Introducing a new partnership: How do parliaments shape democracy? (and democracies shape parliaments?)

Democracy, wherever it’s found in the world, is a work in progress. The same goes for democracy-strengthening – and it’s time for those involved in this work to have an open conversation about what works best.

Graeme Ramshaw Alex Stevenson
22 February 2016


Hungarian Parliament by Miroslav Petrasko/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

This week we introduce the series ‘How do parliaments shape democracy?’ produced in collaboration with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a group working to bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

However many programmes any one organisation actually involved in tightening up the nuts and bolts of democracy operates, it can always learn more. By mid-2016, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy will have parliamentary strengthening programmes in about 22 countries and political party programmes in around 40 countries. We have a track record in improving policy, increasing citizen participation, promoting accountability, and bettering representation. But that doesn’t mean we have a monopoly of knowledge on what works best.

This is why WFD, in addition to its work supporting countries as their democracies develop, is looking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening. This is partly about making the details of our work available to researchers – we are funding a post-doctorate research fellow at Oxford University who will take this work forward throughout 2016 – but there’s more to it than that. We want others to contribute too.

The problem is that the many actors contributing to this work are necessarily dispersed. Some are focused on development; others have a regional or sectoral focus. None have quite the same approach as WFD, which offers British expertise in both parliamentary- and political party-strengthening.

So our aim is to use the openDemocracy platform to encourage others to offer their views on what works and, as they do so, explore some of the most pressing issues facing the sector:

• What, for example, are the big obstacles to parliamentary and political party strengthening? We’re more interested in the surmountable problems than the intractable roadblocks. For those actually trying to promote democracy, how can these biggest obstacles be overcome?

• We believe that the question is not whether to support parliaments and parties but how. The needs in a post-conflict country are different to those in a more stable country, while those in a country with a dominant party are different to those in a country with large numbers of small parties. What guidance would others offer to policymakers about when to focus on parliaments and parties?

• Many are worried about the overall trend of democratic ‘backsliding’, a problem which applies to countries in every part of the world. We’re focused on exploring more about how parliaments respond to – and sometimes reinforce – the closing spaces in which civil society operates.

• Much of WFD’s work focuses on gender issues – a pressing problem of human rights and politics as much as one of representation and political participation. We want to explore views about what approaches work best.

• Finally, we’re interested in the relationship between countries with established democracies and those still developing systems of their own. Both have a lot to learn from each other, and WFD wants to explore these lessons more closely.

Since 1992, WFD’s vision has been the universal establishment of legitimate and effective, multiparty, representative democracy. How we get there, we believe, should remain a subject for constant discussion. We’re hoping you’ll join us as we open the conversation up to openDemocracy’s readers in the coming months. This week, we begin with a tour de horizon of some of our major preoccupations: 


Victoria Hasson, WFD’s Parliamentary Adviser, spends most of her time assessing parliaments in developing countries as well as countries making the transition towards democracy. She begins our guest week with an assessment of parliament’s relationship with the biggest democratic trends seen in 2016.

This is not as straightforward as you might think. The big pattern she detects is one of context. When a democracy is establishing itself, Victoria finds, the parliament is often defined in response to a presidential system, or to the need for a particular area like oversight, or simply in response to pressing calls for more democracy. The ‘rules of the game’ are yet to be established in these parliaments, so the struggle over their final status is not yet resolved. Established parliaments face their own challenges, including the need to sell their work to an uninterested electorate.

Victoria’s article takes in examples from across the world. Our second article, by Mikhail Minakov of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy,  focuses on the Russian neighbourhood – a region with very differing kinds of democracies. There the tendency towards a presidential authoritarian system is very strong. So, too, though, is the tension between this approach and democratic parliamentarism. Mikhail outlines the experience of the post-Soviet republics and explains why one particular country’s prospects really matters in the years to come.


Whether thinking generally about parliaments, or sizing up their status in a particular region, it soon becomes clear that definitively identifying the right approach to parliamentary strengthening is far from straightforward. Today Susan Dodsworth – our research fellow – outlines what’s on her plate as she begins her work at Oxford University. Her view is that we know the obvious points: that context analysis matters and one-size-fits-all approaches are ineffective seem clear enough. She poses what feel like the next-generation questions looking more deeply at the problem.

Typically these focus on the gaps identified by other researchers. How, for example, have particular programmes or approaches successfully adapted themselves to different contexts?

One country which has overcome one or two obstacles to parliamentary strengthening in its time is, of course, the United Kingdom. The Mother of Parliaments remains a work in progress, even after all these centuries. Philip Norton, who both writes about the constitution and is an actor in it as a Conservative peer, offers a brief history of the British experience – an experience many of the countries we work with are keen to learn more about, and draw their own conclusions from.


Today’s focus offers two perspectives on how to work with the grain of the democratic trends discussed by Victoria on Monday. Nic Cheeseman of the University of Oxford, whose expertise lies in East Africa, offers a very practical viewpoint. His argument is that encouraging change is partly about appealing to MPs’ principles – but it’s also about appealing to their interests, too.

These lessons certainly apply in Turkey – not a country where WFD runs programmes, but one where the challenge of transferring political frustrations from protests on the street into debates in the Parliament are felt very acutely. Turkey’s experience shows just how important a role parliaments have to play as intermediaries between public opinion and the decision-making executive. If civil society is to play a role, it’s clear the attitude of MPs – and parliament as an institution – really matters. Ümit Cizre and Aykan Erdemir ponder the democratic significance of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). Matthew Whiting and Zeynep N. Kaya join them on Thursday, questioning whether the HDP is the appropriate channel for democratic aspirations.


One of the issues underlying all democracy-strengthening work is the undeniable fact that all countries are not alike. This means their democracies are distinctive. How can one country use its experience to assist in the democratic transition of another? It's an issue we're keen to explore in the coming months from every kind of global perspective. Rather than writing about the British experience to begin, though, we invited another European country with a strong tradition of democracy-strengthening to outline their own approach.

The result is an article from Hans Bruning, Executive Director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, which addresses all these issues in an engaging and fascinating way. There is much in the Dutch tradition to admire and respect - whether it's the rewarding art of "poldering" or the overarching aim of turning "foe into friends".


Gender is a big part of Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s work. Whether it’s encouraging more women to stand in elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or holding the first Women’s Parliament in Uganda, or supporting the Coalition of Arab Women MPs in their campaigning to strengthen laws tackling violence against women, we’re committed to finding ways to both strengthen women’s involvement in the democratic process and facilitate inclusive governance which improves women’s lives.

Exactly how to help women, though, remains an open debate. The issue of gender quotas, for example, is hotly contested. Is the approach of WFD and other democracy-strengthening organisations the right one? Today’s article by Sarah Jane Copper-Knock, on gender, politics and parliament in Rwanda, sizes up the state of play in the country which – you might not know – has the highest percentage of MPs who are women in the world. Rwanda’s story sums up the benefits of the approach – and highlights some question-marks, too.

Meanwhile, Zeynep Kaya argues that the long-term integration of international actors into the political-economic structure of society, as well as Iraqi Kurdistan’s aspiration for statehood, have led to Kurdistan being a better place to live in as a woman, compared to Iraq.
Gender is going to be an important part of our conversation on openDemocracy in the months ahead. We’re keen to hear the thoughts of those with a contribution to make to this debate, on gender and on the other strands of our partnership outlined above. Let the debate begin…

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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