Thursday

21st Mar 2019

Opinion

Do we still need political parties?

  • The Bundestag, the German lower chamber. As things stand, political structural change will not spare Germany. (Photo: Pxhere)

In many Western countries, party structures are dissolving. Traditional political organisations are disintegrating, being swept away by new movements, or infiltrated by fresh members.

There is not much left of the once-defining role of classical parties. And the examples are abundant.

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In France, the traditional party system has decayed. The Socialists, after being the governing party in Paris until spring, have practically ceased to exist.

Other traditional parties have also been hit hard, replaced by movements such as Emmanuel Macron's "En Marche!" and Jean-Luc Melenchon's "La France insoumise".

The US' once-lofty Republicans - the self-proclaimed "Grand Old Party" - have now disintegrated into separate wings, whose positions differ to the extent that a common programme is hardly recognisable.

And the party organisation is so weak that it could be captured by a non-politician like Donald Trump.

Until recently in the UK, the Labour Party, which had been positioned in the pragmatic centre, has moved vehemently to the left.

It was infiltrated by an influx of often young new members, who celebrate the party's leader, Jeremy Corbyn - formerly a marginal figure in the political life of the island - as a pop star.

In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement of former comedian Beppe Grillo has been unsettling the political system for some years. On the right, the former regional party "Lega Nord" is expanding with new national-populist content.

There's an evolving pattern. Traditional political structures are breaking up, liquefying political systems.

People are becoming more important than parties, and posing seems more relevant than policies.

Politicians who have served their time and worked their way up through party ranks are ousted by outside figures with star attributes - cheered along by citizens, who suddenly behave like fans.

Still, there's a prominent exception: Germany. Or so it would seem.

Large parties and their established top figures still dominate the political scene.

At the top are well-tempered characters like Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic contender. And, above all, both of them promise that as little as possible is going change.

But this is just the visible surface. In Germany, like elsewhere in Europe, the political system is being transformed.

Anger and frustration are on the rise - sentiments which parties like the far-right AfD are only able capture to a small extent.

The next federal government will likely be formed by a coalition that promises stability on the verge of boredom. However, this does not preclude the possibility of unexpected turns in regard to specific topics.

Stopping TTIP

Even the supposedly stable Germany is not immune to sudden changes, as the anti-TTIP campaign has show - where many protest took place against the planned EU-US trade agreement.

As of 2014, just a few activists succeeded in creating a mood that caught the elites in politics and business by surprise.

Ultimately, the pressure on the web and in the streets was massive, compelling the federal government - especially its social-democratic part - to change course.

Thus, the transatlantic free trade agreement TTIP was pronounced clinically dead long before the protectionist US president Donald Trump moved into the White House.

Fundamental structural changes are under way in Western democracies, where just a few years ago stable political oligopolies prevailed.

Public opinion was dominated by a few large parties, trade unions, associations, and a limited number of leading newspapers and broadcasters.

Together they formed public opinion and determined the political agenda. Issues that these elites chose to ignore simply did not catch the public's attention.

Meanwhile, political markets have become contestable and highly competitive and barriers to access are low. Complex organisations are no longer needed to influence public opinion.

Social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, enable protest movements like the Anti-TTIP and Brexit campaigns to be formed rather spontaneously.

New groupings, such as France's En Marche!, can gain in size very quickly. Furthermore, hostile take-overs of parties are possible, like Trump capturing the US Republicans, as well as the infiltration of traditional parties, like Britain's Labour party.

Only the beginning

And this new era of turbo-democracy is only just beginning.

So, do we really still need political parties?

"Political parties are involved in the formation of the people's will," states Article 21 of the German constitution.

But as technological innovations and changes in society's fabric create new channels to form this 'will', are parties becoming unnecessary?

The opening-up of political competition may appear to be a good thing. However, turbo-democracy brings two fundamental problems - especially under the conditions prevailing in Germany.

Instability: What traditional parties do - channelling public opinion, keeping politics on a reliable path, preparing people for public office - may seem boring and restrictive. But they also foster stability and reliability.

Sudden turns, following changes in the public's mood, are more likely - see the Brexit referendum of 2016, when conservative party leaders under then-prime minister David Cameron were no longer able to moderate the debate.

Blockade: Under the conditions of turbo-democracy, destructive messages work better than constructive ones - but Macron is an exception in this regard.

Brash negative messages spread more easily through social media than weighed solutions to real social problems. Negativism also arouses minds and public attention.

So preventing political projects and destroying existing orders has become terrifyingly simple. And whoever puts forward constructive approaches has a much more difficult job.

As far as Germany is concerned, there is another troubling aspect - the German constitution requires permanent compromise.

The state's powers are fragmented: between the federal government and the German states; between the Bundestag (lower house) and the Bundesrat (representing individual states); and between political institutions and the largely independent bodies such as the Federal Constitutional Court, the Bundesbank or the cartel office.

Without large parties able to organise a stable consensus, the country is bound to get stuck in deadlocks.

The agonising 1990s - when the Bundestag (dominated by the Christian Democrats) and the Bundesrat (dominated by Social Democrats) blocked each other for years - are still well remembered.

But, as things stand, political structural change will not spare Germany. Simply wishing for it to vanish will not make it go away.

Professor Henrik Mueller is chair of economic policy journalism at TU Dortmund University, Germany. A German version of this article was published by Spiegel Online.

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