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Political Parties and Developmental State

Time (GMT +01) 16:00 17:30


Prof. Vicky Randall, Professor of Government, University of Essex and 2005-6 Olof Palme Visiting Chair, University of Gothenburg, Sweden


Roger Hallhag, Head of Programme for Political Parties, International IDEA


Alina Rocha Menocal, ODI

In her presentation, Vicky Randall focused on two issues:

  • what parties are like; and

  • the potential and actual contribution of political parties to democratic governance.

Randall argued that it is difficult to make generalisations about political parties because they vary so much within and across regions based on issues like dynasties, ethnicity, etc. Nevertheless, it is still worthwhile to say something in general terms because political parties in the developing world have been a relatively neglected subject (in contrast to political parties in established Western democracies). Despite renewed interest in the context of growing democratisation, there is still very little systematic cross-national data gathering. In addition, there is a tendency to see parties in the developing world through a Western analytic lens.

In addition, there are common features of context that raise common issues:

  • poverty and inequality - implications for party resources, motives for involvement in parties/scrabble for state resources, clientelistic politics;

  • background of colonialism and authoritarian rule - both of which have led to interrupted patterns of party development;

  • globalisation - current context for party formation and operation is very different from the international context that established democracies confronted in their time in terms of party formation.

In particular, developing countries are experiencing external pressure to democratise rather than pressure resulting from an internal organic process. This has implications for the nature and effectiveness of parties and party competition (e.g. hastily constructed parties that are not deeply institutionalised, etc.) The international context of economic liberalisation also limits the potential for ideological differences between parties.

Randall then went on to discuss the different ways parties are formed:

  1. out of social movements, particularly national independence movements or religious movements (these kinds of parties tend to be the exception rather than the rule but are very important);

  2. regime-sponsored (way of legitimising or institutionalising current regimes);

  3. personalist (formed and used as vehicle for the political ambitions of a given individual);

  4. combination and/or splits of existing parties.

She also talked about the links between political parties and clientelism in terms of:

  1. patronage relationships within the party;

  2. party-citizen clientelistic exchanges; and

  3. 'reverse clientelism' - whereby party leaders exchange favours with individual wealthy sponsors for financial backing.

In general, clientelism creates incentives that subvert formal procedures.

Randall also argued that the tendency has been for parties in the developing world to be weakly institutionalised (because of party origins, interrupted development, prevalence of clientelism, and environment of scarcity, etc.). Thus, while there are exceptions to this, notably in Latin America, political parties in the developing world do not have deep social roots and often seem more of an imposition from above/from the outside.

In terms of the potential and actual contribution of political parties to governance and state development, Randall highlighted the following:

  • Historically there have been various parties that have had major effects on shaping state institutions, particularly those based on national liberation movements (the PRI in Mexico or the ANC in South Africa).

  • Political parties can in principle provide legitimacy to governing institutions, which is arguably important for giving governing institutions breathing room to introduce policies that may not have electoral support.

  • Elite recruitment and training

  • Contribution to policy-making - although in practice there is often little programmatic difference between parties, and the prevalence of clientelism means that party leaders may not be primarily concerned with policy-making.

  • As opposition parties, parties can help ensure accountability of government or bureaucracy.

An interesting inconsistency that Randall highlighted is that Western donors like to call for greater party discipline and programmatic approaches, but when some parties actually reflect these characteristics, The West often does not like the results (e.g. Islamic parties.

Randall concluded on a pessimistic note, suggesting that as currently configured, political parties in the developing world are not likely to enhance democratic governance processes in any significant way.

Roger Hallhag focused his remarks on international democracy assistance relating to political parties. His starting premise was that, even if parties are difficult creatures, they are there and a choice has to be made as to whether to engage with them or not - and there seems to be little advantage in not engaging.

He then described International IDEA's approach to democracy assistance and where political party support fits in. Hallhag emphasised that democracy building is a long-term, non-linear, highly political process, and that because of this technocratic approaches are inadequate - they can produce autocracy with appearances of good governance. He was critical of democracy assistance as it currently exists:

  1. there needs to be greater coordination and multilateral action in this area; and

  2. much more input and involvement from Southern stakeholders is required (as of now the inclusion in the decision-making process of the main beneficiaries of democracy assistance is rather weak);

  3. democracy assistance to parties is generally guided by political and institutional interests and limitations set by donors;

  4. most new actors operate with tiny budgets and often spread very thin;

  5. there is very little systematic learning and sharing of information about party aid and the learning that does take place mostly happens within a few larger institutes and foundations.

Hallhag concluded by stressing again that democracy and political party assistance is donor or supply driven rather than based on the needs of the beneficiary. On the other hand, he argued that despite the flaws highlighted above, much more party assistance is needed. The infrastructure of democracy is expensive. Parties need resources, but international assistance has been much more available for other institutions and organisations that are seen as less partisan or political. Very often NGOs, the media, election management bodies, and even parliaments are required to delink from parties to qualify for assistance, which has contributed to the depoliticisation of certain institutions that should contribute to democratic processes. But donors need to recognise the value of partisan politics.

The discussion raised a lot of interesting questions and points:

  • Whether donors should be looking more at an issues-based approach rather than an institutional one. Hallhag agreed with this point, emphasising that it is essential to understand the key concerns of citizens that motivate and drive political processes rather than looking at individual institutions. In addition, he suggested that instead of only looking at the organisational capacity of parties it may be more important to look at their capacity to shape alternative policies.

  • If one looks at acceptable/competent states in Southern Africa (as well as other regions in the developing world), they have always been predominantly hegemonic party states that came to power through liberation movements. This has provided consistency of policy over decades. Given the patrimonial structures that go with these states, Hanlon argued that there is profound recognition in these states that partisan politics is not useful and it is only when a party got into trouble that there was a demand for partisan politics. He further suggested that partisan politics exist in some countries entirely because donors fund them. In his view, democratisation is not about partisan politics but about other things such as accountability, civil society etc. In short, multi-party politics isn't developmental.

  • While hegemonic systems have performed well, the challenge of our time is how to support developmental states in a context of democratisation. While we may or may not like political parties, the fact is that they remain an integral component of a democracy, and it is very difficult to imagine a democracy that can function without parties. Randall agreed with this point (hard to envisage a functioning democracy without parties). Hallhag also pointed out that the question should not be whether dominant party systems are good or bad, but whether dominant parties stick to international norms.

  • Neither speaker spoke about decentralisation. In Uganda decentralisation was a key driver in the democratisation process as it got resources down to local levels. Randall responded by cautioning against making easy assumptions between the links between decentralisation and democratisation, as it is very possible to have a small group dominating decision-making at local level.

  • The importance of citizens when looking at political parties.

  • Examples of where political party assistance seems to have made a positive difference and what lessons can be drawn from such experiences. Hallhag answered by suggesting that there have been relative successes, but that these need to be understood in connection to other processes of change within societies. Some examples include the relative success in establishing systems and parties in Central and Eastern Europe (although European integration was an essential motor for that process). Hallhag also emphasised that assistance to political parties plays an important role in exposing political leaders to international standards and making them adhere to international norms. Other relative successes can be found in Africa (e.g. transition to multi-party politics in Mozambique) and Latin America (democratic transitions in Chile and El Salvador - though international assistance failed in Guatemala).


Focussing on the potential and actual contribution of political parties to democratic governance, this meeting was the thirteenth in the '(Re-)Building Developmentals States' series.