Colombo, Politics and Governance

Intra-Party Democracy

In many countries there is a constitutional prescription that parties’ internal operations be transparent, and in accordance with the general democratic mores of the nation. In Germany, parties’ internal organization ‘must conform to democratic principles’, and they have to publicly account for the source of their funds and other assets, as well as for the use of such funds. A Portuguese party ‘must be governed by the principles of transparency, democratic organization and management and the participation of all of its members’. In both Finland and Spain, parties’ internal structures and operation must be democratic.

In some systems there is a requirement for the registration of parties, usually with a requirement to give evidence of a reasonable number of members. Most notably, only registered parties can win seats in the Swedish Riksdag, and even then only if they receive a fixed percentage of the popular vote. As noted below, (pp. 1213), party registration is often linked to the question of public funding. In Norway, however, there is a requirement for party registration irrespective of any question of public funding. An application for party registration:

must be supported by the minute book of the constituting meeting, the names and signatures of those elected to the party’s central committee, and the signatures of at least 3000 electors who declare they wish the organization to be registered as a party.

Sweden may well be moving towards making political parties even more accountable for their activities. In 2000 the Commission on Swedish Democracy reported on a wide range of matters that impacted upon democracy in Sweden. These included such questions as civics education, the means citizens have of seeking redress against government decisions, and the need for more opportunities for open fora for citizens to express their views. The Commission also considered the part played by political parties, which were described as having a ‘key role’ in representative democracy. The Commission believed that this role was based on:

  • parties’ role in constituting ‘links between citizens and political power’
  • their role in ‘balancing various interests’, and
  • their assumption of responsibility for the structure of political power.

The Commission’s conclusion was severe, however. Swedish parties, it believed, demonstrate ‘an inadequate capacity’ to adapt to political change, and point to an increasing difficulty in attracting citizens. The Commission pointed to a need for parties to adapt for the good of Swedish democracy; it concluded that in order to reinforce representative democracy, the parties must develop both ideas and working forms that match the needs and requirements of citizens. If any legislation were to be introduced in Australia, the work of Dan Avnon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem warns that protection is probably as important as control:

  • continuity of the democratic features of the political system must be ensured
  • the state must not be given excessive powers of intervention in the development of parties that express different ideas from those in power
  • a legal framework for the resolution of intra-party disputes should be created, and
  • the legitimate activities of parties should be definedparticularly if they received public funding.

If rules are legally enforceable, this removes some of the devices that party elites use to block newer participants from exerting too great an influence upon party matters:

…when those who are being excluded have recourse to law, and especially when the state itself is responsible for overseeing aspects of the selection process, the discretion of elites in being able to exclude unwanted newcomers is much reduced.

In various countries that have moved to put some controls upon parties’ internal operations, there is a realisation that not only must candidates be attractive to voters, but they must also be seen as coming from a system that is not obviously unfair. This, in turn, has had the effect of modifying the behaviour of party elites.