INNER-PARTY DEMOCRACY: Transforming Relations

Inner-party democracy requires strengthening democratic reorganization of political parties

April 6, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 07 No. -19 Apr. 04- 2014 (Chaitra 21, 2070)

With the history of over half a century, some Nepali political parties claim they have waged several democratic struggles. Nepali Congress is at the forefront in making such claims. But neither Nepali Congress, nor Nepal Communist Party nor any other has been able to foster inner-party democracy.

A critical debate is raging over the whole world as to how to enable political parties to address new challenges brought by the new social media, popular sovereignty, citizen activism, human rights, social justice, minority’s rights, social inclusion and participation. This debate has advanced the necessity of inner-party democracy with a wide range of means: engagement of party members in policy and decision-making affecting them, democratic reorganization of party structures, bottom-up legitimacy of political leadership, freedom of thought and social inclusion of minorities in multi-level committees of parties.

With a view to give continuity to the ongoing debate in Nepali politics about the democratization of political parties, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Nepal office organized a one-day interaction program on “Inner-Party Democracy” in Pokhara on March 20, 2014. About 100 participants representing the sister organizations and political leaders of main parties, student unions, labor, private sector, women’s organizations, civil society, academics and journalists attended the program.

The main speaker in the program was Dr. Christian Wagner, Asia Director of SWP-a Berlin-based think-tank and prominent political scientist of Germany. Dr. Wagner brought the experience of inner-party democracy of Germany established by Article 21 of the Basic Law and Party Law of 1967. The Party Law prescribes the parties to follow democratic principles in its internal structure and political culture, election of party functionaries and equal voting rights for all the party members. Party convention is the highest decision-making body.  He said that only democratic parties are allowed to contest election.

He, however, revealed the irony of South Asian politics: undemocratic parties with dynastic and patronage-based lineage have become more competitive than those having democratic credentials.

Dr. Wagner also indicated the emerging positive trend where the new social media and citizens’ informed activism enabled voters to directly communicate to party leaders about policy issues and bypass entrenched party bureaucracy. An MP is the representative of entire people and is allowed to exercise individual conscience. Citizen activism around certain core policy issues helps to democratize decision-making. Many of these factors have made participatory democracy possible and democratization of the party structures a necessity.  Narrating the case of German Green Party, he said that the party has contributed to introduce environmental laws, gender equality, no rotation of leadership posts, no accumulation of political offices and no professionalization of politics. Similarly, Social Democratic Party has introduced social justice provisions. The grand coalition of CDU and SPD now has made some of their common programs irreversible. Dr. Wagner concluded, “Inner-party democracy is in a state of transformation with the introduction of the elements of direct democracy and representative democracy, transparency and accountability” making its character liquid and constantly evolving.  

These measures are considered vital to the institutionalization of political parties as they provide conscription of party supporters and expand the social base of politics. Democratic parties need to address the changing needs, rights and aspirations of people to become relevant in society and hold the reins of power. They can attain this objective if they build their links with the diverse sections of society, mobilize financial resources, create volunteers and fairly recruit candidates for future leadership.

Parties perform a number of intermediary functions between society and the state and act as power regulator. They do so by recruiting political elites for leadership who normally represent specific interest of society, not the general will. Without certain common values and the compromise of partial interest, it would be difficult to create peaceful common future and supply the legitimacy to the political system. In many developing countries people-oriented parties also act as modernizers of society and keys to social, economic and political developments while authoritarian ones have the tendency to open up the societal fissures with no intension to satisfy. They only undermine the reasons of state.  

Participants representing cross-sections of local society in general demanded inner-party and intra-party democracy in Nepal and introduction of threshold of 5 percent requirement of popular votes for parliamentary entry to check the proliferation of parties. There must be adequate space for internal deliberation within party structures, policy access of cadres, selection of leaders from the list in the national party convention, promotional measures and quota for minorities, strengthening of democratic organizational structures and contents and social inclusion of women. Transparency is a necessary condition to tie the parties to agreed rules of behavior and commit them to resolve intra-party conflicts.

Some participants even said that feudal structure of all parties, irrespective of ideological distinctions and frequent alien pressure within their strategic sectors has made them less representative and fraction-prone. It injected distrust within and across the parties and exposed them to media criticism. Therefore, they argued that awareness about national independence, democratization of parties and society should go simultaneously. Similarly, they said that there should be a mechanism to control the illegal money flow from business tycoons and NGOs to parties so that party structures remain representative, democratic, accountable and transparent. This would enable the leadership to overcome the tendency of free-ride by caucus groups, network and subsidiary identity-based and factionalized politics incubating constant deadlocks. Others felt the need of de-radicalization of parties and demilitarization of armed groups to create common background condition for the promulgation of a new constitution and avert the subversive beneficiaries of transition politics. Female participants showed their concern over the declining representation of women in the parliament and government and recommended the need for a provision of proportional representation in the local bodies without which inner-party democracy cannot be strengthened. Still, others argued that bloated weight of proportional representation and lack of interest in local election have flagged the active role of citizens and the prospect for improving inner-party democracy. Dev Raj Dahal, Head of FES Nepal Office, moderated the program and responded to some specific questions about Nepal.

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