Local Party Institutionalization

The first task of the project is to present a conceptual framework that can be the basis of the research design. Therefore, the following chapter defines the concept of local party, institutionalization and local party institutionalization. It also explains why local parties matter for both local democracy and national parties, and why parties are formed and maintained.

The Importance of Local Party Institutionalization

Well-established political systems function differently from weakly institutionalized ones. The level of institutionalization of political actors and processes shapes the perception of political reality, calculation, and behavior, influences the durability of governments and their policy performance, and defines the common interests. In Huntington’s (1968: 24) words:

Political institutions have moral as well as structural dimensions. A society with weak political institutions lacks the ability to curb the excesses of the personal and parochial desires. Politics is a Hobbesian world of unrelenting competition among social forces - between man and man, family and family, clan and clan, region and region, class and class - a competition unmediated by more comprehensive political organizations. The “amoral familism” of Banfield’s backward society has its counterparts in amoral clanism, amoral groupism, amoral classism. Morality requires trust; trust involves predictability; and predictability requires regularized and institutionalized patterns of behavior. Without strong political institutions, society lacks the means to define and to realize its common interests. The capacity to create political institutions is the capacity to create public interests.

Local communities in Europe in general, and in Hungary in particular, are obviously provided with governing institutions. The institutions of local governments and elections supply a framework with the potential to “curb the excesses of the personal and parochial desires,” and define and realize the common interests. The extent to which this potential is realized, however, depends on the existence and nature of the institutions that mediate between the local society and local government. The way in which societal demands are channeled makes a difference between opaque, unstable political systems with uncontrolled notables, on the one hand, and transparent, predictable political systems in which leaders’ excesses are curbed, on the other hand. In the following pages, I make an attempt to show why the specific type of institutionalization based on party organizations is, from a democratic point of view, superior to the available alternatives of mediating institutions on the local level.

This book focuses on the institutionalization of a particular form, the political party. Party institutionalization is not the only form of political institutionalization. To take a broad view, parties are new-born babies in human history. The party as an institution is less than 200 years old and gained a prominent role only in the late 19th century. Lots of well-institutionalized political systems emerged and passed away before the age of party politics. To take a more contemporary view, no political system is totally party-based. Parties always have institutional alternatives. Established parties are not the only form of political institutionalization. The politics of local governments are particularly based on clans and personal (non-organized) patronage quite often. Alternative institutionalized forms exist even in the most party-dominated polities. Accordingly, the degree to which local political parties and the local party system are institutionalized is not necessarily a good indicator of the overall level of institutionalization of a local polity. In my view, the following institutionalized models are the usual rivals of parties in contemporary democracies:

  • • Personal connections, built on kinship and friendship, are still important. Horizontal and vertical links may form a strong informal institutional system even in seemingly monolithic, authoritarian polities (see e.g. Peng 2004). In local politics, personal networks and patronage links often play an important role due to the small scale of the political unit.
  • • Institutionalized direct democracy is also a rival to parties (see Katz 1987: 20). In principle, as communities are small enough, local governments especially offer good opportunities to directly involve citizens. In spite of many challenges, Switzerland is still a prime example of institutionalized direct democracy (Butzer 2004; Ladner 2002).
  • • While individual movements are per definitionem not institutionalized, the political use (and abuse) of social and political movements and single-issue organizations can be a well-established, legitimate, i.e. institutionalized, component of political systems. Movements indeed have an institutionalized position in Southern Europe.
  • • The activities of organized pressure groups are also of a non-party character, even if parties are often the targets of lobbying. The system of lobby groups can also be an alternative to party rule (see Katz 1978: 19), as the example of the US politics, both on the national and state level, demonstrate.
  • • Governance has been one of the key words of political and administrative sciences for the last ten years or so (see e.g. John 2001; Marcusen and Torf- ing 2003; Sorensen 2003; Sorensen and Torfing 2004; Klijn 2004). In a wide sense, it includes neo-corporatism (also listed by Katz 1987:18 as an alternative to party rule). In a more strict sense, governance in the recent literature refers to an integrative institution whose member organizations reach (at least rough) consensus on policy issues through deliberation. This institution bypasses parties and makes policy directly. This is not only prescriptive theory: governance on the local level is actually emerging, though some argue that its scope is more limited than it is generally supposed (Damgaard 2004).

This previous list of alternative political institutionalization does not mean to be comprehensive. My aim is to show that (local) party institutionalization happens in a competitive institutional environment and not in an institutional vacuum or tabula rasa.

Not all of these alternatives are feasible in the case analyzed in this research. In Section 7.4, I will show the weakness of direct democracy on the local level. Although the legal rules would allow the establishment of a system in which the means of direct democracy are regularly used, both the weaknesses of civil society and the relative strength of representative institutions make the institutionalization of a direct democracy-centered local political systems unlikely.

