Democratisation of Political Parties: Key to Survival

By M.K

Politics is important. It is the key instrument that has given the country its current condition. It is the main tool we have to give overall orientation to the being and 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 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 transforming society into something better than what they had seen before. Those who have known Labour of those days know that there were serious heated 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 into 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 sophistries or purely academic statements. 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 does not have the same impression of politics being done in Mauritius in this kind of open forum any more.

Like Labour, the MMM was launched on the basis of ideas about social and political choices that would make for an enlightened social advancement. It did not take very long for the ideals of the founders of the party to melt 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 recent somersaults of the party concerning whether to go ahead or not with the ‘Remake’ is a guide – first getting the politburo to approve it, then keeping the decision on hold and finally reviving it again when the MMM’s agenda for ‘electoral reform’ in alliance with Labour failed – then the party’s claim that its decision-making would be very democratic is unconvincing.

The same may be said about the MSM. It is today a mere shadow of what it used to be when it was in power and taking decisions which transformed the being of the country. There is little of civilised 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 recently appeared to be readying themselves to jump on to the bandwagon of power. It has become a source of defectors that have gone to swell the ranks of government. Instead of generating a rich crop of ideas, the party has rather proved good at hosting a pool of clever opportunists. 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 skill shown by David Cameron to pacify his party’s Europhiles and Euro sceptics and thus manage to hold the party together. This kind of democratic play within parties happens when you have men and women of diverse convictions within the party. This causes the best ideas about how to run the party and, for that matter, the affairs of the country, to come up at the top. Just as it was the case for Tony Blair in the New Labour, there is no guarantee that David Cameron will keep leading the Conservatives unless he shows his mettle at formulating the global reconciled position of the party membership. 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.

We don’t have this impression. The consequence can well be the creation of a void in the sense of direction to be taken, ideologically or politically, that cannot be filled up in the absence of the leader. It is not evident that anyone of our political parties enjoys this kind of intellectual backing from within. Many of the present generation of young voters don’t recall the past glorious history of the parties. In fact, many young voters don’t care. In the circumstances, one would have thought that with the changing times we are witnessing, political parties would wish to reinvent themselves so as to adapt and deliver results for a better and more technically-driven future. 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. They need to foster internal debate, adopt clear rules of governance and go as transparent as possible. This level of internal democratisation 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 among the public that it will be able to hold itself together come what may.

* Published in print edition on 15 February 2013

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