Political parties are a central feature of any democracy. They are the vehicles by which citizens come together freely to campaign for public office, express their interests and needs, and define their aspirations for their society. While there are parties without democracy, there can be no democracy without political parties. Parties in many countries may be flawed, but they are also indispensable in democratic governance.
When functioning properly, political parties develop common ideas among a significant group in order to exert pressure upon the political system. Thus, they help place citizens’ local concerns in a national context. Citizens may be divided over interests, leaders, or policies; political parties can organize these differences, creating grounds for compromise and helping societies to unite. In addition, political parties train and nominate political leaders who will assume a role in governing society. Through their efforts to control and influence public policy, political parties play an intermediary role, linking the institutions of government to economic, ethnic, cultural, religious and other societal groups. They can rally support behind important legislation, advocate positions that improve the public welfare, and advance citizens’ interests. Further, their participation in elections allows citizens to hold them accountable for their policies and actions.
In multi-party systems, and based on the constituencies they represent, political parties often express conflicting viewpoints on public policy. These principled differences of opinion are not only an important part of the democratic process, but the exchanges they generate can also help to create a better understanding of the issues and possible solutions, potentially leading to new insights or workable comprises. Further, when parties in opposition present themselves as the alternative government voters may wish to choose, they pressure incumbents to better address the public’s interests.
Who We Work With
In a given country, NDI typically works with parties from across the ideological spectrum to foster a genuine multiparty political system. However, in most countries, resource limitations and other considerations prevent the Institute from working with all registered political parties. In such cases, the Institute typically selects its partners based on their commitment to democratic principles and non-violence rather than by their political beliefs. In addition, as appropriate, NDI considers objective criteria such as:
Political viability and base of popular support, as evidenced by legitimate election results
Level of grassroots organization
The ability to absorb assistance
Although the technical assistance provided may vary from one party to another according to each partner’s needs, the Institute strives to provide support in an equitable manner in order to avoid any perception of political bias.
Introduction to the Institute’s Programs
NDI’s political party development programs combine many techniques and strategies, ranging from consultations at the highest levels of party leadership to hands-on interactive training in political organizing for local party activists. They also incorporate cutting-edge tools like public opinion polling and membership databases that can enhance party activities and understanding of public concerns. Each program is tailored to a country’s political and cultural circumstances, as well as to the needs and interests of individual parties within that system. Typically, in a given country, the Institute works with a range of parties, seeking to foster the development of a broad spectrum of parties that effectively represent their members and advocate their respective positions.
In its political party development programs, the Institute works closely with international party groupings to build support for democratic political parties. The Institute is the only organization to have official standing in the three largest internationals: Centrist Democrat International (CDI), Liberal International (LI), and Socialist International (SI). Over the course of NDI’s work with the party internationals, the number of organizations involved in this partnership has grown to include the European party groups and other political party foundations and institutes. These relationships enable NDI to enlist established parties in sharing tried and tested democratic norms and organizing methods with parties in emerging democracies. One manifestation of this partnership is the recent manual “Minimum Standards for the Democratic Functioning of Parties.”
The Institute’s political party programs fall into five general areas: comparative research, party systems, internal organization and structure, elections and campaigning, and legislative performance. NDI’s work in each of these areas enables parties to foster closer connections to the public and develop policies that more effectively address citizens’ needs.
Working effectively with political parties requires an understanding of the incentives that affect party leaders and shape prospects for reform. Through research into such issues as party law, candidate selection, and party finance, the Institute provides comparative information on various aspects of party politics, shedding light on possible approaches for the creation of more effective and inclusive parties and revealing potential obstacles. Many of these studies draw from academic analyses as well as practical party experiences.
In democratic societies, the legal environment must be structured to support a vibrant political landscape. Clear and concise rules that define and protect the rights of individuals to establish, join and operate a political party are often required. Further, political parties often need assistance in developing rules and systems for funding their operations. This might include public subsidies, disclosure of donations and limits on expenditure. Sharing comparative international experiences in each of these areas, the Institute works with partner parties to define and reach agreement on appropriate rules through participatory and transparent dialogue.
Internal Organization and Structure
Political parties need clear internal management and communication structures that are well known and understood by members. Their survival also depends on their ability to recruit members, raise funds, and explain their principles and policies to members, the media, and the public. Further, more transparent and participative means of selecting candidates, electing leaders, and formulating policy can make parties more open, responsive and attractive to citizens. The Institute works with political parties to enhance their internal rules and procedures, strengthen their branches, improve membership outreach practices, and increase opportunities for participation by historically marginalized groups.
Political Parties in Parliament
Public perceptions of political parties are greatly influenced by the performance of parliamentary groups and individual members of the legislature. By effectively promoting their policy positions and consistently reaching out to the public through their elected officials, political parties can demonstrate their relevance and their ability to address citizens’ concerns. NDI works with party caucuses as they develop and implement their legislative agendas, work to solve their constituents’ problems, and publicize their accomplishments in the legislature.
Elections and Campaigning
Competitive campaigns offer voters a meaningful choice among the different contestants for public office, tying elections more effectively to citizens’ interests. Election monitoring helps political parties to limit electoral irregularities and to collect the information required to resolve any concerns about the election process through peaceful and legal means. NDI equips parties with the tools to develop more effective campaign strategies, improve outreach to voters and to strengthen their pollwatching efforts. This assistance helps to ensure that elections are not only competitive, but also produce outcomes that can be accepted by all sides.
Political Parties and Democracy in Theoretical and Practical Perspectives Series
NDI’s Political Parties and Democracy in Theoretical and Practical Perspectives Series examines topics central to the role and function of political parties.
“Selecting Candidates for Legislative Office”, by Sefakor Ashiagbor, outlines various issues that political parties may want to consider in devising selection rules. It also includes case studies of candidate selection processes in 10 political parties spanning the globe and political spectrum.
"Political Finance Policy, Parties and Democratic Development”, by Dr. Michael Johnston, offers an analysis of political finance policy, with a primary focus on societies where democracy is either relatively new or emerging from crisis.
“Adopting Party Law”, by Dr. Kenneth Janda, outlines a number of questions to consider in devising party law. Dr. Janda also created a database of party laws.
“Implementing Intra-Party Democracy”, by Dr. Susan Scarrow, discusses the advantages and risks of intra-party democracy, examining some of the questions parties may face in implementing more inclusive decision-making procedures.
“Developments in Party Communications”, by Dr. Pippa Norris, focuses on the communication channels parties can use to strengthen their linkages with citizens, and relates these developments to the communication policies governments can adopt to improve free and fair party competition.
“Parliamentary Groups”, by Sef Ashiagbor and Norm Kelly, explores the workings of parliamentary groups. It looks specifically at their rules and procedures, relationships with political parties and organization within legislatures.
Browse the full library of publications from the Political Parties and Democracy in Theoretical and Practical Perspectives series here.
The series was made possible through support provided by the Office of Democracy and Governance, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, U.S. Agency for International Development.
For more information about these programs, use our contact form or dial our main telephone number: 1-202-728-5500.