Local single-issue movements do occur in Hungary. Still, their frequency is low and, what is even more important from the perspective of this research, they do not occur in a concentrated manner.

Pressure group politics are also unlikely in Hungary. The local government system does not allow interest groups much access to policy-making. Instead, the system encourages attempts to influence local representatives, which makes interest groups partners rather than rivals of the parties. The overall strength, or rather weakness, of the local civil society does not make institutionalized pluralism likely.

Institutionalized governance, most probably in the form of policy communities, may exist in Hungary. Still, its rare occurrence may be proved by the total lack of scientific literature and news reports on local governance institutions. Given the under-institutionalized nature of the local interest groups and their apparent organizational weakness, the lack of governance is quite understandable.

Apart from the general under-institutionalization of Hungary, the main rival of party-centered local politics are personal networks. The well-established power of extended families, friendly networks, and clientelistic hierarchies have characterized communities since the earliest times of history. Solving collective problems by means of family, clan or clientelistic ties is more ancient than any kind of organizational politics. Thus, I compare the main characteristics of institutionalized local party systems to those of uninstitutionalized and family-based systems in the following section.

In my view, institutionalized party politics contribute more to local democracy than either atomistic, unorganized politics or institutionalized personal networks. A comparison follows along the dimensions of local democracy.

The most important contribution of parties to local democracy is the popular control of local politicians in various ways. One major form is transparency in two senses. Party organizations structure politics by providing informational cues. Their names act as trademarks that orient citizens, who may not follow politics day by day, but can remember party labels. Obviously, more institutionalized parties fulfill this function better. Without those labels, voters face lots of candidates and incumbents from whom they choose by chance. Even if some notables are more or less known by many, the rest of the candidates, the potential alternatives to notables, remain a list of indistinguishable names. Citizens have weaker informational cues without parties.

In another sense, transparency prevails in council politics too. In order to win votes (and donations that allow them to court voters), parties formulate policy programs and make them understandable for voters in the form of slogans and other informational cues. That reduces complexity and extends transparency in the same way as party labels do (see the first point). Parties prioritize different, often conflicting policies and construct more or less coherent packages. Policy packages can be implemented as (local) government programs. Thus interest aggregation contributes to governmentability as well. Individuals, ad hoc organizations and family-based groups have much less capacity to do this job for lack of established procedures and expertise. Moreover, an effective majority in local councils can be reached much more easily if the number of players is limited and players are predefined. Parties make the coalition formation more effective and this kind of transparency also enhances the governability of the political system.

Predictability is another issue. Institutions are by definition stable. Thus, the continuous functioning of parties tends to secure predictability. The rules of personal networks also make the behavior of members predictable for the members. However, those networks are opaque institutions for outsiders, who see only personalized, non-predictable behavior. Private predictability has much less value than public predictability.

The transparency of party organizations also makes party rule more accountable. Party ‘trademarks’ enhance the accountability of the political system. The responsibility for implemented policies cannot effectively be linked to concrete actors if the number of independent, uncoordinated representatives is large. Bergman and Strom (2004) point out that in a principal-agent framework the decline in political party cohesion leads to a decline in citizens’ capability to exercise accountability through the chain of political delegation. Again, ever changing, unstable party organizations or personal networks are less able to carry out this function.

Institutionalized parties directly “curb the excesses of the personal and parochial desires” of individual politicians by imposing discipline on them. The rules of party organizations structure the behavior of members and leaders. If the normative and cognitive constraints would not be enough, institutionalized parties are effectively able to sanction the deviation from those rules. It is quite likely that those who claim parties are undesirable in their respective communities, or in general in local governments, are the local winners of the political transition, whose power, built on their personal networks, kinship connections and economic and social resources, is threatened by the control of institutionalized organizations.[1]

In addition to control-related arguments, there are other considerations that justify the importance of parties. Parties select and train politicians. By their selection, they accredit and audit candidates by giving proof of their capabilities. Career paths within parties play an important role in the recruitment of councilors and local leaders as well. More institutionalized parties with better- defined roles, selection and training techniques are more appropriate to meet this requirement than new, weakly patterned parties. While the established kin networks also select and train the new generation of leaders, their ‘recruitment’ is limited to the family circle. Community leadership cannot be inherited so easily nowadays, while parties have a wider selection and more legitimate methods.

In terms of inclusion, parties are clearly superior to family-based institutions. If a citizen accepts the goals and ideology of a party, he or she may join it. Should parties be closed, a group of citizens can form a new party organization. Nothing similar is possible in extended families or networks based on strong ties.

