Political parties

If deliberative forms of decision-making are to gain traction within representative democracies – as proposed and championed by this guide– and, even more importantly, if the resulting policies are to be rule-bound and rule-based, political parties should be included in the dialogue. In particular, they should play a leading role when it comes to actual policy drafting, making sure that the policy reflects a plurality of views while also being in line with key political criteria such as constitutionality, legal standards, national interest, international relations, etc. However, this is seldom possible, especially in polarised contexts due to the sense of rivalry instilled by unhealthy electoral competition.

This means that on a practical level, working with political parties in dialogue processes presents the Dialogue Hosts with a series of dilemmas. First of all, there is the issue of selection, which has a number of implications. Finding the right balance by deciding who should be there and who shouldn’t is a risky decision that could compromise the impartiality of the Dialogue Host, so participation needs to be open to all political actors willing to cooperate in a given issue. For a number of reasons, such willingness to cooperate is often harder to find in the bigger players, going beyond the mainstream parties to include political movements, as well as parties with parliamentary representation that, at some point in the near future, could become involved in potential coalition governments.

Secondly, and whether we like it or not, among political parties mistrust seems to be the rule, either because of the well-known ‘power games' intrinsic to electoral competition, or simply because parties are the entities where great societal cleavages (religion, region, ethnicity) manifest themselves. Furthermore, this mistrust usually extends to many of the other stakeholder groups involved, predominantly due to the same basic dilemmas related above.

The role of the Dialogue Host is thus crucial when it comes to avoiding that any antagonisms may affect the deliberative nature of the dialogue process. For this, the dialogue facilitator not only has to be perceived by the parties as being impartial, but also needs to be extremely attentive to those issues that must not be touched due to their politically sensitive nature. Second, before engaging any party the facilitator should test the ground by means of bilateral meetings, briefing contacts in advance in order to develop their trust, but also to assess their commitment to the participatory and inclusive principles that should inform the dialogue process. While this advice is also valid when it comes to other types of stakeholders, it is particularly important to reassure political party representatives that the things they say and do in the framework of the dialogue will not be used against them in the political arena. To make things even harder, the Dialogue Host should encourage the parties to develop ownership over the dialogue process, but without allowing them to hijack it; a risk that is ever-present but more acute in pre-electoral times.

All in all, the most important thing to keep in mind is that both in parliamentary and presidential democracies, the sustainability of any agreement on reform and its further implementation will depend to a large extent on the engagement of political parties. This fact is not likely to change, whether civil society organisations like it or not.

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