Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Institutional Design and Party Membership Recruitment in Estonia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Institutional Design and Party Membership Recruitment in Estonia

Article excerpt

Abstract: Political party membership is generally considered to be a declining phenomenon in western democracies, and is expected to remain low in central and east Europe. (1) The explanation for this state of affairs has centred on the legacy of communism, and the availability of mass media and state funding from the early days of democratization. Yet in some post-communist party systems, membership has risen since 2000. In this article, the reasons for this counterintuitive finding are examined in the case of Estonia. Using elite surveys and interviews, I argue that electoral institutions have influenced the value of members to political parties. Estonia's small district open-list electoral system and small municipal districts create a demand for members as candidates, grassroots campaigners and "ambassadors in the community." Furthermore, state subsidies are insufficient to fund expensive modern campaigns. Thus, members play an important role in Estonian political parties.

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Since the 1960s, scholars have noted the declining role of members in political parties. (2) In the modern world of mass media communications

and state subsidies, it is often argued that the role of party members has been reduced to a "vestigial function," (3) with their drawbacks outweighing any advantages that they might bring. Members may expect parties to provide "purposive incentives" in exchange for their involvement, often including a role in the policy-making process. (4) This type of exchange risks imposing vote-losing commitments on parties, (5) and reduces the ability of political elites to respond quickly to the demands of the modern mass media. (6) It is not thought to be in parties' interests to make these concessions to members, or spend time and effort on recruitment and retention, since members have little to offer modern political parties.

In the late 1980s, Angelo Panebianco noted that campaigns were increasingly run by electoral-professionals, (7) paid employees or contractors who used modern communications techniques to "sell" the party to the electorate, much like a business sells to consumers. By the 1990s, Katz and Mair argued that parties had become increasingly detached from society, and had turned to the state in search of resources. (8) Obtaining financial subsidies from the state and communicating with voters primarily through the mass media, Katz and Mair's "cartel parties" would value members for their "legitimising function" only, making the role of members largely decorative. (9)

With the role of members already downgraded in Western Europe, political parties in the new democracies of central and east Europe were expected to follow "electoral professional" modes of organization, using communications specialists to "market" the party to voters. (10) Ingrid van Biezen suggested that low levels of party membership were likely to persist in the new democracies of central and east Europe for three reasons. First, the sequencing of organisational development meant that parties acquired parliamentary representation immediately after their creation and, as such, were "internally created." The emphasis on institution building in the early stages of transition would further encourage an orientation towards the state. (11) Second, the lack of social differentiation after decades of communism would push parties further towards the "electoral" model, with the communist past a "thwarting experience for the structural consolidation of both political and civil society." (12) Third, van Biezen argued that the availability of state funding created an institutional disincentive for political parties to invest in membership recruitment, a point that was later developed by Petr Kopecky. (13)

More recently, however, case studies from central and east Europe have questioned the "end of membership" thesis. In Bulgaria, Maria Spirova found that party elites believed that members were essential for long-term electoral success in turbulent party systems. …

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