Blog: Finding windows of opportunity for political reform

Susan Dodsworth, WFD’s research fellow, captures the discussion on political party support from an  event at Oxford.

In early July, at a workshop in Oxford, Nic Cheeseman and I hosted a small group of academics, policy makers and practitioners for a great discussion around our latest research paper that tackles the issue of political party support and democracy promotion more broadly.

Let’s be honest about objectives

Our research on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s (WFD) political party programmes triggered a lot of questions. One particularly hot topic was what are the goals of political party support? While Nic and I have approached party support through the lens of democracy promotion, this is by no means the only end to which political party support might be turned. For some, party support is a way of spreading ideology and building the capacity of like-minded parties. This could help to improve the quality of democracy, but that’s not the primary goal. For others, political party support is about good governance, a term that is not synonymous with – and may not require – democracy. In some cases, political party support is less about delivering immediate change, and more about building relationships with political leaders over the long term. In those cases, the hope is that these relationships will provide a foot in the door if windows of opportunity for political reform emerge, or a seat at the table in times of crisis.

Honesty about the objectives of political party support is critical because it shapes our answer to another question: what constitutes success? For political parties, success tends to be defined in terms of electoral gains. Yet the rise of a single political party may have little impact on the quality of democracy in a country. If the goal is to build the capacity of opposition parties so that the electorate is presented with viable, programmatic alternatives to the ruling party, are we successful even if voters do not choose those parties? If the objective of a programme is to build relationships with political leaders, then different time horizons come into play. Success (or failure) will be evident only in the long term and will be contingent on a wide variety of factors beyond our control. Misrepresenting our objectives is dangerous because it makes it harder to demonstrate success. This, in turn, fuels scepticism about the effectiveness of democracy promotion, making it difficult to justify to the people who ultimately fund it: taxpayers.

Setting out a new research agenda

We challenged our audience to set out a new research agenda for democracy promotion. We asked them to tell us what they wished they knew, and how we might find out. Pretty much everyone was keen to know how we can detect and measure the impact of political party support, and other democracy promotion programmes. There are plenty of challenges here: questions about the comparability of different programmes, about what to do when ‘big data’ (the latest buzz word in both political science and international development) is unavailable, and the difficulty of conducting rigorous qualitative research in a field where (somewhat perversely) transparency is often lacking. Many of these problems stem from, or are exacerbated by, the relatively small number of programmes that provide political party support. This limits the pool of cases on which research can be based.

Some of our participants also asked whether previous research has had an impact on practice, and, more importantly, on results. In the last few years a number of researchers have suggested ways in which political party support and other forms of democracy promotion could be improved. However it’s not clear to what extent these recommendations have been implemented, or, where they have not been, why. As democracy promoters, including the WFD, respond to past research by adopting more innovative approaches (such as those that integrate political party support and parliamentary strengthening), researchers need to respond by helping them to evaluate the dividends delivered by these new tools.

Perhaps the most challenging question posed was whether democracy promotion can work in authoritarian settings. The first wave of democracy promotion took place in countries that had experienced reasonably clear-cut transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. In that context, the challenge was (to steal a line from Thomas Carothers) that of speeding up an already moving train. Today, an increasing amount of democracy promotion takes place in regimes where the political space is severely restricted or receding. The challenge is not to consolidate democracy, but to prevent the roll-back of earlier democratic gains and increase the chance that windows of opportunity for political reforms will be acted on, if they arise. At the moment, we simply don’t know whether this is possible.

This makes it important to consider whether there is an authoritarian threshold beyond which democracy promotion does not work. If that were the case, then it might sometimes be better for democracy promoters to do nothing. If it is not, then perhaps we should stay engaged in countries come what may, in the hope that this makes it more feasible to take advantage of future opportunities to promote reform, should they arise. This is an essential question to answer if we are to best target the time and resources of democracy promoters, but it remains an issue on which there is little clarity, and certainly no consensus.

Perhaps more worryingly, there’s also little to go on when it comes to avoiding unintended, negative side-effects of democracy promotion. Democracies don’t have a monopoly on political institutions (like parliaments) nor political processes (like elections); they can provide authoritarian regimes with legitimacy as easily as they provide it to democracies. A central task for any future research agenda is not only to identify where democracy promotion works best, but where it is likely to backfire.


More than elections, more than ideology – a strategic approach to sister-party support


(Featured image: Flickr Janneke Staaks)

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