Paradoxes of politics: Too many parties?
26-10-2017

Blog by Jerome Scheltens, NIMD Knowledge Development Advisor

This blog is the second in a series of insights on Political Paradoxes, through which our Knowledge Development Advisor explores how we deal with paradoxes, contradictions or counter-intuitive manifestations in politics through our work.

Can there ever be too many parties in a democracy?

The principle answer is: “No such thing!”
Reality, however, is not that simple.

If, like me, you’re a professional working in the sphere of international democracy support, chances are one of your peers has told you over drinks: “The political party landscape in country X is just out of control! Citizens can’t make a proper choice. There are simply too many parties on the ballot and they are indistinguishable.”

Parties in principle

I understand my colleagues’ frustrations and can certainly relate to some of the problems that can arise from a long ballot paper.

But before jumping to counter-measures, we should go back to why we have political parties in the first place. Parties are private initiatives belonging to citizens, created around shared views and interests.

After all, citizens can and should come together around issues of public concern.  The act of founding a political party is a fundamental political right, often guaranteed by the constitutional right to assembly. From this perspective, you can never have enough political parties!

“In our work with political parties, we seek as much inclusiveness as is effectively manageable and credible.”

Parties in practice

However, in practice, having many political parties can cause problems. The reason for this is often funding:  In some countries, parties are immediately entitled to state funding as soon as they register or sign up for elections.

I remember, right after its 2011 revolution for example, Tunisia did this as a matter of principle. They wanted to give true support to their citizens’ crucial new right to assembly.

Other countries, like Mozambique in the past, give funding because they see it as a way to stimulate public participation.

These measures are genuinely aimed at giving everyone a voice. But, unfortunately, they are often an incentive to simply register a party on paper. Once in place, such financial arrangements become counter-productive and hard to reverse as any attempt may be seen as a bid by the incumbent to lessen competition.

Another consequence of these generous financial arrangements is that it is very hard to create an effective dialogue process between parties. The small, less organized parties also want to participate, sometimes even immediately after registering.

And it’s hard to refuse them access if you claim to strive for inclusiveness. It is important for citizens and parties to realize that exercising their right to assembly does not immediately give them the right to participate in public administration and decision-making.

Healthy thresholds

Given the challenges caused by having many political parties, I believe it is legitimate to introduce thresholds. These of course have to be reasonable. Transparent and objective criteria are of fundamental importance, and these must be clearly explained and defended with confidence.

Think of practical measures: registration procedures such as collecting endorsements and paying deposit fees, which can make parties consider if they are determined enough about joining the electoral race and taking up public responsibility.

Such balancing acts are at the heart of NIMD’s interparty dialogue work. As a rule of thumb, we seek as much inclusiveness as is effectively manageable and credible. This means applying a set of selection criteria. Electoral success – if those elections are free and fair, of course – is one of the important criteria.

Last week, NIMD launched a new campaign highlighting the value of democracy, including the need for multiple and diverse parties in a functioning democracy. Enjoy and share!