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Parties

The parties and their role in the political system

While interest groups organize individual citizens according to their differing roles, parties approach them in their more overriding role as responsible citizens and shareholders in a system of sovereignty of the people. No modern representative democracy could do without political parties and the activities that they perform. It is important to bear this in mind, despite a widespread belief that political parties squabble, involve themselves in underhand dealings and are biased. Those sitting on their high non-partisan horses and claiming to be led by "matters important to the state" only are usually deceiving themselves and everyone else when they present their own political ideas as being born out of a purely pragmatic approach, while attempting to discredit those of others as "party political" or "ideological". According to the famous words of Gustav Radbruch, however, nonpartisanism is "the grand delusion of the authoritarian state".

Because big political issues usually involve taking decisions on things that are likely to happen in the future, which by their very nature are generally difficult to forecast accurately, clear and simple answers to political questions rarely exist. Therefore the often-heated debates carried out between parties are justified, if parties are to force through change according to their principles and their beliefs about what is best for the population. And even when issues requiring a political decision arise, which are generally regarded as being apolitical, the chances are that the proposed solution will affect the interests of one section of the electorate more than another. Indeed, even the timetable for dealing with issues, however apolitical it may seem, can favor one set of interests much more than another and become contentious. Taking sides becomes unavoidable.

Political parties are free unions of like-minded citizens, who together make suggestions for solving political problems in the form of a program. They also elect candidates to be put forward at elections in order that this program might be implemented should they form the next government following electoral success. In a liberal democracy it is essential that the foundation and development of political parties is free, regardless of any endeavors undertaken by established parties to make the arrival of new competition as difficult as possible (...).

"Parties contribute to the process of forming a political will of the people". (...). This is a very general and simple definition of the job performed by parties and it would be wrong to intemperate this a monopoly held by political parties on the forming of a political will. Indeed, this is quite untrue, since interest groups also play a large role in influencing the political will of society. In actual fact, the activities performed by parties and interest groups are very similar. There are often no clear-cut dividing lines. In the past, political parties have been set up to represent one section of the community only, such as the farming community. (...). In contrast to interest groups, which, according to the rules laid down in the constitution, may only attempt to influence those holding public office, political parties direct their efforts at gaining seats in local and national parliaments and keeping them. They put up candidates for election and governments are formed from their membership. To this end, parties make up an essential link between the people and its representatives.

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It would be almost impossible for the people to be politically active without parties. Parties are needed if a pluralistic society is to function politically. Only through parties are voters able to realize their own political aspirations. Political parties are like tools. They enable the people to put into office the political leadership and to choose their preferred political program. 

As already touched upon while considering the uses and disadvantages and of a direct democracy, we determined that the people as a whole is not in a position itself to choose its representatives and perform the endless number of tasks facing the political leadership. This task has to be performed by different groups of political activists who put themselves forward for election to political office and make suggestions as to how outstanding political problems might be solved or who take on board specific interests concerning certain sections of the electorate and voice them as their demands. The electorate is left to respond to these suggestions and demands, which it does by expressing its opinion at the ballot box. Indeed, even the presidential elections in America, where the choice is limited to certain individuals only, would be unfeasible and unthinkable without political parties. The parties select the candidates and finance their campaigns. In this respect political parties act as go-betweens between the people and the government. Without political parties individuals would have little chance of exercising the influence to which they are entitled in a democracy. 

In actual fact, political parties are indeed the "mouthpiece" of the people. Parties are supposed to pick up on the views and aims of the people, their worries, desires and sufferings and translate them into the will of the state. Political parties prepare the ground for a new generation of politicians and provide a base from which they can step into the world of politics. Climbing up through a party's ranks means getting ever nearer to a seat in government. Political parties provide the breeding ground for the nation's future leaders. Here too they are of irreplaceable importance.

