The Role of Political Parties


Yesterday, the National Democratic Institute hosted a forum on “Practical Approaches to Building Political Institutions and Addressing Social Needs.”  A very important topic if you ask me – there are quite a few countries today where citizens’ calls for the basic social services are not fully met and democracy is perceived as something that does not really address the needs and concerns of the people (only elites’).  Here’s what the invite says:

Encouraging political parties and legislatures to recognize citizens’ needs and concerns and to develop relevant programs and policies is as important as encouraging good governance and democratic institution building. Islamist groups have been strong in providing social support, in particular to the poor and other marginalized people. For democracy to take hold, it must be seen as more than an idea. It must also deliver, particularly in the social realm. How do we meet this challenge?

The question really is – should other political parties, given the success of some, also provide social services to develop a support base and answer people’s calls for social justice? 

Here is my take on this.  There is a big difference between governments providing social services and political parties or other groups giving a handout to people which is ultimately unsustainable.  Unsustainability stems from the fact that funding for the provision of social services does not come from solid economic growth, it comes from an external source of income.  Once the income dries up – what happens to social services?  What happens to those political parties?  What happens to people’s expectations?  These programs don’t help the poor, I would posit, they simply help to sweep the underlying problems under the carpet, for a short while.  Ultimately, if left unresolved, those problems will emerge back on the scene, as the history shows.   

The role of political parties, as I view it, is in developing and implementing policies that lead to solid economic growth and provide citizens with a sense of participation and inclusion in the political and economic arenas.  Now, once you build a solid economic base and put in place the necessary mechanisms that ensure transparency and good governance, you can have a government that delivers.  In that sense, the first sentence in the quote above is somewhat misleading – good governance and democratic institution-building is, in fact, an answer to recognizing citizens’ needs and concerns – its not necessarily one or the other.

So maybe, we should not rethink our understanding of what political parties should and should not do.  Maybe, we should think of better strategies of making political parties deliver through good governance, transparency, and sound policies.  Of course, there is a big difference between working out a long term strategy and addressing the needs of the people today, but who said its going to be easy?