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Political pluralism is a cornerstone of any democracy, and the political party system allows to channel the diversity of voices and interests. Yet, support to political parties and pluralist party systems has long been an underdeveloped element of the EU and Member States’ external assistance. The EU has slowly but surely recognised that there is a need to step up support to these key transformation agents in order to deal with different development and foreign policy objectives like policy reforms or conflict mediation.

To provide guidance for EU engagement, our paper Toward a New Era of European Support to Political Party Systems draws on the lessons learned and the experience accumulated by the implementing partners of the REACH for Democracy project funded by the European Union, as well as our network’s political party support community. The paper provides an analysis of where we think party support stands, where it has been successful, and where to invest in the future.

The paper first looks at the key challenges to political party support programmes, including the new restrictions under COVID-19 that have deepened already existing tendencies of restricting democratic space. This is followed by three separate sections that look at inclusion in political parties, the role of parties in elections, and cooperation between parties (and with other actors) – three areas chosen on the basis of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024. Each section looks at the barriers and the strategies for those supporting the political party system.

The paper concludes with a list of recommendations to policy-makers and practitioners for future EU actions and frameworks that increasingly recognise the key role of political parties in creating inclusive and well-governed societies.

COVID-19 has deepened already existing tendencies of restricting democratic space, such as polarised political debate, the rise of populist discourse, restrictions on political and civil rights, and increases in coordinated campaigns of disinformation. Political parties can have agency on a number of these trends, while others find themselves on the receiving end of longer term restrictions. This key role deserves far greater attention in the current context and cuts to the very essence of political power.

Concerning programme implementation, the limited financial resources available to providers of party support programmes mean that the sector often has a niche approach that misses key opportunities for working in a tailored way beyond the national level and helping stimulate bottom-up dynamics within political parties.

In order to improve inclusion in political parties,  it is important to strengthen the ability of under-represented groups to have a seat at the policy-making table, while addressing those written rules and unwritten practices that exclude such groups from participating in the political arena.

In order to improve electoral integrity, there is a need for long-term efforts to ensure that political parties promote a level playing field and refrain from harmful and confrontational conduct, as a cross-cutting component of electoral assistance.

In order to improve dialogue and cooperation, inter-party dialogue and multi-stakeholder dialogue are equally important and highly relevant in the in the context of EU objectives. Four strategies are particularly important to that end: investing in internal party preparedness, supporting incentives, expanding dialogue beyond a party-only affair, and linking dialogue to other development priorities.

  1. Integrate political actors like parties into development programmes – through engaging parties into programmes on development and foreign policy priorities, or streamlining party work into programmes on thematic issues. Parties are development actors in their own right and including them in cooperation programmes can result in increased political buy-in for such programmes and foster multi-party cooperation beyond the developmental issue at stake.
  2. Think and act long-term, as effectively improving political action and behaviour needs to take into consideration slow moving cultural and institutional practices. All three areas underline the need to look beyond the usual time horizons of development projects.
  3. Programme with parties’ incentives in mind. Triggering structural change within parties in favour of inclusion, electoral integrity and cooperation is possible but the needs and interests of politicians must be considered for the status quo to be successfully challenged.
  4. Do not focus exclusively on political parties. When defining target groups, donors and political party support organisations should work on selection criteria keeping in mind that future aspiring politicians often emerge from the ranks of other organisations or organised groups active around the area of policy-making.
  5. Work directly with parties themselves, and set clear parameters to work with them. Parties have much to contribute in countering challenges that affect not just the party system but the country or party they come from too.

For a full list of recommendations and ideas for action, see the full paper here.

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