How can political parties adapt to new challenges and reconnect with citizens?

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Political parties are in crisis. Party membership and voter turnout are very much in decline around the world. The rise of social media has allowed citizen movements to become more frequent, leaving formal political institutions struggling to maintain relevance. Political parties are central actors in a representative democracy, but they must adjust to the changing social and political climate. 

The problems facing 21st century political parties in reconnecting with citizens formed the focus of a panel discussion at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s headquarters on 12 September, moderated by Sam van der Staak, who leads the Institute’s Wider Europe Programme. 

While the panelists came from around the world, and the issues facing political parties in their respective regions differed, they all referred to a common lack of formal institutional representation for the people and a weakening of democracy overall. Former Foreign Minister of Thailand and former Secretary General of ASEAN Surin Pitsuwan described a lack of respect for political parties and a lack of respect for representative democracy more generally, as citizens are trying to access policymakers directly. This is a result of the perceived inability of parties to respond effectively to issues that have emerged quickly. 

Njeri Kabeberi, Executive Director of Greenpeace Africa described problems with leaders either holding on to political parties or handling them carelessly, both of which have contributed to weak and unresponsive parties across Africa. 

Offering a perspective from the Middle East, Bassma Kadmani , a professor of International Relations at Paris University, civil society leader in the Arab World and representative of the Syrian opposition, discussed the lack of  functional political parties. Specifically she cited the inability for social movements such as those that made up the Arab Spring to translate to formal political participation. Jens Orback, Secretary General of the Olof Palme International Center, said a major issue facing political parties was the lack of trust, and that citizens no longer believe that they can influence the state through political parties. The issues raised by the panelists all relate to a larger problem of political parties being increasingly perceived as outdated in their current form. Secretary-General of International IDEA, Yves Leterme, summarised the problem by saying, “I think we are working in a surrounding originating from the 19th century, using 20th century programs and ideologies, to face 21st century problems.” The current system of political parties hasn’t significantly changed since it emerged in the 19th century. However, citizens have access to improved technology and education that allow them to influence decision making more directly, and consequently they have different expectations of political parties. As parties fail to meet these expectations, citizens seek other ways of being heard, whether that is a street protest or a social media campaign. Political parties, however, remain the best way for citizens to formally influence government. For representative democracy to remain a success, parties need to evolve to face these new demands. 

So how can parties change from 19th century institutions to 21st century entities? To engage citizens, political parties must be more responsive, which may require leadership to increasingly emerge from the local level, where citizens can more directly interact with policy makers. Additionally, parties must find a way to incorporate social movements into formal politics. This means that their connection with young people, and ability to utilise social media and other technology is important. Furthermore, as parties emerge from movements that respond to specific issues, coalition-building and alignment between parties will be increasingly important as the parties that emerge may lack a comprehensive ideology with which they can address all issues.  

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