Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently announced the registration of 23 new political parties, bringing the total number of political parties to 91. I’d however dare to say, like the Economist tabloid, that more choice is a good thing, but within limits. In my view, too many parties can spoil politics, even though a few others may argue in the reverse.
Some may argue that countries like India, as at 2014, had 1,866 political parties. I would however add that the number of registered political parties is not directly proportional to fiscal and infrastructural development in any country. Infact, an increased number of political parties may result in increased political fiasco, in my view.
This does not negate the importance of political parties in any democratic setting. Kenneth Wollack, President of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & China Reform Forum held in Beijing, in December 2002 remarked that, “…With that acknowledgement of the well-documented problems with political parties, it is also true that parties are needed and cannot be replaced by civil society or by any other organized structure created to give representation to citizens.
Why? Because political parties have formed the cornerstone of democratic society and serves functions like no other institution. In a modern society, democracy cannot function without political parties. Organized political parties serve two fundamental purposes. First, they define and express a group’s needs in a way that the public and political system can understand and respond to. The late Speaker of the U.S. Congress, Tip O’Neill once stated, “All politics are local,” meaning that all issues of importance to the average citizen are felt on a local level. But only political parties play the crucial role of helping people place their local concerns in a national context. Parties mediate. They create common ground. By definition, their vision goes beyond the town limits. Political parties aggregate interests, especially in diverse and pluralizing societies. They create grounds for compromise. They create order out of chaos. And thus they help societies unite and remain united.
Civic organizations do indeed deal with political and governmental institutions. They represent and they mediate. Yet they are local and parochial, and since they are presented as the voice of the people, in the absence of permanent political institutions, they can invite direct entreaties to the populace at large.
This is especially true where governments are weak or underdeveloped or corrupt. Without parties and political institutions that transcend both time and place, the door is opened to someone who will ignore the institutions of government, especially any system of checks and balances and the respect for the rule of law. Needless to say, political parties are not perfect, but no other national institution can serve as well to impede government by fiat, government by mob, government by strongman.
Second, political parties develop common ideas among a significant group in order to exert pressure upon the political system. A principled difference of opinion — and the tolerance of diversity and dissent that this implies — is an important part of the democratic process. The expression of conflicting viewpoints can actually help to create a better understanding of the issues and to identify solutions. When the political system functions, these exchanges can lead to the attainment of new insights or workable compromises essential to the existence of a democratic system. In short, they produce tangible results.
In addition to these fundamental purposes, political parties operate day-to-day to nominate candidates, organize political competition, translate policy preferences into public policies, act as a training ground for political leaders who will eventually assume a role in governing society, and seek to win elections in order to manage government institutions. When out of power, they provide a constructive and critical opposition by presenting themselves as the alternative government voters may wish to choose — thus pressuring the incumbents to be more responsive to the public’s interests.
In over two centuries there has been no democratic system without political parties. Parties have provided orientation for individuals and groups of citizens. Citizens may be divided over ideologies, interests, leaders or policies; parties can organize these differences. Parties link the institutions of government to the elements of civil society such as economic, ethnic, cultural, religious and other social groups. The types of linkages may vary greatly but they represent lines of response and control between a party and its constituency.
In Nigeria today, political parties have been reduced to special purpose vehicles to advance the interest of certain elitist groups.
Kenneth adds, “Many political parties, both in established democracies and in nascent multi-party systems, are in a state of near crisis. Globally, citizens have grown increasingly frustrated with their political parties and leaders. Polls, focus groups and voting behavior indicate that society largely views political parties as ineffective, corrupt, and out of touch with their needs. Established political parties have experienced a dwindling membership that is aging. Young people are hesitating to join or become associated with political parties. At the same time, support has risen for independent candidates, special interest parties, and anti-party movements.
In emerging democracies worldwide, political parties are either too weak, too personalistic, too constrained by oppressive governments, or too corrupt and out of touch to earn the respect and support of the public.
Whilst I do not negate the wisdom of the creators of the constitution, I think it is pertinent to review the clauses that determine the metrics for political party assemblage. 91 political parties in the Nigerian social space space may just be doing the country very little good. In the end, all that matters is that Nigeria doesn’t have to live for another 91 years in search of development.