Approaching ‘feckless pluralism’
“A common, core problem in all badly governed democracies: . . . , cronyism, clientelism and abuse of power,” Larry Diamond, political scientist
I was recently reading a paper published by Carnegie Endowment Scholar Thomas Carothers in which he was assessing developments in so called transitional democracies. And while we tend to view Caribbean democracies as consolidated, much of the picture painted by Carothers resonated, and for this reason, I would like to share some of his views with you.
For Carothers, many of Asian and African transitional democracies, are defined by “feckless pluralism” depicting positive democratic attributes, such as significant amounts of political freedom, regular elections, and alternation of power between genuinely different political groupings. However, he argues that in such states, democracy remains at best “shallow and troubled” with citizens enjoying broad political participation at election time, but which does not usually extend beyond voting.
Secondly, where ‘feckless pluralism” exists, political elites from all the major parties or groupings are widely perceived by the public as corrupt, self-interested, and ineffective. Consequently, the alternation of power seems only to trade the country’s problems back and forth from one ‘hapless side’ to the other. It is this factor, he suggests, that has contributed to the increasing disaffection of the public from politics. And so he contends that though the public may still cling to a belief in the ideal of democracy, it is extremely unhappy about the political life of the country.
Overall, under “feckless pluralism”, politics is widely seen as a stale, corrupt, elite-dominated domain that delivers little to the country and commands equally little respect. And the State in such societies remains persistently weak. In such states, economic policy is often poorly conceived and executed, and economic performance is frequently bad or even calamitous. Where there is any effort at undertaking social and political reforms, they tend to be at best tenuous, and successive governments are unable to make headway on most of the major problems facing the country, from crime and corruption to health, education, and public welfare generally. Does this not sound like the Caribbean?
But today I focus on political parties because I do believe that they are indispensable to the preservation of democracy though they are in need of further reform and strengthening, especially by way of internal democratization, which must include a greater adherence to transparency.
Whether or not we can appreciate it, political parties have played essential roles in democratic regimes. Not only have they aggregated social and economic interests and mobilized large-scale social support, they have also provided popular legitimacy to ruling elites. Standing at the nexus between constituents and policymakers, they have been indispensable democratic institutions.
Parties represent diverse societal interests, provide a structure for political participation and representation, give candidates a platform on which to stand and they formulate policy options on a national level. However, globally they are perceived to be among of the most vulnerable and corrupt institutions. Therefore, members of political parties have a responsibility to ensure that their parties promote an anti-corruption agenda in their platform and that internally, they abstain from corrupt practices.
How political parties organize their business in Westminster systems must be uppermost in the minds of the Caribbean electorate because parties have tremendous hold on their membership and, yes, to a certain extent their parliamentary representatives. It is true that parliamentary representatives have been able to assert a degree of independence from their party, but this is more so for the ruling political party than opposition parties.
At the same time a major contributing factor to the linkage and dependency of parliamentarians to and on their political parties has much to do with the institutional arrangements of Westminster, which does not divide political authority in a manner that would permit the dispersal of power. Consequently, power sharing, or the lack of it between and among institutions does not engender a competitive struggle among competing interests. Instead, we tend to have a convergence of interest. It is this convergence which provokes concern that the control of parties by groups external to parliament has extraordinary implications for policymaking.
In assessing the link between corruption and political parties, some political scientists have turned their attention to parliament as the arena where corruption plays out partly because it is the political parties that control agenda-setting there. The capacity for one political party to do so over the other is more intense in Westminster style arrangements given the fusion of power and the marginalization of opposition parties from the determination of the agenda and final output of parliament. This is not the case in countries which are defined by the separation of powers, where, for example in the United States, individual legislators have a greater input into the agenda setting.
Additionally, under Westminster, the political parties have the ability to expel party ‘dissidents’, and thus exert a powerful control over their membership. For that reason, like the private sector, members of the parliament in the Caribbean can quite easily be accused of perpetuating the “groupthink” mentality and mode of conduct that facilitates the lack of transparency and corruption in the private sector.
In an earlier article I spoke at length on the necessity for regulation of this sector and argued for parties to declare their assets, contributions and donors on a periodic basis. In the absence of such declarations, the risk for political corruption is great. I shall not dwell any further on this issue since it was previously discussed. What I intend to do for the remainder of the article, is to assess other issues that impact party democracy and suggest some mechanisms which can be used to enhance their integrity and transparency.
