Encyclopedia » Politics & Economics » Political Parties or the Art of Getting the Elected Away From Their Voters

Political Parties or the Art of Getting the Elected Away From Their Voters

universal suffrage political parties

"We offer you the life you haven't had. We offer you everything, if you vote for our party. Anything but be yourself... never again..."

Representative democracy is the political system in which the rulers are elected by the inhabitants of the national territory who have citizenship, a link that joins the individual to the State. In this way, the members of the Government are considered representatives of the people. Traditionally, two ways of citizen intervention in political life are distinguished: the general assemblies that make the decisions themselves, or "direct democracy"; the participation of citizens in a determination prepared by their representatives, or "semi-direct democracy".

The procedures of the first appear in the Greek and Roman times, when those who enjoy the right of citizenship —which are not all the inhabitants of the towns— meet in the agoras or forums to solve the problems of the community. Direct democracy is only feasible in very small places, where all the people can meet. Some examples of it are some Swiss high mountain cantons, sparsely populated, in which the popular assemblies meet once a year with the mission more of criticizing the rulers than of governing. In addition, there are some popular assemblies at the local or municipal level in the United States, but this is more of a historical curiosity, since its practical effectiveness is debatable. In Spain, the figure of neighborhood assemblies is still present today, although not with the force of past decades -concejos-, small redoubts of direct democracy in the face of the now omnipresent municipal power of the city councils.

The Popular Initiative: Reform Project and Referendum

Semi-direct democracy procedures consist of special forms of collaboration between citizens and their representatives. Two different ways can be used. According to the first, citizens intervene above all to ensure popular initiative. They do this by presenting a reform project signed by a certain number of them. If the rulers do not accept it, a popular vote is used which, if favorable, forces the rulers to apply it. The effectiveness of the system will depend on whether it is a bill, in which case the people manage to elaborate directly most of a legal provision, that is, the simple indication of the general lines that the proposed reform must follow.

Citizens can also intervene through a referendum in a decision made or prepared by their representatives. The Parliament or Government then prepares a text for the community to pronounce on it by universal suffrage. If this is positive, the text becomes law; if it is negative, it does not apply. Sometimes no text is proposed, but several to choose one of them.

An essential institution of liberal regimes are political parties, which are born and develop at the same time as elections and representation. At first they appear as electoral commissions in charge of raising funds for the campaign and obtaining important patronages for its candidate. It's also observed the birth, in the assemblies, of parliamentary groups of deputies of the same tendency for a common action, and that in a natural way produces the federation of their basic commissions, which originate the parties.

The first to emerge are those of cadres, a structure adopted in the nineteenth century, and preserved by the liberals of Europe and the United States. Their characteristic is the belief that quality is more important than quantity, they look for prestigious or wealthy personalities, and they are grouped in local commissions with great autonomy. Their growth led many parties to imitate them, although their attempts failed. In the 20th century, Americans undergo great transformations due to the system of primary elections, a kind of pre-scrutiny, in which the group of citizens designates the candidates of the parties, among which the election itself is then held.

Mass Parties, a Socialist Invention Imitated by Communists and Fascists

The British Labor Party devised at the beginning of the last century a new type of cadres party, in which the commissions are composed of notables with functions. They are made up of representatives of professional organizations, intellectual associations, mutual societies and cooperatives. These designate the candidates for the elections and administer the propaganda funds created with the contributions of each group. The system has been adopted by those of the socialist gender such as the Scandinavians and Belgians, and even by corporate Christian Democrats. Today, in the case of Spain, apart from other forms, with greater or lesser transparency, that the parties carry out to raise funds for its electoral campaigns, they receive subsidies of public money for this purpose from to the general budgets of the State, establishing a relationship of symbiosis for some, parasitic for others, further distorting in both cases the representation of citizenship exercised by these parties.

