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Successful parties

Recerca | 17/09/2008

Comparative research on political parties

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For a political organization to grow and gather support, both party structure and sound discourse seem to be key factors. These need to develop first in a proper pyramid of social penetration (linking professional cadres with militants, supporters and voters) and also in an optimal balance between idealism and pragmatism.

A recent study commissioned by the Centre of Contemporary Studies (CETC), concludes that success stories in political parties depend on a wide variety of conditions, but there seem to be two crucial elements. To start with, building a suitable pyramid for social penetration is essential. Neither the apex (professional politicians) nor the base (voting population) can be too inflated or too narrow, and intermediate levels which connect both ends have to enjoy good health. Such middle layers will basically include party militants and also a broad variety of civic supports: sister movements, trade unions, affiliated supporters, primary voters...

Jaume López (Pompeu Fabra University) and Yanina Welp co-author this research, which sustains that the other critical factor is striking a good balance between practical issues and idealistic policies. Both need to interact according to complex scenarios, and the equation can vary depending on the endeavours of the political force: whether the priority is to grow in opposition or get established in power, whether it wishes to further a programme of great changes or not, etc. But both need to be present in whatever proportions.

Six case studies have been considered around the globe, all of them from democratic and parliamentary environments, and all conventionally described at present as successful. Out of the lot, the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Uruguayan Frente Amplio stand out as neat examples of fit political bodies, which have assumed a well-balanced discourse and have accordingly grown substantially in recent times. Other cases of well-established formations either show a declining importance of formal membership (American Democrats) or of the second level of civic involvement (German Greens, British Labour, Spanish PSOE).

Needless to say, the measure of success is a contentious tool for establishing comparisons, but here it rather relates to the skill for growing and increasing general support in a particular constituency, together with the capacity to impact on public policies.

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