Set against this background, then, it is perhaps not surprising that great demands are made of a party's internal organization. And it is not only the foundation of a party that should be free (...). The possibility of membership and the right to advance through a party's ranks should also be free and open to all. Absolute rule exercised by one individual within a party should be just as impossible as rule by an anonymous party bureaucracy. A party's statutes and articles should be worded to ensure that all its members are entitled to make a contribution in determining party policy, electing its leaders and in choosing the candidates to be put forward for election to public office.

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However accurate "mouthpiece for the public" might be in defining the role of parties, it falls short of reflecting the entire scope of activities performed by parties in a democratic state. Were this definition to be taken as supposing that a will of the people, or rather, the differing directions of will had already been articulated and that this agreed will only had to be spoken into the mouthpiece, then parties would have the relatively simple task of conveying this message from the bottom up. But, of course, this is not the case. As already mentioned, should a dispute arise between parliamentary opinion and public opinion it is the job of MPs to convince the people that their opinion is the right one. The only practical way of doing this is through the party. This is because political parties are often responsible for the forming of public opinion in the first place. As a matter of fact, political parties can also be seen as tools used by a nation's political leadership to gain and maintain support. The leadership does this by canvassing approval for the policies it is following or proposing. Lenin was correct in describing this aspect of party activity as a "transmission belt" between the political leadership and the masses. Yet this point of view forms only another aspect of the whole, and is just as right and just as wrong as the mouthpiece definition used earlier. Both sides have to be taken together. So by taking a closer look at parties we also encounter a rich and tense entity, featuring both plebiscite and representative elements.

According to this, then, parties are political associations registering and articulating the political opinions and social interests of society and, drawing on the overall programs that all parties develop, also attempting to determine the course of a community's politics through the candidates put forward by them. The drafting of a political program is one of a political party's most important tasks. Here it is important to distinguish between the manifesto, a firm list of commitments for the next legislative period, and the basic policy statement, which puts into words a party's basic political values and its long-term aims. While almost all modern parties subscribe to the central democratic ideals of freedom, equality and solidarity, their individual political programs can be quite unmistakable because of the differing emphasis they place on these basic democratic standards. This difference in emphasis can often be traced back to a party's history, yet it still carries importance and parties are keen to redefine their basic beliefs to meet current needs.

Several political parties were born out of the labor movement, originally a social protest movement, and entered the world of politics to demand political equality for their members, the working and lower classes. According to these parties, the state has a responsibility to intervene in the interest of equality and should not leave everything to take its course. Liberal parties place the emphasis on individual freedom. Indeed, their demands for imposing limits and controls on the state come from this basic position. In addition to these two positions, Christian and conservative groupings exist in almost all Western European states. With differing alignment of confessional forces, these groupings try to influence politics based on Christian belief and are open to the interests of the church. Regional parties also play a special role in the political landscape of many nations. These parties usually have a deep sense of responsibility to represent the special interests of their region and its historic and regional characteristics and use the federal system of government to achieve this.

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Many of the party systems in West and Central Europe had, or indeed, still have parties to the left or right of a nation's main political centre. Regardless of whether these parties follow Marxist-Leninist or nationalistic-fascist thinking, they represent extreme positions and are involved in promoting fundamental opposition to the pluralistic and parliamentary-based system of democracy. The strength of these parties is an indication of the degree to which the population accepts parliamentary democracy (...).

It has become clear that the existing parties are incapable of incorporating many of the new problems associated with the the environment into their political programs; nor of implementing them swiftly enough in practice; nor of making sure that natural souses of food and water are regulated adequately. This failure to act has given rise to a green movement which in countries such as Germany has even managed to become part of the current coalition government. This has led to a situation in which - to differing degrees - all parties have taken on board green issues.

