Political parties remain part and parcel of democracy, yet they are under stress in the West and farther afield. Two close observers offer a roadmap for supporting them.
As the Biden Administration transitions into office, the country faces several global challenges. Autocrats are exploiting COVID-19 to swell their power. China is promoting a governance model based on the suppression of independent thought, and corroding democracy in developing states through opaque deals that fuel corruption. The Kremlin continues its campaigns to sow distrust in electoral processes and the legitimacy of democratic practice. These and other challenges are testing democratic governments’ ability to deliver for their citizens with sound policy and services, while checking malign external threats to their stability.
The Biden Administration will need to calibrate its support of democracy abroad so as to address the threats and exploit opportunities such as the potential promise of digital tools for governance and a recent groundswell of “people power” movements. The United States has helped to strengthen nascent political parties abroad since the 1980s, but this is an area in which we need an update.
Political parties are among the most prevalent forms of political organization and representation throughout the world. They are necessary to democratic political competition. But there is no longer a single model of what a party is or should be, in substance or action. In the last ten years alone, from Algeria to Bolivia and all around the world, new types of political organizing have emerged to link citizens to their representatives. More parties are emerging from protest movements, employing innovative digital tools and embracing novel organizational structures that tend to prioritize voter mobilization over policy formulation.
The U.S. approach to supporting such parties has not kept pace with these developments. Since parties constitute one of the long poles in the tent of democracy, getting this approach right is essential to maximizing the efficacy of U.S. foreign assistance. It is time for the United States to update its approach to political parties to reflect the new realities.
Types of Political Parties
Today’s political parties can be organized into four types based on their degrees of variation around two factors.
The first factor is institutionalization, including the capacity to engage citizens by mobilizing supporters or by persuading neutral or opposing voters to support the party in elections. This capacity, in turn, is determined by organizational strength, internal cohesion in decision-making, ability to communicate key messages, and preparation for the management of government.
The second factor is responsiveness to an identifiable voter base, which captures the way the party mobilizes a subset of the population for election purposes and targets benefits to them. These responses can be programmatic (e.g., providing a basket of ideas, policies, or services to broad sections of the population) or clientelist (e.g., providing private goods to individuals or small groups in exchange for political support). The party can also offset internal weaknesses through partnerships with non-party entities.
Applying this framework yields four types of parties in a structure of specific needs that the United States can use to guide its party assistance.
A Movement-Turned-Party. These parties typically emerge from mass protest movements or from the crystallization of widespread latent dissatisfaction with traditional parties. Such parties can be limited in their internal party-specific organization or their ability to mobilize voters over time. They tend to face the challenge of translating loose networks of actors into a single entity with finite views and proposals and an apparatus for mobilizing voters.
Examples include En Marche in France, the National League for Democracy in Burma, and Movimiento Semilla in Guatemala. Assistance to these parties can help establish internal party decision-making processes, functioning party organizational structures and campaign strategy, voter outreach, as well as message development and dissemination.
Hyper-Responsive Parties. “Hyper-responsive” parties have relatively little capacity for internal organization but are adept at mobilizing finite subsets of the population as voters and rewarding these constituents with patronage or policy prescriptions. They prioritize electoral mobilization capacity over policy implementation, member management, and decision-making capability. Examples include Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh, Podemos in Spain, and Bolsonaro’s Alliance for Brazil. The needs of this type of party typically include help in developing party structures that can endure over time and potentially broaden the parties’ appeal beyond a specific subset of the electorate. They also require help with building coalitions that can govern and deliver for a broader cross-section of the population, since these parties are often ostracized by traditional party structures.
“Old Guard” Parties. “Old guard” parties are highly organized and institutionalized, have a robust policy-making apparatus, and tend to have solidified and sharpened their organizational structures—including financial architecture and member mobilization—over the course of decades. Examples include the Social Democratic Party in Germany, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Independent Party in Morocco, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico. A party like this can benefit from assistance with reinvigorating voter outreach and expanding its base; developing and applying new forms of measuring and communicating changes in voter sentiment; and rethinking how its existing ideological stances apply to rapidly evolving modern electorates.
Machines. A “machine party” is well-organized and run with a robust nationwide network of branches and a strong policy-making apparatus that delivers legislation for its parochial electorate. It is responsive to and capable of mobilizing a finite, even if large, section of the population in an election, and it can address the leadership’s perceived need for a show of public strength. Examples include the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, and Law and Justice in Poland.
These parties can benefit from assistance in broadening their party platforms beyond small subsets of the population, and in bolstering their internal democracy through leadership development, inclusion, and candidate selection.
Right-Sizing U.S. Assistance
The evidence gathered over decades of work by democracy assistance organizations suggests a framework for crafting effective assistance.
First, assistance needs to strengthen organizational fundamentals at all levels of the party. Parties need the baseline amount of infrastructure required to mobilize supporters and channel their views into policy. This essential infrastructure includes effective national, state, and local party organization and communications; executive leadership structures; an internal policy team; and innovative approaches to the recruitment of new candidates that will advance non-traditional candidates and increase inclusion. Without this core organizational center, parties are more likely to wane and less likely to be able to deliver for citizens. No matter the age or strength of a party, the first priority for assistance should be shoring up these areas.
Second, assistance needs to focus on the party’s core needs, using the framework outlined here as a first-step diagnostic tool. If organization fundamentals are already in place, use assistance to address gaps in priorities to enable the party to mobilize voters and deliver for them through evidence-based policy formulation and services. To do so, harness best practices from comparable parties in similar contexts, sharing the factors that led to success or failure, and tailor support to align with the party’s preferred organizational ends. Often, parties can also benefit from being tied into regional and global networks of sister parties.
Third, aid needs to strengthen parties’ ability to use digital tools that enhance responsiveness, increase electoral mobilization, and guard against the malign influence of external actors. Parties can use digital tools to understand and better respond to voters’ policy needs and to mobilize supporters during electoral cycles. However, this assistance should include guidance to parties on how to avoid using technology in ways that can be harmful to democracy, including the dissemination of manipulative misinformation. Training and capacity building in cybersecurity, which parties often overlook, can help steel these organizations against malicious hacking attempts.
Finally, assistance should bolster nascent parties emerging from movements or as splinter groups in order to maximize their chances for survival. The United States should support parties committed to democratic practices and norms and equality for all citizens. Early interventions can help establish the strong foundations needed to be sustainable political parties, inculcate democratic practices in these organizations, and check Beijing’s comparable outreach, which often exposes a party to China’s authoritarian model.
Once the Biden Administration assumes office, it will be faced with many threats and opportunities. Supporting and strengthening democracy abroad should be a core pillar of the administration’s approach to addressing these threats, because a world that is freer and more open makes the American public safer and more prosperous.
Strengthening political parties is a key element of U.S. democracy assistance overseas. With the right balance of institutional strength and voter responsiveness, political parties can address citizens’ needs and reinforce their belief in democracy. Getting this right means having a clear-eyed view of the political party landscape, associated needs, and the tools best suited to meet the relevant gaps.
Patrick Quirk is senior director of the Center for Global Impact at the International Republican Institute (IRI), and a nonresident fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
Jan Surotchak is senior director for transatlantic strategy at IRI.
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