Visegrad/Insight Features Piece by IRI’s Miriam Lexmann Looking at Support for Political Parties in Democratic Transitions

When the party rocks it’s good news for democracy
By Miriam Lexmann

In the last decade, EU foreign aid has undergone a shift and moved from solely government-centered support to more inclusive assistance, with a focus on civil society. This is a very positive move, as civil society is an equally important carrier of change, but political parties should also be considered part of this package. Investing exclusively in the capacity building and advocacy skills of various civic projects and non-governmental organizations threatens to make them too strong vis-a-vis political parties, thus creating an unhealthy imbalance that could lead to long-term setbacks and slowdown the pro-democratic transformation of the entire socjety in question. In other words, the skills of various NGOs in involving the greater public in shaping the political discourse in support of their cause, or in increasing public scrutiny of political decision-making and the use of public finance, would be far more efficient if political parties were equally targeted as part of pro-democratic change.

Political parties play a crucial role in pro-democratic transformation and sustenance by fostering a pluralistic environment capable of reflecting on a wide range of political questions and interests, thus acting as a bridge between civil society and political institutions in policy making, legislative drafting, and the overall change of political culture. Experience tells us that political parties can either lead democratic change or be the main obstacle to it. Well-tailored assistance in the programmatic, managerial, and ideological spheres or suport in transforming electoral success into responsible and efficient governance certainly supports the former scenario rather than the latter.

The first actors to support political parties as a part of foreign aid were the German political foundations, although their primary role is to support their “mother” parties in their political role and to act as think tanks and training centers for domestic politics. Inspired by the importance of work aimed at political parties in countries fighting totalitarian regimes, in 1983 the United States Congress responded to President Reagan’s call, when it created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to support aspiring democrats worldwide. Along with the NED itself, Congress also created the other institutions of the “NED Family,” including two non-profit democracy-assistance organizations to carry out work aimed at the political spectrum of civil society, including political parties and political leaders – the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).

It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the European Union realized its potential as a global actor. The inward looking “common market-based union” reacted promptly to the needs of the aspiring democracies in Central Europe and developed its first foreign aid programs. At the time, the two different approaches of the EU and of the U.S. provided a balanced cocktail of aid to the Central European Countries. The EU state-centered aid, in the form of economic support and technical assistance for building state institutions and public administration, including legal approximation was very well balanced by the support provided by the U.S. aimed at building civil society by providing civic education, training, foreign expert assistance, peer support, and grant giving schemes for organizations and various grass-root initiatives as well as projects including assistance to political parties. The latter was done in close cooperation with the German political foundations. And yet, after the successful transformation of countries that then joined the EU in the first two enlargements, results became more difficult to achieve and more elusive in nature. Heavily state-centered EU support had nothing to offer nascent democratic forces in its neighborhood or elsewhere in the world. After eight years of EU presence, the countries to the East are still oscillating between EU values and deeply rooted Soviet behavioral patterns and Russian interests. In the South, the hope of the Arab Spring has not lived up to its initial promise.

While aiming to strengthen “democratic reward” by increasing budgets for democracy support, the EU nevertheless resisted the establishment of firmer democracy-related conditions for aid allocation. State-centered support in combination with the belief that moving from a totalitarian regime automatically means moving toward democracy – has led to a number of shortcomings in EU aid. Take, for example, the recent support for Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine. Generous governmental support was led by a belief that signing the Association Agreement would provide the final pro-democratic setting for a key EU neighbor. Nearly no attention was paid at the level of EU official aid to the opposition political parties, yet the responsibility of running the practically ungovernable country currently rests mainly on their shoulders. The word “mainly” should point to the current attempts by the EU and the U.S. to support the Ukrainian leadership at this critical time. Interestingly, the EU used to be more cautious in providing aid to post-totalitarian governments, when it closed the door on then Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, for instance.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that the EU continues to seek better ways to respond to the growing challenges of its external activities. Recognizing civil society as an important player in building democracy and fostering human rights is changing the way the EU engages with countries outside its borders. The paradigm shift in EU aid will be complete, however, only when political parties are freed of stigma and become equal receivers. Despite relatively strong political support, assistance to political parties has thus far remained limited.

