Political parties seem to be either dysfunctional or on the decline almost everywhere. In developing countries dominated by strongmen, so-called opposition parties do not always oppose and are often little more than personal vehicles for their own leaders. Even in 32 of 36 developed countries party membership has declined since 1990.
Political parties used to be described as “loyal opposition,” combining support for a democratic political system with opposition to a particular regime. Once described as “the most advanced and institutionalized form of political conflict,” loyal opposition seems to have declined almost everywhere, along with parties. Even where political parties persist, as in the United States, the very idea of loyal opposition seems to be missing.
The good news is that in many developing countries, some NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that focus on democratization promote new and different forms of loyal opposition. Most of the 103 leaders of democratization NGOs I interviewed in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina describe themselves and other members of civil society as loyal opposition. Because NGOs don’t have to win elections, they are free to behave like political reformers. In Argentina, for example, democratization NGOs have been able to focus on reforms such as opening Supreme Court hearings to the public, because they are able to remain aloof from the partisan divides that continue to limit political accomplishments.
Businesses, the media and other types of organizations such as churches or community-based organizations are also part of civil society and sometimes oppose the government on particular issues, as do NGOs that promote economic development. However, democratization NGOs most often act as coalition builders or catalysts of loyal opposition within the larger civic arena that they inhabit.
In Tajikistan, the League of Women Lawyers provided a draft law and space for public discussions about human trafficking to Dubai. The League organized a wide coalition of NGOs that successfully promoted an anti-trafficking law.
Another NGO, the Judicial Consortium, initiated nine strategic court hearings relating to disputes between the media, entrepreneurs, and government agencies. One case concerned a television station whose license had been revoked for providing airtime to the opposition in the 2005 elections. The Judicial Consortium won the case and the Supreme Economic Court of Dushanbe declared the revocation invalid.
Given the authoritarian nature of the Tajik regime, such achievements are remarkable.
In Argentina Fundacion Compromiso (FC) brings hundreds of representatives of nonprofits and businesses together for training and discussions on topics such as corporate responsibility and political advocacy. Beginning in 2009, participants set up regional cooperative networks over You Tube, and in 2014 FC sponsored a seminar for over 500 volunteers from 20 for-profit enterprises with other NGOs on forty-one projects in ten provinces. (www.compromiso.org).
South African democratization NGOs were leaders in a broad civil society coalition called the Treatment Action Campaign, which successfully sued the government over its failure to prevent mother-child transmission of HIV through antiretroviral drugs. As of 2014, mother-child transmission had declined by 90%, life expectancy was up 10 years, and new infections have declined by one-third. The South African legal system is strong and independent of the executive, and while this decision struck a huge blow for children’s rights, it also reinforced conformity to the constitution, the right of judicial review and government accountability.
It is often easier to promote fundamental political reforms at the local level. In Rosario, Argentina an NGO called Ejercicio Ciudadano (citizen practice) sponsored a group of 40 volunteers who monitored the Municipal Council for a year. With the support of national democratization NGOs and universities, they were able to negotiate a transparency agreement with the municipality to prevent corruption. In South Africa the Open Democracy Advice Center uses alliances with community-based organizations (CBOs) to find out why local governments have not delivered community services. In the process they have strengthened South Africa’s Freedom of Information Law.
Unfortunately, only a few democratization NGOs work on strengthening political parties, often because they fear being labeled as partisan. One exception is the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA), which avoids the appearance of partisanship by training staff from all of the political parties as poll watchers. Between elections EISA also provides technical support to parties through The Journal of African Elections. As of 2010, EISA was implementing a project on political party benchmarks and internal party elections in South Africa, Botswana, and Lesotho, with support from the Embassy of Finland. One of the leaders of EISA, commented in an interview that South African political parties have authoritarian internal structures, an observation that would not surprise generations of political party scholars everywhere.
Democratization NGOs have proven themselves to be adept at networking with the larger civil society- including other NGOs, CBOs, the business sector, and the media– and helping them to strengthen management capacity and advocacy. In Argentina and South Africa, national democratization NGOs have provided support for the their local counterparts, who then develop networks with each other. There is no inherent reason why democratization NGOs could not do the same with political parties. Although networking is costly in time and money, democratization networks can be activated when needed, particularly on the Internet. The big remaining question is whether political parties would respond, or whether they would choose to continue as small vehicles to advance the fortunes of individual politicians.