party's leader states that they will represent all people, are hollow when the actuality is disenfranchisement. No wonder people are cynical of politicians.
Unfortunately, the differentiation also plays out as a tendency to vote as a block, rather than allowing each member to make up their own mind, after weighing up the needs of those who elected them against the needs of the whole. This is the only reason minor parties can ever really hold the balance of power, as they would just be another few solo members if there were not this need for parties to give the impression of solidarity with the party line.
This false differentiation becomes especially fractuous if factions within one party are more politically disparate than with other parties. This can result in what would otherwise be mostly similarly voting members forced to be voting against each other. Good government and voter confidence suffer because of such unnecessary separateness.
One of the worst aspects of the influence of political parties is the humiliation to which they subject their junior members.
In Australia, this plays out in parliamentary question time in a ritual where such a junior representative is required to ask a specific policy-seeking question of a senior member, who then goes on to condescendingly thank the junior about their good question (did they have a choice?), before launching into a pat speech extolling some glorious government policy or initiative.
All that does is highlight the farcical, cynical and contemtuous way politians treat their own, let alone the general public.
All members are equal, regardless of how long they have been elected, and while some may have more responsibilities due to particular roles they have in relation to the exercise of government, that is no reason to treat people as lesser playthings for their own aggrandisement. More fodder for political cynicism.
Really, it is time we made politicians accountable only to voters and the direct needs of government, rather than the shadows of party rooms and plays staged to fool the public.
Political parties are the most threat to democracy when they can modify the processes of government to their own advantage.
Some of the onerous ways political parties can corrupt democratic processes are:
- a.Modify electoral boundaries to favour election of their own candidates
- b.Stack the other arms of government with those of a similar ideology
- c.Intimidation of voters.
Known as gerrymandering, the electoral boundaries are shifted so that a minority of electorates overwhelming favour their opponents, so that the remaining electorates are biased towards their own candidates. The resulting electorate shapes can be quite irregular.
Of course, this only works when there are not large differences in the numbers voting for each of the parties. An electoral landslide by the opposition would negate the advantage.
The obvious way to prevent this boundary fudging is to place responsibility for their definition into the hands of an independent body, free of political interference, and with clear guidelines that ensure the minimum difference between the narrowest and widest spans of each electorate.
The principal branches of government are the legislature, executive and the judiciary. In many democracies, the judiciary is elected by the legislature, and the executive is the monarch, or their representative, who may also be nominated by the legislature.
Having the legislature, who may have been stacked with one political party by gerrymandering, responsible for the composition of the other two branches poses a threat to democracy.
We see this playing out in the United States where the judiciary is selected because of their ideological similarity to the ruling party, and not because of their capacity to impartially intepret the laws produced by the legislature.
The judiciary is supposed to be a feedback mechanism for the legislature to produce more robust legislation, and not to ensure it is applied according to a particular ideology. Judicial appointments are usually for life, so the stacking of the judiciary is a long-term embedding of a biased legal outlook.
If the judiciary is to be decided by the legislature, there should be strict guidelines for determining their suitability, and be decided by an overwhelming majority.
In addition to the three branches, the bureaucracy is a significant part of ensuring government is effective. However, it is also another vector where the ruling party can make more ideological-based appointments, further distorting operations to work for their ends.
In many democracies, voting is optional, so a lot of campaining effort is required to just get people to turn out to vote. Conversely, it may not take much effort to dissuade people from voting. A little intimidation can have a dramatic effort upon turnout. Such intimidation was widely used in the United States to reduce the black voter turnout for many years after they became enfranchised.
Making voting compulsory goes a long way to ensuring members of the legislature are actually elected by a majority of their electorate's eligible voters. A side effect of compulsory voting is that campaigns can focus on the issues, rather than just getting turnout.
In response to extreme nationalism and isolationism, France elected a new political party that attracted all those of moderate views, leaving the traditional parties decimated.
This is a model that will hopefully break the politics of division that traditional party politics relies upon. For too long, parties have been satified with the pursuit of power, rather than the real best interests of the nation and its people.
A party doesn't have to be antagonistic, but can be a loose coalition of those who want to be free to vote according to their conscience, based upon what their constituents need.
Unfortunately, the France experiment has shown that there was still an overall bias towards economic conservatism, which looks at the bottom line in an open-ended resource-expansion model, rather than focus upon the real resource constraints facing modern societies.
Maybe, eventually, we will get politicians that don't think their ideology is some universal panacea, but are willing to explore laws that enable people to be all that they can be, without the artificial constraints that an ideology imposes.