There may be many reasons for reluctance in supporting political parties as part of official aid. There is a general decline in trust in political parties throughout the donor countries, a decline that is similar in both the Western and the Eastern parts of the EU. It is also the case that dominant political parties in democracy- building states are often the main obstacle to achievement, frequently acting as hubs of economic power with ties to previous regimes. As long as political leaders are elected predominantly via political parties, we must keep continue to seek better ways to work with this crucial part of civil society.

Support for political parties and its “whys and whats?”

In practical terms, an implementer must establish and continually re-evaluate who is a promoter of change and who a hindrance, analyze changes in electoral code and legislation, identify the relationship between the state administration and the ruling party – as well as that between the ruling party or coalition and the opposition and individual parties. It must also identify the power bases of political parties and their leaders, and any ties with organized crime, militias, and strong economic players and oligarchs. For all these reasons, only highly qualified organizations with long-standing expertise should be awarded grants in this field of work.

Another important point to emphasize is that programs aimed at individual political parties often focus on party outreach to citizens. Bringing citizens closer to political parties helps bring previously disenfranchised and underrepresented populations including women, youth, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities into the center of parties’ interests and enriches the variety of policy options for voters. It not only improves party policies and engages citizens in the democratic processes, but also accelerates investment in civil society through citizens’ various interest groups.

Outreach methods must also reflect new technological opportunities in the nexus between political parties and citizens’ socio-political movements. A very successful such method that combines party outreach and is based on multiparty elements is the establishment of parliamentary cross-party women caucuses. This method is used widely in the Balkans, as it helps overcome political differences and obstacles and works toward improving citizens’ lives; many social reforms or business-oriented reforms have been initiated by these caucuses.

In very oppressed and closed societies with fragmented politics and no free and fair elections, work with political parties must be bolstered by a strong focus on civil society to foster an environment in which a multi-party political system may emerge. Establishment of local actors can help bring interest groups and political messages from outside the regime back into the political system by creating space for parallel political discourse. Finally, the civic education and political education of citizens and well-prepared observers of election processes are guarantors of a stable, pro-democratic course, and can even play a pivotal role in critical moments.

Conclusions (or, how to obtain better value for money?)

Calling for improvement without any practical suggestions is a hollow voice in the desert. Even without a substantial budgetary increase, the EU has enormous potential to make its aid programs more efficient. The response at the EU level should be multi-fold.

The EU has a great network of implementers at hand, including political foundations in member states, international organizations focusing on election and political processes in developing and democratizing countries, European political foundations, the European Endowment for Democracy, the European Parliament, and the national parliaments with their support programs for parliamentary democracy. Improving coordination, extending fund flexibility, and guaranteeing greater cohesion and sustainability would translate into greater efficiency. It would also include support for the already existing coordination networks of organizations and institutions providing similar types of aid.

It is important that political organizations do not view their involvement as competition with other civil society organizations for their share of the civil society pie. More diversified allocation of funds, with clear budgetary lines for support of the political aspect of civil society, may be required.

Moreover, the EU’s support for election processes and election observation missions should take into account the full electoral cycle and not only focus on ad hoc electoral support. It should involve special focus on the role of running or electing representatives and political parties and institutions, independent media, and civil society.

A few years ago, the German model of political foundations was brought to the EU level when budgets were allocated for the European Political parties to establish their own foundations. Stronger engagement of the European Political parties via their foundations with their ideological soul mates mainly in the EU candidate countries and countries negotiating or who have already signed an Association Agreement, can translate into a great leap forward in the reform processes and legal approximation as well as in the overall transformation of their political cultures. It will also create space for active sharing of the “transition experience” accumulated by European Political parties during the last enlargements.

When it comes to direct support for governments as part of official development aid, the EU – as a donor – should look to involve all political parties, including opposition parties, which must have access to all information. If the U.S. and EU remain loyal to their commitments and use their full potential in support of political parties, such support would trigger a multiplying effect on the potential of people worldwide to fulfil their desire to live in free and democratic countries.

The author is a former Permanent Representative of the Slovak Parliament to the EU and the Director of the EU Office of the International Republican Institute.

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