Political parties are motors of democracy. We must help them with a diversity of approaches

Shaping a political culture of peaceful debate and respect for the opposition is key to strengthening democracies. How can we work better with parties in parliament to do that?

Devin O'Shaughnessy
9 June 2016

The late Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero campaigning for the 19th amendment outside the Sri Lankan parliament in 2015.

Late monk and nonviolent revolutionary Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero campaigning for the 19th amendment outside the Sri Lankan parliament in 2015. Credit: Vikalpa | Groundviews | Maatram | CPA (CC BY 2.0)Underneath their varying institutional frameworks and rules of procedure, we are convinced that what really determines whether a parliament is a living entity or a rubber stamp is the role parties play inside it. It is why Westminster Foundation for Democracy is so committed to helping parties become more effective actors inside parliaments, in any way we can.

WFD’s 'parties in parliament' programmes use three different methodologies, depending on what is best-suited for the local context: sister party, multi-party, and hybrid models.
What really determines whether a parliament is a living entity or a rubber stamp is the role parties play inside it. 
WFD's view is that the sister-party work we foster is invaluable. WFD was established in 1992 as an arms-length public body tasked with facilitating relationship-building between UK political parties and their counterparts in Eastern Europe. For over 20 years the UK parties, through WFD, have developed hundreds of sister-party relationships around the globe. Through sister-party relationships, built on trust and common ideology, we can have frank discussions with counterparts on how they undertake parliamentary business in a way which encourages the democratic political culture that we are keen on—and works to the parties' benefit. This is the approach we are taking in Ghana, where the Conservative and Labour Parties are partnering with their sister parties to enhance their performance in parliament.

There are also times and places where a multi-party, non-partisan methodology can be more effective, particularly in contexts where the UK parties have no obvious ideological connection with local parties. By engaging parties on a non-partisan, multi-party basis, we can share a wide range of party experience of which our partners can learn more about what would work best for them. We are currently exploring a number of opportunities in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East where we can apply this approach, and expect to launch new programmes later this year.

We have the ability to mix the two approaches, of course through a hybrid approach. For example, in Sri Lanka the UK Conservative Party has a long standing, close sister-party relationship with the United National Party (UNP) and its leadership. However other leading Sri Lankan parties not linked to any British party have expressed interest in learning more from the UK party experience. In response to this demand, WFD is now launching a programme that plans to engage all the leading Sri Lankan parties, which we believe is the right approach in a country still emerging from conflict.

We should acknowledge that there are tensions inherent in our political party assistance. There is always a danger a particular country might complain that our intervention appears one-sided, particularly when some parties have strong partnerships with UK parties while others have no formal connection. The answer to this relies on coordination among UK parties, and in this WFD plays a critical brokering role. Yes, this is a challenge, given the (understandably) competitive instincts of British parties, but it is one we have 20 years of managing effectively.

Regardless of the model we choose, we are looking to help shape a political culture based around peaceful debate and respect for the opposition—and we think working with parties in parliament is an essential part of the answer. UK parties have centuries of experience operating in challenging historical contexts, surviving war, civil conflict, and political crisis while holding on to democratic institutions. The resilience and flexibility of the British political system, its ability to withstand serious external and internal shocks, is highly relevant to fragile and post-conflict states and we are best placed to share it. The parliamentary system of governance is widespread across the globe, and we are keen to share the experience of Westminster as well as the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

In addition, we are increasingly connecting our partner parliaments and parties with their neighbours and other interested countries, fostering connections and experience-sharing that otherwise would likely not happen. For example, in the last three months we have brought Jordanians, Moroccans, and Sri Lankans together to share experiences on parliamentary research, and Iraqis and Indonesians discussed approaches to anti-corruption in Jakarta.

This is why we advocate the benefits of working with parties in parliaments so forcefully —and why we are interested in the experiences of others. I would like to hear how other organisations with different backgrounds address the issue of supporting parties in parliament. Do others agree that a parliament's energy derives from its partisan elements? Are parties in parliament an important component of parliamentary strengthening? If so, how should this be best addressed? What type of research has been done on this area of assistance? What does the evidence say on what works and what does not?
Just as a diversity of voices is never a bad thing, so a diversity of approaches should not be an issue either.  
I believe there are a diversity of experiences to be shared in this area. In some countries such as the Netherlands the structure and ethos of parliamentary politics is based around coalition government, and their ability to come together and agree to work collaboratively. A lot of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy's work is about reconciliation and political settlements as a result. That is not how things work in Westminster, which is built on robust competition within the context of a majority government—while maintaining a culture of respect for the opposition. In the devolved assemblies, however, things are different. In Scotland, minority government is more common, while Northern Ireland shares traits similar to that found in post-conflict societies where constituencies are relatively fixed and compromise is critical.

Parliamentarians and parties can learn very different things from experts and practitioners around the world, and adapt practices that may work best in their particular context. This is a two-way street. The UK remains a fluid and flexible system, and British parliaments and parties have much to learn from our partners around the world as well.

This is why, whether working with parties, parliaments or with both, I am keen to emphasise that while WFD has a lot to add, we are stronger when working alongside and collaborating with others. Just as a diversity of voices is never a bad thing, so a diversity of approaches should not be an issue either. The parties we work with can always benefit from hearing a number of different perspectives. It is for them to decide what they like and want to adopt. And it is for parliamentary strengthening practitioners to share experiences and ideas, make space for each other to operate, and whenever possible collaborate in order to provide the best possible assistance to our beneficiaries.

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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