Mass parties are a socialist invention of the early 20th century. Communists and fascists imitate its formula, and some conservatives and liberals imitate it, who, although they do not succeed, try to pass from one structure to another.

The organization of the socialist parties responds, in the first place, to financial imperatives. In order to cover the expenses of the election of its candidates, it is thought of registering the greatest possible number of permanent followers, who are made to pay a regular fee. Second, they seek to politically educate the working class with regular meetings of the party elections, to allow them to fully exercise their rights. It is what in Spain is known as the bases, the militancy or the affiliates, whose presence and decision-making power has been diluted over time, being their participation today a mere pantomime with which to make up the absolute lack of internal democracy in the political parties, converted into mere springboards financed in part by the State to obtain a representation act in the public scene.

There is a relationship between party structures and the evolution of society. Those of cadre correspond to conflicts between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie; those of the masses, to the expansion of democracy that reaches the entire population and so that it participates permanently.

Western Communist Parties: from the Socialist to the Soviet Model

The first western communist parties were constituted according to the socialist model; but in 1924 the adoption of Soviet structures was imposed on them, very effective in ensuring the flexible and solid organization of large human masses.

The first characteristic note of the communists is found in the fundamental element. Like the socialists, they aspire to achieve a large number of supporters, but their distribution at the local level is different. They group them according to the place of work. Thus the «company cells» follow the commissions and sections, without this meaning the disappearance of the cells that crowd the isolated workers. Thanks to this, on the one hand, the contact is constant and closer, which facilitates agreements and the reception of instructions; on the other hand, their discussions are nourished by labor and company problems which, together with those of general policy, make each member aware of the importance and meaning of joining it.

Different Disguise, Same Objective: Single Thought and Unity of Action

The second differentiating note is that the communist cell is smaller, since it normally gathers only a few dozen members. When one proves too large, it splits as soon as a leader for the new one is found. Solidarity is stronger in a small homogeneous group, even if it risks dispersing and disintegrating, which the communists have managed to avoid with greater discipline and centralization, as well as with a strong ideological framework, which stimulates the same form of reasoning in all supporters. This idea, although it may not seem so a priori, would have certain parallels with what in Spain has come to be called party discipline, and which seeks no other objective than unity of action in political strategy, regardless of the ideological or conceptual divergences that may arise between the members of the party on certain issues. Related to the previous one would also be the so-called voting discipline, which pursues unity of action by the different elected officials, belonging to the same party, when voting in the different parliamentary chambers.

The fascists have their peak between the two world wars, first with the Italian, whose system reaches the highest degree of perfection with German National Socialism. They are parties, like the socialists and communists, of the masses, but they group their faithful through the application of military techniques. Although not all loyalists are part of them, the militias constitute the essential element of the party. The rest represents a kind of reserve. The base is a very small group, easy to gather at any time, which is articulated with others as in the army, that is, according to a hierarchical pyramid.

Mediators or Barrier?

The parties perform two functions in the political representation. First of all, they frame the represented and the representatives, and set themselves up as mediators between the elect and the electorate, a much discussed mediation, but essential, because without parties the functioning of political representation is impossible, based on the theoretical affirmation and the practical reality of Universal suffrage.

In those of traditional cadres, the candidates are designated by the commissions of notables. At the end of the 19th century, the United States reacted against this system by launching the «primary» procedure into the political arena. It consists of organizing a first election so that each party designates the candidate who will represent them in the elections. The ballot paper bears several names and the voter puts a sign, usually a cross, in front of the chosen option. In any case, it is always the commissions that choose some candidates. Those of the masses use another system: they hold congresses in which all the members of a party participate. The representative procedure is used more, which is satisfactory if the party, being very large, brings together many citizens interested in political issues; It will be less if the number of members with respect to the set of readers is small. The steering committees maneuver to appoint who enjoys its confidence, but they do not always succeed.