A frequent argument against the existence of local parties is that they bring conflicts into the life of communities. Parties are said to generate conflict even if a consensus can be achieved. I believe this is true: the competitive environment forces parties to continuously look for ways in which they can emphasize their differences and gain an advantage over other parties. Without parties, there are much less open conflicts. Behind this idyllic facade, the actual relationships are often laden with hidden conflicts among individuals, families, and groups. Since the basis of cooperation is informal and personal connections, the disagreements rarely become overt. When the tension reaches a high level, the conflicts become highly dangerous and break up the community for a long time (see Dahl and Tufte 1973: 91-94). True, parties generate overt conflicts; however, they are able to channel them. If there are no institutionalized relationships or only personal networks that coordinate collective action, conflicts tend to be more personal and bitter. Such polarizing hostilities are less likely to be resolved through compromise in the absence of formal institutions of conflict management.

Parties contribute to the mobilization of citizens. Parties want voters, so they make much effort to offer incentives of political participation. As a by-product, the general level of participation, an important prerequisite of democracy, is increased. However, the competing families and the clienteles of local moguls seem to be even more effective in mobilizing local voters. Parties (and media) are successful mobilizers only in large cities (see Swianiewicz 2002b: 310-312).

By training their politicians and mobilizing citizens, parties that are willing to participate in the electoral competition are likely to inculcate certain values, including democratic ones. This socialization process covers not only politicians, but also citizens. Political education is a by-product of party activities. Since socialization requires organizations that are infused with values and externally legitimate, more institutionalized parties perform better in this respect too. In contrast, such political education does not take place in anomic local societies. Familism inculcates the value of loyalty to intimate and familiar groups, and distrust toward any other political forms. Parties tend to teach more democratic values than personal networks.

Through democratic socialization and mobilization, parties legitimize democracy at both the national and local levels. Legitimate, taken-for-granted parties contribute more to the legitimation process than ad hoc political organizations or notables.

Parties also articulate the interests of certain groups. This kind of problem identification can be especially important on the local level where the organizational density is lower and not all groups are able to form interest organizations. Even if parties take up the representation of certain groups, they do it in a less narrow sense than interest organizations. In all probability, older, more established and socially embedded parties are in a better position to identify needs than flash parties or individual politicians.

Political parties contribute to the integration of communities (Lipset and Rokkan 1967). Again, this is not one of their explicit goals, rather a functional by-product of their activities. Local communities are strengthened by local party organizations. This function is especially important where the local political units have been formed in a non-organic way (usually as a consequence of territorial reform). Naturally, older, more stable and embedded party organizations can contribute more than young organizations or independent politicians.

A specific function of local party organizations is the representation of local interests on the supra-local level. They can do that through their parties’ senior- levels to which they have better access than any powerful, but nonpartisan, local politician or association. Parties with a well-institutionalized hierarchical structure show a better performance in the representation of local interests than weakly institutionalized ones or personal networks, which have, at best, only a limited number of vulnerable links with the world outside their community. This function may become especially prominent in local governments, e.g. suburbs, which are integrated in a web of municipalities and, consequently, largely depend on the outside world.

One should not have illusions about parties. They are more likely to curb the excesses of local notables and integrate the parochial interests into a wider perspective. Nonetheless, institutionalized party systems may also have a dark side. Here is a list of dangers:

  • • Voters can choose among closed packages only. Aggregated programs of parties are inflexible. Voters may like only one or two elements of them, but they cannot signal that to parties.
  • • Local politics may be excessively nationalized. Ladner (1999: 219) illustrates this dilemma with the example of Switzerland. If a local politician becomes a member of the cantonal parliament, the local chapter gains prestige and opportunities. Nonetheless, party consensus is often disturbed and the party organization may lose votes because of a conflict between cantonal commitments and local interests.
  • • The leadership of well-established parties may become closed, as in Michels’ (1968) iron law of oligarchy. In such a situation, municipality politics are controlled by a handful of powerful party leaders acting behind closed doors. A high level of party institutionalization increases the likelihood of such an oligarchic outcome.
  • • Party failure may result in the de-legitimation of local democracy. If parties are dominant, local democracy is associated with party activity. The breakdown of party representation disillusions citizens of democracy.

Nevertheless, none of these potential drawbacks can be avoided by ceding the local communities to the personal rule of powerful notables. Closed packages are better than the lack of transparent programs. In all probability, the endogenous mechanism of party competition rules out the rivals that are not committed enough to local problems. The rule of personal networks and their bosses more likely results in oligarchies than party government and the break-up of organizational oligarchies is more probable than a subversion of the rule of notables. The difficulties stemming from under-institutionalization or the dominance of big families may lead to democratic disillusionment in the same way as party rule. The potential advantages of local party institutionalization outweigh its potential dangers.

  • [1] For a similar argument about the lack of party institutionalization in Russian regionssee Stoner-Weiss (2001).
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