Democracy and the future of political parties

Experts the world over are questioning the future of political parties. Are political parties still relevant? Are individuals like Donald trump who are questioning the establishment in the USA the answer to undemocratic tendencies in political parties? In this interview, Dr Augustine Magolowondo of  Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) in Lilongwe, Malawi gives Africa Briefing his views on democracy and the future of political parties. The excerpts

Has democracy been a failed project in Africa in general and Malawi
in particular?

I would not say that democracy has been a failed project. Rather, it is a project that is at a cross road. We are passing through a phase in which if nothing is done, then we risk declaring democracy a failed project. There are threats to democracy that are common place in Africa and beyond. Such threats are coming from various sources, some familiar while other unprecedented.

One of such threats is the fact that in many countries in Africa, Malawi inclusive, institutions of democracy are very weak. Such institutions like Parliament, Judiciary and other accountability institutions tend to be hijacked by the elite, especially those in power. Furthermore, even when these institutions have a semblance of being independent, they tend to be underfunded. The other threat, and in my view is the biggest one, is the rising poverty.

You see, when the democratic agenda was being championed over two decades ago, there was a mistaken expectation that democracy will also solve our deplorable socio-economic conditions. Of course, this was a misrepresentation of what democracy can deliver and yet it was a popular view. With the rising poverty, democracy has now to shoulder the blame. Furthermore, it is also common knowledge that someone whose concern is to meet the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing can easily be taken advantage of by the selfish politicians. Poverty is therefore a biggest threat to democracy!

As for Malawi, where did things go wrong in as far as democratic
governance is concerned?

As for Malawi, in addition to the threats to democracy that I have outlined before, there are two issues to consider if we were to understand our predicament today. Firstly, as a country, we did not have enough time, or we decided not to have enough time to critically reflect on what we really wanted when we found ourselves in the euphoria to change in those days leading to the referendum in 1993.

To many of our champions of democracy, all that mattered was to get rid of Kamuzu Banda and the Malawi Congress Party. Thus, we had a very narrow view of what democracy entailed. Democracy was reduced to mean having many parties, holding elections and especially not having the MCP and Kamuzu in power.

We never reflected on what kind of a democratic system we wanted. You see, I have always said that there are different forms of democracy and yet, for us in Malawi, we were left with the impression that the only form of democracy that was out there to adopt, and not even to adapt, was the so called liberal democracy that is built on an open market economic system: putting emphasis on civil and political rights but not fully appreciating the socio-economic dimension in a poverty stricken country.

In other words, we missed an opportunity to building democracy from below by having a context grounded democratic system that would reflect our realities and our aspirations. As others have said, we have ended up having a transition without a transformation! We have inherent systemic contradictions that need to be dealt with, moving forward.

Secondly, we never domesticated our democratic agenda. What I mean here is that in many instance, we left it to our so-called development partners to sustain our democracy. Consider for instance our elections which have tended to be heavily funded by donors. The same applies to our civil society organisations and other public institutions in the democratic governance sector. If it were not for donors, a majority, if not all NGOs in Malawi would have been history and institutions like the Human Rights Commission would have hardly been operational!
Are politicians solely to blame for shortcomings that have been
associated with bad governance and mediocre performance in politics
over the years?

Politicians may not be solely to blame but the bear the larger responsibility. As leaders, they are expected to inspire and set the pace. They are expected to give meaning and essence to politics. They are expected to demonstrate that they are in politics on behalf of the ordinary person. The reality however is far from this. Today, it is apparent that a majority of politicians are into politics not to serve anyone but themselves. The ordinary person is fully aware of this. Unsurprisingly, public trust in political parties and politicians is at all-time low.

In view of individuals challenging the establishment such as Donald
trump in the United States and independents in Malawi and other
countries, are political parties any longer relevant?

Some critics are looking at classical political parties as 19th century solutions to 19th century problems, reflecting a 19th century state of technology, and I agree. Traditionally we have considered political parties as pillars of contemporary representative democracy. Over the years, political parties have distinguished themselves as the only entities whose primary goal is that of contesting and capturing state power through peaceful means. Political parties have therefore traditionally been considered as the main vehicle for political representation, the main mechanism for the organization of government and the channels for maintaining democratic accountability.


However, contemporary developments across the globe have unsettled the traditional functions of political parties. For instance, the breakthrough in digital technology is not only changing whole sectors of society (and even disrupting them), it is also offering numerous possibilities for modern, meaningful and equal participation and deliberation, as well as chances for new forms of transparency and accountability, in ways and on a scale that was until recently unimaginable and unheard of.

Technology aside, we are also witnessing the rise of single-issue and often social media driven campaigning organizations that appear to be attractive to citizens at the expense of traditional party political activism. In Germany for instance, the traditional political establishment has been fundamentally shaken by the populist and single issue (anti-immigrants) party, the AFD (Alternative for Deutschland). In the USA, it is the same.

Mr Trump has hijacked the Grand Old Party (GOP). With Mr. Trump, America’s Democracy is on trial! And as you rightly put it, in Malawi, we continuously witness the rise of the independent candidates. Obviously, something is wrong. In my view, the ordinary person is in continuous search for solutions to his/her pressing needs and he finds politicians and political parties not really of much help.

Sometimes, the way these parties are structured and run does not give much room to the ordinary person to influence decision making processes. In other instances, political parties have been taken as if they were personal estates to the extent that being a member of a party is like working at someone’s own farm: you have little or no voice. If you differ with the farm owner, you only have one option: to move on and may be to establish your own estate! Unless parties adapt to realities of today and do not take the ordinary person for granted, they are bound to be irrelevant sooner other than later!

Are these individuals the next and only option to sustain democracy especially in Africa where party politics are becoming chieftainships or family affairs?

I don’t think we can and we should entrust our democratic agenda to individuals, let alone, if they are “Trump like”. Democracy can only thrive if it is institutionalised. We do need strong and vibrant democratic institutions but the kind of institutions that are adaptable and responsive to the realities of today.

Your final word?

I remain optimistic that we can still salvage our democracy. This will require civic activism both in words and in action. It also requires that our leaders will need to reconsider their leadership style. Today, you can’t afford to impose yourself on the people. Most importantly, if we are to domesticate our democracy, we need to ask ourselves as to what form of democracy is best suited to us.

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