Logically, the elected must feel very interested in being in permanent contact with the voters to ensure their new election, and they usually spend their free periods attending all kinds of social demonstrations. The same could be carried out without political parties, but these facilitate the task, because they make available to the elected a group of collaborators who serve as trusted links between both parties. The danger of the method is that they can also give the interested party a distorted opinion.

Liberal principles inevitably lead to universal suffrage. This exists theoretically in all constitutions, but not in practice. Sometimes the lack of information and culture, other times the serious existing economic differences and other times the technocracy make it difficult, if not impossible, the right to vote. Proof of this is that in most countries it is not established directly, but a rather long transitional phase of restricted suffrage is first applied.

The most widespread form of restricted suffrage conditions the vote to certain economic situations, reflected in the amount of taxes paid. Another may be that only owners are allowed to vote. Any of them try to justify themselves by alleging that only the economically strong, or owners, support the decisions of the Administration and the Government, for which they are the only ones truly linked to the nation.

This suffrage has been used in the United States in a somewhat attenuated way and mainly with the aim to depriving the black population of the right to vote.

Another restrictive form lies in the capable suffrage. As its name indicates, the vote is granted only to citizens with a certain degree of knowledge or cultural preparation. Actually, it means a conquest of public opinion on the restricted suffrage, mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Every Vote Counts...

Legally, universal suffrage is one that is not limited by any of the circumstances listed above. However, this does not mean that all the inhabitants of a country have a vote, since even in those with a universal suffrage system, attempts are made in some way to limit or exclude certain categories of people from its exercise.

For example, limitations due to gender. Women's suffrage was not established until 1944 in all the great states of the world, being France the last to admit it. The most commonly accepted reasons for this limitation have been, in the first place, the unequal conception of the genders; secondly, it derives from an absurd opposition between men and women, in which men always try to preserve a privileged and unfair position.

Another is limitation based on age. Young people are deprived of the right to vote because they are considered immature. In many cases, raising the voting age of majority has been used for political purposes. People are most revolutionary in their early years. Conservative regimes delay granting the right to vote; the revolutionaries ones do the opposite.

The exclusion of people sentenced by the courts for common law crimes is not considered unfair, given the ethical quality that is assumed of them. Another limitation weighs in some nations on the military. It is based on the belief that their meddling in politics should be avoided, because they understand that it is detrimental to military discipline, or to prevent the possible coercion of the commanders over the soldiers. In any case it means depriving citizens of one of their rights.

The vote must be equal. However, attempts have been made to circumvent it directly or indirectly, which has given rise to unequal suffrage, in which certain people have more than one vote.

We must distinguish the multiple vote from the plural vote. In the first, each voter has one vote but can exercise it in several districts at the same time, for example, the one where lives, works and has studied, although moving is needed. In the plural, a voter has several. It has also been thought of granting some supplements to the economically strong to counteract the numerical majority of the weak, as in France, in 1820, with the «double vote». These systems have disappeared to give way to family suffrage, which takes different expressions. In one of them, the head of the family has, in addition to his vote, as many as he has minor children; in another, one more vote is granted to the same from a given number of children. The doctrine is justified by the statement that a bachelor and a head of a family do not have the same role in the nation.

"Vote here! We'll control you. Vote there! We'll castrate you and get into your pretty head, and with a few taps you'll be one of us..."[Photo: Arnaud Jaegers/Unsplash]
All these unequal suffrage systems are very little extended. Hardly anyone dares to officially attack, let alone deny, the principle of equality of vote; but procedures are put into practice to introduce inequalities in representation, such as the inequality and cutting of constituencies and indirect suffrage.

The inequality of the constituencies is achieved by giving each of them the same number of representatives regardless of its respective population. With this, qualitatively, the vote of the citizens of the least inhabited has much more value, since, being a minority of the population, they elect the same number of representatives as those with a high demographic density. This motivates in many occasions a great preponderance of the rural sectors, less populated, over the massive cities.