The many scandals associated with political parties; their failure to deliver their election promises; serious social and economic problems which parties and governments seem paralyzed to deal with effectively; internal schisms and leadership failings are all associated with increasing distrust, devaluation and depreciation of them. Unsurprisingly some citizens view parties as part of the problem and have called for the replacement of this institution. Many also view party organization as undesirable, because, in their view, it enables political elites to manipulate the masses, based primarily on their effective use of patronage.
However, in spite of their many failings, political parties perform some critical systemic functions that no other institution in a modern democracy has been able to undertake. Not only do they encourage citizens to extend their political involvement beyond merely voting once in five years, they certainly provide links between politicians and those they govern. Given this critical function, it is important that some consideration be given to mechanisms within political parties that link them with citizens.
In the Caribbean, precisely because the “mass based” political party has been dominant, considerable attention is paid to issues of intra-party democracy. Internally, at a minimum level, the decision-making apparatus is important because it provides opportunities for ordinary members of the party to influence the choices voters are offered.
So quite obviously, we are concerned when there appears to be differences between the base of the party and the party leadership, especially when it concerns the selection of candidates. Increasingly it appears that parties have accepted the view that it is necessary to democratize this decision. However, given decades-long control by the political leadership of candidate selection, there is an obvious tension between leadership and constituents. How do we explain this tension? John May’s ‘law of curvilinear disparity’ has often been utilized.
According to May, party leadership is electorally motivated and therefore prioritizes vote maximization. On the other hand, ‘sub-leaders’ and activists are motivated by what he calls ‘purposive incentives’, such as the desire for influence over party policy or candidate selection. While not necessarily polar opposites, this creates the obvious prospect of intra-party tension, and the difficulties that plague party management.
Whether or not the theory of ‘curvilinear disparity’ can explain the public disagreements which many political parties have faced (some more successfully than others), they find themselves facing a serious democratic problem; one which pits the autocratic leader and his/her need for autonomy against the increasing demand for greater internal democracy.
As increasing interest in participatory democracy and growing disenchantment with political parties took root, many parties in developing countries moved to introduce primaries. These allow party members rather than the party leadership to choose candidates. Laudable as this is, it is insufficient to guard against the control that money and elites may have on political parties in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
So justifiably we have major concerns about political parties. However, while there is no disputing the control that money has over parties, there are a number of features of Caribbean political parties that are worthy of praise. Unlike many developing countries, for the most part, existing and dominant political parties are not mere legal shells that power groups have switched into and out of with great regularity, looking for the best material deal – whether it is ministerial office or other such lucrative postings. Such legal entities have dominated many developing and transitional states.
Yes it is true that we have witnessed several high profile examples of members of parliament and political parties who have switched parties and which therefore raise a number of political and ethical questions. It is clear that some of these Caribbean ‘switchers’ have done so for purely personal benefit but a significant number has also explained this away as ideological and philosophical differences with the party’s programmes and public stance on a range of issues.
Secondly, though there has been some volatility and obvious disciplinary issues, parties in the Commonwealth Caribbean have enjoyed great stability since the post 1930s period. This is another positive sign. However, too often parties find themselves struggling with leadership change, youth mobilization, a gender gap and inability to depart from machine politics which routinely sees the use of patron clientelism and has had deadly consequences in Jamaica. Further, in this current period, it may well be that parties really do not matter as they rarely have little impact on policies given the role of global governance in our decision-making process: Quite often policy preferences of parties mirror those of the global community and not of the local constituencies.
Equally important too is the fact that citizens have come to rely too extensively on political parties for their sustenance and as a consequence many persons refuse to demand greater accountability and transparency from their political leaders, not out of respect, but out of pure greed – whether it is for contracts, jobs, licences, board membership, or money at election time and so on. We are thus faced with a vicious cycle, which can only contribute to the increasing tide of “feckless pluralism”.
Until next week, remember, “To change the way government works means changing the way politics and society work, changing the values and expectations of how people will behave when they acquire power and control resources. That, in turn, requires sustained attention to how public officials utilize their offices. This is the fundamental challenge that all insecure democracies face”. (Larry Diamond)
(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)