Democratisation of Political Parties

Editorial

By M.K.

Politics is important. It is the key instrument that has led the country to its current state. It is the main tool we have to give overall orientation to the polity and to the affairs of the country, and to help us reach goals that have been fixed. The country’s priorities need to be redefined from time to time in the fundamental transformative objectives we set for ourselves. Political parties are in charge of the implementation of the agenda for such transformation.

The political leaders of the generation of the 1950s and 1960s worked in real earnest to set out and achieve the goals they had laid down for changing society into something better than what they had seen before. Those who have known the Labour Party of those days know that there were serious debates and extensive discussions within the ranks of the party each time before final choices were made. Not many of the party stalwarts of those days contented themselves with echoing back the views of the leader.

The reason for those frank and thorough discussions was twofold. First, the men and women of that generation had been moulded in the social realities and they understood the stakes for all they were worth. Being in touch with ground realities, they had little time or tolerance for sophistry or purely academic averments. Second, most of them had their own convictions and ideas about how to get to the final objectives. They were men and women of some culture and depth of understanding of issues at the level of each individual. They transcended the fact that they depended ultimately on the good intentions of the leader for their future. The public also knew what specific ideas distinct leaders stood for and how competent they were. Those individuals were respected for their intellectual contributions. The party leadership drew generously from their collegiate contributions in formulating the overall pursuits of the party.

However, one no longer has the impression of politics being done in Mauritius in this kind of open forum any more. There is a general perception of successive batches of politicians having let down the population while delivering on their own personal agenda. This bias has lately been highly detrimental to the long-term national interest. Now, it is for voters to make a proper evaluation of prospective politicians and assessing whether they are capable of delivering or not. If people do not act seriously at the next polls from that standpoint, we will become unfortunately, once again, bound in the politicians’ self-aggrandizement schemes to the detriment of the nation’s priority pursuits.

Like Labour, the MMM was launched on the basis of ideas about social and political choices that would make for an enlightened social advancement. However it did not take very long for the ideals of the founders of the party to fritter away into what came to be known as social “realities” in an all-out bid to seize power by the dominant faction of the party. Many felt betrayed and abandoned the party. Many of those who did not toe the line were left on the wayside along the historical path followed by the party. With time, the MMM took the shape rather of an electoral machine with little by way of a profound alternative program, most of its action being limited to rebutting the proposals of different governments or spotting scandals as a way of keeping its given vote-bank from dissipating away.

We are told from time to time that there is effective debating of positions to be adopted by the party on important issues. If the repeated somersaults of the party down the years, especially of its leadership, concerning whether to go ahead or not with such and such alliance or its resistance to calls for reform of the party functioning are any guide – then the party’s claim that its decision-making would be very democratic is unconvincing.

The same may be said about the MSM. There is little of dissent we hear of among its membership; on the contrary, such is the low level of conviction among certain of its members that they have quite often appeared to be readying themselves to jump on to the bandwagon of what they perceive to be the likely winning horse. It does not have a model of development of its own to propose, being content to endorse mainstream policies which are advocated by one and all.

In democracies like the United States and the UK, political parties discuss hotly and openly the line of action that will be followed by the respective parties concerning major policies. The leadership is thereby kept on its toes to come out with serious proposals for appropriate policy orientation; one example is the recent debate engaged in the UK within the ranks of the Conservative Party about Brexit and the skills shown by the leadership to pacify the party’s Europhiles and Eurosceptics and to hold the party together.

This kind of democratic play within parties happens when men and women of diverse convictions are present within the party. This results in the best ideas about how to run the party and, for that matter, the affairs of the country, coming up at the top. Just as it was the case for Tony Blair in the New Labour, there is no guarantee that Theresa May will keep leading the Conservatives unless she shows similar mettle at formulating the best course of action for the UK in view of the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Without limiting the tenure of party leaders, the parties have a proven track record of renewing the leadership frequently enough.

We cannot say as much of our political parties. We do not know how ideas are formed and how they are finally hammered into shape. It looks like the membership of existing individual political parties leaves it to the leader to come up with proposals on what to do. One would have expected in a truly democratising structure of parties that individual members would come up with their own views even if the ultimate decision was not fully aligned to the views of some of the members who think for themselves. It is obviously necessary for a party to speak with one voice through its leader when it comes to convincing voters to support its action. But that voice needs to be the consolidated voice of all who think independently within the party in a manner of crystallizing their views in this common position taken by the party on distinct issues.

The times dictate that parties which want to survive should abide by a higher internal democratisation process. Fostering internal debate, adopting clear rules of governance and operating as transparently as possible – that is the level of internal democratisation which is absolutely necessary to cope with an external environment which is becoming increasingly complex by the day. There should be not one but several levels of fallback for a political party to carry conviction with the public.

One wonders whether the time has not come for political parties to source independent professionals as facilitators to conduct workshops geared towards the churning of ideas on matters of national importance, and coming up with a shared vision, objectives and strategies to achieve these. This may not be a perfect solution but it can at least be a beginning. Either way, some modality or formula must be found to trigger participatory discussions in a formal way with as outcome a solid document that can serve as a reference for at least the medium term, irrespective of who is the leader. Unless there is an attitudinal change to accept such a process, then all talk of ‘mo pou change ou la vie’ will be empty of any meaning from the word go. Does any party prefer that?


* Published in print edition on 15 February 2019

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