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Political parties, imperfect as they are, remain vital to preserving democracy

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Last week, the world’s most powerful dictators, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, toasted champagne in Moscow while discussing “a shared future for humanity.” 

This week, President Joe Biden is hosting the second Summit for Democracy in Washington D.C. with parallel regional summits in Zambia, South Korea, Costa Rica and the Netherlands, having declared that, “history and common sense tell us that liberty, opportunity and justice thrive in a democracy, not in an autocracy.”

What are we to make of these contrasting narratives?

Essentially, China and Russia no longer see themselves as part of the existing global order. Instead, they seek to form their own international systems and agreements. Increasingly, illiberal leaders are uniting among themselves to undermine democratic standards, and to spread distrust in transnational agreements and multilateral bodies that have been in place since the end of WWII. 

China and Russia are much further along in spreading their authoritarian model than Western democracies would like to believe. While political leaders in longstanding democracies are finally waking up to this threat, it is still unclear if they are developing a meaningful response.

China has exported its communist model of party-state governance around the world for years in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. However, beginning last year, the Chines Communist Party has now started training with a CCP-funded permanent party school in Africa. China’s intention is clear. It is scaling up its authoritarian governance outreach to foreign political parties in a direct attempt to weaken democracy in Africa. 

Russia is also on the march on the political party front. It has long meddled in European politics, and its support of the far-right and right-wing extremists is intended to make Germany turn its back on Kyiv in the Ukraine War. However, those same German far-right political parties are now pushing to expand the operations of their affiliated political foundations by supporting sister parties globally. 

Like China, the authoritarian model is being spread through political parties. China is no longer just building roads in Africa. It is now building an authoritarian model for export based on its vision of one-party rule. Likewise, Russia is expanding its ambitions beyond just proxy warfare in the global south. 

These are smart, strategic and sophisticated strategies by authoritarian leaders who want to put a dagger in the heart of democratic societies through political parties based on one-party rule. 

Populists, authoritarians and polarizing forces are thriving because democratic political parties are failing to unite, and are too weak to protect the core values of the democratic process. Traditional parties have become kidnapped by charlatan reformers in century-old democracies. Both new and old parties have jumped on the populist train — or joined coalitions far from their political roots — just to gain power. 

But the recipe is not to give up on political parties. Political parties in a multiparty system, operating under free and fair elections, are the backbone of democracy. They are institutions where like-minded individuals come together to elect political candidates. When they work best, political parties are the connective tissue between voters and political leaders, strengthening the voice of the one into many in order to make a change and drive policy. Fully democratic and functioning political parties are a fundamental organizing component in every successful democracy. 

As authoritarians around the world gain more ground, unity between democratic actors is more important than ever. That’s why the second Summit for Democracy this week is perfectly timed.

At the summit this week, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) is hosting the Political Party Peer Network conference in Washington D.C. The focus is on ending polarization and bringing back normalcy where elections determine outcomes, and winners and losers accept the results. Organizations supporting political parties and political leaders who are in attendance represent 35 nations — ranging from Kenya to Ukraine, from Ghana to Germany, and from the Dominican Republic to Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Beyond the summit, there are numerous efforts underway to strengthen political parties and to make them once again a central component of every successful democracy:

Democracy can never blossom in a society without solid democratic political parties. Depolarizing the political debate, and strengthening democratic political parties in new, old and aspiring democracies will be a central component at the heart of their success. Investing in the creation of democratic political parties — no matter their ideology — must be a top priority of every democracy. 

Sometimes you need to find that missing piece of the puzzle to complete the full picture. Political parties that win with integrity, lead with dignity and lose with grace are the key to democracy’s success. They are the missing piece of the democracy puzzle. 

Birgitta Ohlsson is the director of political parties at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Tags Joe Biden political parties Political parties in the United States political partisanship Politics of the United States Summit for Democracy US-China tensions US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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