Do Party Systems Matter: Governance through Modern Political Parties

By Janda, Kenneth | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Do Party Systems Matter: Governance through Modern Political Parties


Janda, Kenneth, Harvard International Review


Do party systems matter? Funding agencies think so. In fact, they spend millions of dollars annually to create and cultivate democratic party systems in developing countries. They want competitive party systems with stable factions that avoid fragmentation. These party system traits--competitiveness, stability, and lack of fragmentation--are important in the world of party aid.

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Thomas Carothers describes these funding efforts in Confronting the Weakest Link: Aiding Political Parties in New Democracies. International aid to parties blossomed in the 1970s, when German foundations aided democratic parties in Southern Europe and Latin America. In the mid-1980s, the United States created the National Endowment for Democracy, which funded the international Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) to support party development in countries across the globe. Since then, foundations in other Western European countries developed and expanded their own programs of party aid.

International agencies, such as the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the 'United Nations joined in funding party development in the context of democratic assistance. The UN Democratic Governance Group's Handbook of Working with Political Panics set forth the rationale, saying that "political parties are an essential part of the apparatus of governance." It cited many contributions of political parties: aggregating interests, mobilizing the electorate, shaping public policies, holding politicians accountable, and fostering future leaders.

Citizens across the world, however, do not share the UN's positive view of political parties. When the World Values Survey asked people in 55 countries "how much confidence" they had in their parties, almost 75 percent on average said either "not much" or "very little." Only in China, Vietnam, and Malaysia did a majority say they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in their parties.

Notwithstanding the public's negative views, most scholars agree with the UN Democratic Governance Group and regard parties as necessary to democratic government and value their contributions to governance. Assuming that political parties contribute to the quality of country governance, international organizations and non-governmental organizations have poured millions of dollars into party development under the framework of democratic assistance. Carothers offers a "very rough estimate" of US$200 million spent in 2005 on total worldwide party aid. By 2011, the AP reported that the IRI and NDI alone spent over US$100 million to support the democratic movement in Egypt. Agencies providing the funds assume that their spending has positive effects, but there is little measurable evidence.

Case studies in different countries show mixed results. African and Asian leaders and scholars have accused Western donors of pressing multiparty politics on skeptical publics that think parties represent corrupt elites, while ruling elites fear that party reforms threaten their hold on power. Carothers described these national concerns and problematic results anecdotally in Confronting the Weakest Link. He offers an "up-to-date analytic treatment of party aid," but he does not demonstrate that aiding political parties helps country governance in any measurable way.

Relying on a comprehensive cross-national survey of political parties and country governance in 212 countries, we addressed the underlying assumption of funding party aid in developing countries. In Party Systems and Country Governance, written with Korean scholar Jin-Young Kwak, we ask, "Does the quality of the party system affect the quality of governance?" We sought to explain variance in the World Bank's six 2007 Worldwide Governance Indicators for 212 countries by traits of their party systems. …

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