And so we have touched upon one of the dilemmas facing the current party-political landscape. The political programs of all parties, but especially of the large ones, are becoming increasingly similar. A new phenomenon hanging over modern election campaigns is an apparent lack of information. Parties are often only distinguishable by the degree to which they support one policy or another meaning that, increasingly, elections are becoming personality rather than policy led, since this is the only real way that voters can differentiate between parties. But this development is not without its risks. If the main interest of parties becomes that of securing patronage and making sure that their hold on power is facilitated - regardless of political programs and their substance - the electorate will increasingly view political parties as being unpredictable and without substance. A lack of program encourages politicians to become wrapped up in their work and to lose touch with the electorate.

This, in turn, leaves the public feeling disaffected with political parties; a feeling which is strengthened by scandals like the money-for-questions affair and many others. This process of depolarization will lead ever more voters to turn their backs on politics altogether. And this could have more serious repercussions should voters become more radical and turn to the extremist parties instead. If parties are to avoid becoming no more than patronage or interest parties, it is essential that they draw up a political program against which they can be measured by the electorate and their members. While a party focused on the interests of one section of society is able to include most of those who share these interests, it usually has little chance of ruling responsibly over society nor modeling it in a way that would work should it win a majority and form the government. A party must stick to a political concept that is so comprehensive that it can claim to be a "people's party" and capable of winning a majority, but also capable of finding approval from all sections of society and, as far as its own concept is concerned, capable of uniting the differing interests. Political parties must draw up forward-looking political programs and separate the wheat from the chaff, if they are to integrate the pluralistic forces of society rather than allow them to drift apart. If parties have not done the preparatory work, governments and parliaments alone are not capable of integrating interests successfully. Only a party that can draw on an overall concept can regard itself as being anything more than a simple coalition of differing interests, held together by the power and influence gained from participation in the government.

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The great sociopolitical alternative, that is, the development of revolutionary programs, is hardly possible in our modern technological and scientifically-based world, despite the fact that attempts at polarizing or forming a clear ideological outline for a party's political program are repeatedly demonstrated. However, continual democratic development is only possible within a system that features a constant change of parties in government, provided all political parties accept the basic values of the entire system. Of course, this does not mean that parties should not have individual political concepts according to their own traditions, mentalities, philosophies and temperaments. Neither is the force of circumstances within society so great that there can only be one answer to the various problems faced by politics and society. Nevertheless, the very nature of political life today means that any party's room for maneuver in drawing up its own policies has become more narrow. And yet political parties should never understand their role as being one of following blindly the political leadership. Surely political issues should also be up for discussion at elections. It is legitimate for members of the winning party to hold the most senior posts in government. This means that the leaders of a political party become leaders of the government and the state. While this does not separate them from the party, it does put them in position of increased responsibility. Once in power they are expected to implement and represent the interests of their party while at the same time serving the nation. While their leadership skills will play a large part in achieving this, the strength of a party's political program and party discipline should not be overlooked. No matter how difficult it may seem to combine the roles of party leader and statesman, it must be remembered that achieving political leadership that is bound to democracy is only possible today if the leadership is formed out of a party and supported by it. 

This link between state and party leadership prevents leaders donning the gloriole of all-party authority or plebiscitary overbearing state leadership and serves in trimming their own self-image. At the same time, however, the grassroots provides them with the social and intellectual footing that can make their term in office successful and long-lasting.

For democracy to exist, therefore, society has to be pluralistic and, drawing on organized interest groups, politically active. Moreover, the people must be sovereign and free to choose its own political concepts and political leaders through political parties, which must also be free and meet up to the basic democratic principles.

[Taken and translated from: Waldemar Besson/Gotthard Jasper, Das Leitbild der modernen Demokratie. Bauelemente einer freiheitlichen Staatsordnung, BpB Bonn 1990]

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This online service on the subject of political education was developed by agora-wissen, the Stuttgart-based Gesellschaft für Wissensvermittlung über neue Medien und politische Bildung (GbR) (Partnership for the Exchange of Information Using New Media and Political Education). Please contact us with your questions or comments. Translation from German into English by twigg's Übersetzung deutsch-englisch.