By Helmut Kangulohi Angula
THE Swapo Party has been and will continue to be a crucial actor in the process of building Namibia’s democracy. As the national liberation movement that brought freedom and democracy to the erstwhile disenfranchised nation, the party has a historical responsibility to articulate policies that entrench strong governance frameworks, nurture enlightened national leadership, develop and promote realistic and practicable policy alternatives, and present voters with coherent electoral alternatives.
However, for the party to succeed in this mission, it needs to be both effective and efficient in its operations. One way to ensure such effectiveness and efficiency is to put in place mechanisms for internal democratic processes. A culture of internal democracy within the party will not only strengthen and rejuvenate it, it will enable the party to translate and project such practices onto the national scene. This essay unpacks the concept of inner-party democracy, its importance, and considers how Swapo Party has understood and applied the concept. It concludes with some recommendations for future action.
What is internal party democracy?
Establishing a common definition of the subject matter under consideration helps to foster better understanding. And given the breadth of the concept, it is important to frame our understanding and establish parameters. Internal party democracy (IPD) has a number of iterations. It has been referred to as intra-party democracy or inner-party democracy. Some have referred to it as inner-party life. However, it remains a contested concept (Linz 2002). Schools of thought differ on whether IPD refers to the participation and voice of a party’s rank-and-file in party processes or to the responsiveness of parties to voters in the national electorate. Duverger posits that political parties are internally democratic, when members and leaders adequately represent the party voters (1954). For Michels, IPD means that parties give substantial decision-making authority to their members, allowing them to control, through organisational mechanisms, the party leaders and members of parliament. A concern has, however, been raised that party leaders (as opposed to mere party members) tend to dominate parties, due to their knowledge of, control over, and proximity to the levers of party power (Michels 1966 ).
Another conceptualisation frames IPD as a characteristic of the distribution of decision-making power among members and leaders within a political party, within the contexts of inclusiveness and decentralisation (Scarrow 2005). According to this line of reasoning, inclusiveness refers to the width or narrowness of the circle of decision-makers in a party. It refers to the extent of a party’s openness to inputs from both within and outside the body of its members. On the other hand, centralisation refers to the extent to which decisions are made by a single group or decision-making body within a party. It defines the extent to which party members at different levels and functional settings/ structures are included in party decision-making. Where political parties are decentralised, the national party organisation focuses on coordination and communication. In centralised parties, the national party structure has the decision-making authority. Many political parties, especially in Africa, are organised in terms of strata or levels. There are sections, branches, districts, regional/provincial, and national structures or bodies. In addition to these, there are wings for the youth, the elderly, women and even pioneers. There are also arrangements for affiliate organisations, mainly labour/trade unions. As can be discerned, such “stratification” political parties have several centres of decision-making, which are interdependent. The extent to which those strata and organisational arrangements contribute to or hinder internal party democracy is an important consideration.
Importance of building and deepening internal or inner-party democracy
It is trite that the importance of promoting and practicing democracy, whether at national or institutional levels cannot be over-emphasised. Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has said that democracy consists of strengthening each citizen’s possibility and capacity to participate in the deliberations involved in the life of a society. It has also been said that in its truest sense, a democracy (a democratic society) is a community in which all members have an equal say in the running of that community. The precepts of democracy should rule supreme. Surely, this can be extended to institutions and organisations, including political parties. The fact of the matter is that because of its very nature, once a democracy is established in a country or in an institution, its citizens or members, will more likely than not, work together to make their society or organisation more and more democratic. But, they must make a conscious choice to do so.
Internal democracy in political parties, also known as inner-party democracy, refers to the level and methods of involvement of party members at all levels of party structures, in deliberations and decision-making processes, including the formulation of policy proposals.
Inner-party democracy fulfils important functions, including the nurturing of party members’ political skills and competencies, which in turn produces more capable party functionaries (who may be deployed at different levels of the party), and thereby ensure that the party initiates and puts forward informed policy proposals and political programmes. In the case of the Swapo Party, inner-party democracy is anchored in the party’s constitution, which provides for procedures and processes that guide and regulate inner party life and interactions amongst members, inter partes. This is augmented by the party code of conduct, the political programme and related policy documents. While the view that “parties should practice what they preach”, is commonly shared, there are sceptics who argue that too much democratisation may breed anarchy and hinder parties from pursuing their mission statements and implementing electoral promises. It is also argued that the democratic saturation of an organisation will dilute the power of a party’s inner leadership (Scarrow 2005).
According to Norris (2004), one of the key issues in intra-party democracy is the party’s nomination processes for functionaries to become eligible for positions within the party. Whether such nomination processes are deemed democratic or not, depends on the degree of centralisation, that is to say, how much power is given to regional, district or local party structures in the process of selection. The scale of participation in the nomination is also considered. The more people are involved in the selection, the more democratic the procedure is. Finally, the scope of decision-making, in other words, the candidate’s eligibility to qualify for the post vied for during the nomination, is important.
In order to enhance political party internal democratic processes, a number of countries have imposed statutory quotas, through legislation. The quotas require a certain percentage of nominated candidates and/or elected representatives in each party to come from a certain gender, ethnic minority or other groups. The most common quotas are legal gender quotas, which define the minimum percentage of women candidates or representatives a party needs to put forth for leadership and/or candidature. Despite such measures, more often than not, it is the party’s own guidelines and rules that set the tone for how important internal democracy should be.
*Helmut Angula is the country’s second finance minister, a founding member of the National Assembly and the current Swapo Secretary for information and Mobilisation. This piece will continue in next week’s edition
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015