Party government and partisan government

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Category : Shelley

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley
Party government is a mark of our evolving times. Political parties constitute indispensable components of modern representative democracy. Well organized and well-knit parties which themselves are democratic work as the engine of effective and stable democracies. In situations unfavourable to the flowering and sustaining of the democratic order, sound political parties can play a vital and positive role in changing things for the better. As Samul P. Huntigton, the enunciator of the controversial concept of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ observed in his earlier work ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’: “Political parties, as instruments of mobilizing new groups into politics and as entities not easily controlled by a single leader, may act as useful and effective balance to the shortcomings of personal leadership….Well established competitive parties with sound organization and effective spread can successfully aggregate diverse interests of specific groups and bring broad unity. A well developed party system — whether dominant, multi-party or even single, capable of absorbing new social forces and offering considerations to new demands arising — is an effective component of political stability. Such an arrangement is a safeguard against the weakness produced by instability which invites military intervention”.

Political parties that work within and for an appropriately functioning democratic system also prevent party governments from degenerating into partisan governments. They are, however, unable to play this role in uncertain and illiberal democracies featuring less developed political societies such as Bangladesh. Underdeveloped polities are characterised by inadequate political institutions. Weak and ineffective political institutions make it difficult, if not impossible, for democracy to function. In such situations politics is vitiated and dominated by non-political or extra-political forces and processes. As Huntington analyzed:

“The same causes which produce military intervention — in politics are also responsible for political involvements of labour unions, businessmen, students and clergy. These causes lie not in the nature of the group but in the structure of society, in particular they lie in the absence or weakness of effective political institutions in the society”.

The most prominent victims of such debilitating weakness are the political parties. In situations marked by inadequate political institutions, political parties do not grow in a desirable manner and fail to practice democracy within themselves. Frequently unable to adhered to the inalienable canons of democracy: consensus on core national issues leading to broad national unity, tolerance of differing and diverse opinions, commitment to peaceful resolution of political disputes, they often contribute to the dwarfing of democracy. In many cases they centre round and depend excessively on personal and charismatic leadership. As a result they are incapable of drawing lively support and enduring strength from the people at large. Their vitality diminishes. As and when victory in the polls put them in power they attempt to draw strength from state institutions by dominating and politicizing these. This leads to the undesirable transformation of party governments into partisan governments which try to perpetuate themselves in power by vigorously building and sustaining a virtual patron-client network between the ruling party and the government officials at various levels.

Another factor that tends to intensify partisan mindset in political parties is the propensity to establish and exercise total domination over society. Even when operating under an apparently democratic set-up some political parties’ nurture and manifest totalitarian ambitions. These parties want to establish their ideologies and programmes to the exclusion of all others. As such when in power they make covered and overt efforts to bulldoze all opposition by monopolizing government agencies and mobilizing street power through their supporters.

The partisan mindset is in many ways, a carryover from the pre-democratic past of a society. Heightened partisanship is antithetic to democracy as it is unwilling to tolerate opposition which is an indivisible component of the democratic order. Organized opposition is a hallmark of representative democracy.

Along with the right to participation in government decision-making by casting a vote and the right to be represented, “the right of an organized opposition to appeal for votes against the government in elections and in parliament is a vital feature in the evolution and progress of democratic institutions.”

As a political phenomenon constitutionally recognized opposition is a recent addition. It can be traced back only to the closing years of the 19th century. It is also a relatively rare feature of history of political societies. In many ways its birth was in defiance of circumstances. As has been aptly remarked: “A governing group will use the coercive powers of the government, to deny opponents the opportunity to oppose it, in every instance where the governing group expects that coercion has a fair chance of succeeding and the gains of successful denial will exceed the costs. Peaceful opposition has more chance of survival in a system where the governing group has only a limited access to resources of coercion”.

In post-colonial developing societies political parties themselves are often underdeveloped. Instead of collegial or democratic leadership these entities are featured by charismatic and frequently dynastic leadership. The cult of personalities permeates these organizations. Consequently personality becomes more dominant than system and the parties remain unable to practice democracy within themselves.

