Inner-party reforms please

A democratic government starts with democracy in the party

Srinath Raghavan Delhi

Most western observers have described the dynastic arrangement of political inheritance in party structures as yet another manifestation of South Asia's 'feudal' political culture. Yet, a moment's consideration will show that the problem has deep institutional roots in the lack of democracy within political parties. In one way or another, most parties in the region appoint their leaders rather than elect them. This system strongly favours the existing leadership and makes it immune to any serious challenge. Such institutional arrangements tend to privilege loyalty, so perpetuating a system that we tend to explain as feudal.

Given that most political parties the world over started out with these sorts of arrangements, the interesting question is, why and how did intra-party reforms come about in other democracies?

To an extent this has been in response to the maturing of the political system. For instance, in the US, until the first decade of the 20th century, presidential candidates for both parties were chosen by a national convention. The delegates to the convention were selected at state conventions, which in turn comprised delegates from district conventions. Nevertheless, it was felt that this system was effectively controlled by regional political bosses. The system of primary elections was first introduced with a view to cutting these grandees to size and to selecting candidates with genuine public support.

Take another, rather different, example — Taiwan. The Guomindang was the only political party in the country until 1987. But with the end of military rule and the growth of viable opposition parties, the Guomindang was forced to come up with fresh ways of ensuring its hold on the electorate. One of the ways by which the party sought to do so was the democratisation of party structures, especially in the manner of choosing candidates.

Intra-party democracy has also been seen as a way to avoid splintering the party system. By instituting such procedures, it was hoped that contending factions within parties would have a fair chance at assuming party leadership. The resulting stabilisation of the parties would foster wider democratic change in the polity. This was one of the reasons why the Argentinean Congress passed a law requiring all parties to have democratic elections for choosing candidates.

The Democratic Party in the US undertook serious reforms for similar reasons. In the aftermath of the notorious 1968 convention, where Hubert Humphrey secured the nomination despite Eugene McCarthy's victories in the primaries, the party appointed a committee to recommend measures to strengthen its democratic procedures and so preclude the possibility of an ideological fracture in the party.

Political parties of more recent origin in the West have embraced democratisation as an end in itself. They hold that party functionaries should be subordinate to the grassroots membership of the party and members should have much greater say in the policies espoused by the party. The Green Party in Germany is a case in point.

Comparative evidence suggests intra-party democracy will create additional avenues for deliberation and mechanisms for accountability — both of which will have a salutary effect on politics in the subcontinent. To be sure, there is little incentive for an entrenched party leadership to institute reform that will enable its dominance to be challenged. Even in the US and UK, major political parties did not establish these procedures and norms until the late 1960s. Creating such systems will, therefore, take time. Nevertheless, they present the best prospect for ensuring that the next five decades of South Asian politics are not necessarily dominated by the Bandaranaikes, the Gandhis or the Bhuttos.  In other words, political dynasties.