Using Innovative Methods to Measure Political Party Development

  • Dylan Diggs

In any democracy political parties serve a crucial function to organize political participation, structure policy and provide competition in elections.

While political party development varies depending on political dynamics, this work is critical to the health of any democracy. And yet, even some of the most established democracies struggle with this.

During the transition to democracy, parties can provide a significant contribution to the health of democratic institutions. As Thomas Carothers wrote in his book, “Confronting the Weakest Link,” parties in transitioning environments that are elitist, non-transparent and ideologically vague can suffer from offering any kind of legitimacy. While democracies are not defined by their elections, the open competition of ideas before, during and after elections are important factors the process of democratic governance.

IRI has long operated under the concept that party maturity is critical to the growth and resilience of democratic institutions. However, party progress is rarely linear. It faces starts and stops that may or may not relate to election cycles but are always subject to great external influence. Parties are whole systems within themselves and are often subject to competing interests, and often competing priorities.

Moreover, the best parties, and best candidates, don’t always win. While there are certain principles for productive and sustainable party operations, there is no direct correlation to well-run parties and electoral victory (at least in the immediate term). All of this makes it very difficult to identify potential results for parties, especially those operating in the emergent party systems featured in many transitioning democracies. Due to the complexity of these systems of party development, traditional monitoring systems risk being too reductionist to appropriately measure change.

IRI’s work in Tunisia is one of the Institute’s hallmarks of successful political party work. Beginning work in 2011, IRI developed critical relationships with Tunisian parties, worked to build buy-in among party leadership and provided political party assistance through two landmark elections.

While the success of the program is well documented in other blogs, such as here and here, I did want to discuss the success the program has had in monitoring the development of these parties. Below are two initiatives (one previously conducted and one upcoming) that I am particularly excited about as they have been and will be critical in helping the Institute better understand the growth processes of these parties, which in turn better informs IRI’s approach to supporting them.

IRI’s Political Party Scorecard: From 2012-2015, IRI maintained a scorecard of Tunisia’s political parties. In three assessment trips, IRI’s staff established a baseline, midline and endline measuring the development of these parties by conducting interviews with party beneficiaries to measure the increase of their ability to function as sustainable, representative, responsive and effective organizations. In order to determine what constituted critical elements of party institutional capacity, IRI identified 10 key elements on which, based on IRI’s assistance, parties should improve upon over the course of this grant. Parties were given a score at each assessment of the grant. The researchers also tracked trends within the organization to determine if it was trending positively or negatively and to identify external factors that may influence party development.

Party improvement in their “Internal Party Function” was defined by five specific goals:

Another priority was that parties represent traditionally disenfranchised or marginalized groups. IRI detailed five goals under this category towards which parties should aspire.

This provided IRI an opportunity to track party progress and compare the development of parties over time. Through this process, IRI produced a replicable tool for assessing political party beneficiaries that has been used in IRI programs in Morocco, Lebanon, Pakistan and Indonesia among others.

Upcoming NED Social Network Analysis: Under a National Endowment for Democracy grant IRI is supporting Tunisian regional and local political party branches to implement campaign strategies in advance of municipal elections. To better understand how to best support these party branches, IRI will conduct an assessment of Tunisian political parties, focused on the interactions between local and national party branches. Using social network analysis techniques, IRI will map relationships and gather data about the levels of trust, confidence and nature of engagement between local and national-level political party leaders and members. Being able to assess the system in which our beneficiaries operate, the change agents in those systems and how to best support our beneficiaries is an innovative process to complement and improve our existing support to them.

IRI continues the search for ways to improve supporting its beneficiaries and assessing that support through innovative and iterative processes. The abovementioned methods demonstrate IRI’s expertise in understanding party programs. Because IRI has been doing this work for so long, we know there are often more questions than answers with party programs. These tools help IRI better navigate some turbulent waters, as staying agile and continuing to question are key to providing quality party support. 

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