The undemocratic content tends to spill over into the broader arena of politics. It is often found that such a party after acquiring power through ballot attempts to exercise complete sway over the polity. The reduction, if not the complete elimination of the opposition becomes its undeclared objective. To that end it tries to expand and strengthen its control over state institutions, especially those commanding the resources of coercion. This is where party government begins to transform itself into partisan government.

It is not that in societies which are politically developed at present those in power did not have inclinations to become totally dominant by following partisan ways. In their cases, however, such attempts were thwarted by built-in factors. For instance, in 18th century Britain, legal opposition had better chances because the potential effectiveness of military or police forces or instruments of coercing opposition were limited on account of standing army being limited and police forces being under local control. Again, in Switzerland, the armed forces being constituted of citizen militia there is little scope for a ruling group to utilize this for political domination.

Further, partisan domination is rendered impossible when “tradition or law deny legitimacy to a government using military forces to decide internal political disputes”. Historical instances of such phenomenon are found in the Netherlands during 15th and 16th centuries and in Britain after the Revolution of 1688 and in Sweden during the 18th century. Partisan governments’ bid for monopoly of power through coercion by government agencies also fail when the “opposition groups have effective opportunities to take recourse to defensive violence”. Examples of this phenomenon are found in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Politically developed Western societies and some similar Eastern societies have built strong ramparts against party governments transforming themselves into partisan governments leading to the virtual dismantling of the democratic order. These safeguards are not only enshrined in their constitutions but also encoded in their customs and conventions. Strong and active civil society organizations, free and non-partisan media, independent and alert judiciary, independent and neutral election commission, human rights commission and anti-corruption commission stand on the way of partisan behaviour of the ruling party. These are the reasons why in developed political societies such as the USA, UK, countries of West Europe, Japan and India democracies function and operate smoothly with the help of political parties which can not and do not cultivate the partisan mindset. Political parties in these developed democracies know that acquisition and maintenance of political power do not depend on turning government agencies into party organizations. History, tradition and democratic realities of the present teach them that the way to meaningful and enduring power lies through better and sound political organization which can win the hearts and souls of the citizens. They, therefore, act accordingly and do not pursue the myopic and self-destructive course of turning state institutions into party organizations.

Unfortunately, the scenario is painfully different in developing polities including Bangladesh. Inadequately institutionalized nationalism, lack of consensus on core national issues, weak state institutions and insufficient political socialization of political leaders and their weakness lead to a dangerous lack of confidence in the potential and strength of their own political parties. This is why those parties whenever they are voted into power attempt to strengthen their hold by pushing forth a partisan agenda. They try to politicize state institutions in their favour. The venture does not stop there. Within power or without, the parties carry on the task of politicizing civil society groups, media and professionals to win support for themselves. The net result of all these activities is a cruel polarization of the entire society along major party lines. In consequence, the nation becomes virtually divided and cooperation of various social forces in the cause of democracy becomes difficult, if not impossible. Things have to change if democracy is to survive in such societies.

Leaders, especially political leaders, must call a halt to the destructive process of turning party governments into partisan governments. Political parties can and will do better if they do not depend on government machinery for their survival and growth. They must remember that it was not the government agencies that brought them into power from their station as opposition party. On the contrary, it was the people, the voters mobilized and motivated by the workers of their party which help them win the elections and assume power. They need to build their political organizations soundly and effectively to secure a brighter future for themselves. A political party that seeks enduring power through politicization and capture of state institutions may itself become a captive of non-political forces and lose its democratic credentials. Such undesirable developments spell the doom of democracy. If successful in its attempt at total domination the combine may set up a totalitarian order.

On the other hand, incompetent handling of matters by the combine may lead to violent resistance from opposing forces resulting in widespread disorder and continuing conflict turning the country into a failed state. In an avowedly democratic dispensation party government that degenerates into partisan government is a sure prescription for horrific disaster. Wise leaders need to take early measures to arrest the degradation of healthy party government into decadent partisan government.

The author, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly Asian Affairs.

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