Constituency clipping is a much more useful method of achieving unequal representation. It consists of reducing or expanding one of them in a certain way to modify the result of the election. This system is followed in the United States until 1962 when the Supreme Court takes action on the matter.

The indirect suffrage consists of a screening procedure, which can be as long as desired, in which the base elects some delegates or commissioners who, in turn, elect the representatives, or, indefinitely, to other delegates or commissioners, and so on until the representatives are elected. This technique far surpasses the previous ones of inequality in representation, because the action of the electors is all the more distant the higher the ranking of elected delegates. It is the procedure to make universal suffrage at the base and restricted at the top.

However, inequality is currently lower than might be imagined at first glance, since in the context of a country it is almost fully compensated. That of some constituencies balances those of others, but all the parties try to use them to their advantage.

Someone might wonder why these distortions of the representation. The answer can only be one: the interests of the groups strongly supported by their economic strength, which resist by all means to lose the enclaves of political power.

How to Manipulate the Will of the Voters

After talking about the attempts to achieve inequality in the vote, we must deal with those that are made to distort the election, that is, to alter it so that the result differs from the will of the voters. In principle, they are rare in developed countries and much more frequent in underdeveloped ones, and clearer in the countryside than in the cities, because in the former the framing of voters is less precise. Here are its most usual forms: pressure on voters or candidates and material manipulation.

As for the former, pressure, which is almost always a threat, should not be confused with propaganda. Pressure is manifested as threats of reprisals in case of voting to the displeasure of those interested, a very powerful argument, because it is wielded by those who have the power to do so, be it religious, moral, political or economic. It is enough, in many cases, to direct the votes.

Two kinds of pressure are exerted on the candidates: some derived from the political system and others from the economic means. The former occur in countries where the opposition has been subjugated, because it has no means of expression. The second, more subtle, occur despite the efforts of the states to eliminate them. They are a consequence of inequalities in the distribution of wealth. Democratic states try to provide maximum equality to candidates. They avoid what implies granting more opportunities to the rich than to the poor, either by limiting electoral expenses, or by paying for them by the State.

Material manipulations are less frequent and less used every day. They constitute crude methods such as falsifying acts, rigging the ballot boxes or voting false voters. They are disappearing as suffrage is placed under the control of the public and, above all, of the delegates of the candidates or of the parties. However, given the continuous technological advances for the counting of the votes, there has been talk for years of a type of material manipulation that would have to do precisely with the computer maneuvers that could be carried out in order to alter the count of the vote. However, thanks to the fact that, as is the case in Spain, there are tally sheets where the number of votes is manually recorded at each polling station, witnessed by representatives of the different parties, a hypothetical disparity between said tally sheets and the computer count would reveal the evidence about a possible electoral fraud.

Finally, we must refer to the question of whether the vote must be public or secret.

In the 18th century, some theorists, including Montesquieu and Robespierre, advocated public suffrage because they understood that it allowed voters to be guided by the opinion of the most notable. They also see in it a means of developing civic value. Currently it is considered that the public vote violates the freedom of voters, since it exposes them to pressure or reprisals from their political opponents, especially if they obtain electoral victory. That is why the secrecy of the vote is protected in modern States, and it is considered an advance towards a more sincere suffrage.

Another question is who will judge and supervise the election so that it is correct. When parliamentary sovereignty is admitted, the Parliament itself is in charge of controlling the electoral development by verifying the powers of its members at the beginning of each legislative period. It is the system called contentious-political. Another, more logical, is called contentious-jurisdictional. It is about carrying out an action that falls within the normal powers of a judge. This is the case in Great Britain; but, for the system to be effective, judicial independence from any other power, whatever its type, is necessary.

"What do we do now..?"

"Son, you are a politician...". Scene from the movie 'The Candidate' (1972).


[Source: Vv.Aa (1978). Suffrage and Political Parties. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome VIII, pp. 71-76). Milano, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]