Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Last Updated: January 21, 2009

Political parties


Political parties may be generically understood as "a group of citizens that are organized to seek and exercise power in a political system."1

Functions and goals of political parties

Political parties are a key component of representative democracy. They fulfill different functions:
  • To organize voters and integrate disparate groups and individuals into the democratic process;
  • To pick up demands from society and bundle them, or the interest aggregation function;
  • To develop consistent policies and government programs, or the interest articulation function;
  • To recruit, select, train, and socialize new candidates for positions in government and the legislature;
  • To provide a basis for coordinated electoral and legislative activity; and
  • To oversee and control government.2
Some of these functions "feed into the two fundamental roles that political parties play in the political process: they form the government or they are in opposition."3 Political parties pursue specific goals: "to maximize their vote-share, to obtain as many government offices as possible and to push a specific agenda."4 According to Benjamin Reilly, "Collectively, parties are the primary channels linking ordinary citizens with their political representatives, and thus for building accountable and responsive government."5

Political parties, political movements, and politically transformed movements

Traditional political parties may have lost much of their credibility, given their involvement in the conflict, or they may have been debilitated by the conflict and may lack the capacity to organize. On this basis, in particular in post-conflict settings, newly formed groups may emerge under the label of political "movements." They "purportedly differ from parties by being unifying forces that represent the society as a whole rather than just a part of it."6 However, often, this change in name is more an attempt to distance themselves from the discredited traditional "parties" than a reflection of any substantial change. In the realities of post-conflict scenarios, ruling elites and former military factions leaders who fought during the war tend to occupy most of the political space, whether as part of a political movement or a political party.

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Terms used in electoral processes

In electoral processes, a number of interrelated terms and expressions are often conflated, though they actually refer to different meanings and features.

Electoral engineering

The term "electoral engineering" describes "the development and implementation of constitutional and legal provisions for electoral systems frameworks that are targeted at achieving specific societal goals."7 In simple terms, electoral engineering may be understood as the process of determining electoral systems in a given context. It aims at "changing incentives and payoffs available to political actors in their search for electoral victory, [as] astutely crafted electoral rules can make some type of behavior more politically rewarding than others."8

As a field of expertise, it has expanded considerably but has not always fulfilled its promise. As observed by some scholars, "the more 'engineering' that has been done, the greater the realization has been that the results are not always what have been intended in emerging democracies; the unsettled nature of party culture and systems, and the electoral system complexity that often arises out of the compromises necessary for post-conflict or post-authoritarian regime settlements, can intensify this unpredictability."9

Electoral systems

Electoral systems are "commonly understood as the rules that govern how votes obtained by a political party or candidate are translated into representatives (seats) in a representative body, and the interaction between these and party behaviour."10 Such systems function for three main purposes: (1) to "translate the votes cast into seats won in a legislative chamber"; (2) to provide "the conduit through which the people can hold their elected representatives accountable"; and, finally, (3) because "different electoral systems give incentives for those competing for power to couch their appeals to the electorate in distinct ways."11

The design of electoral systems is particularly important for peacebuilding, as "in divided societies, for example, where language, religion, race or other forms of ethnicity represent a fundamental political cleavage, particular electoral systems can reward candidates and parties who act in a co-operative, accommodating manner to rival groups; or they can punish these candidates and instead reward those who appeal only to their own group."12

Election assistance

Election assistance, which is also referred to as electoral assistance, "may be defined as the technical or material support given to the electoral process."13 It is important to note that this support is not limited to national electoral bodies, but rather applies to an array of institutions working on electoral processes. It may also include assistance to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society bodies for activities such as voter education, training of local electoral observers, or media development.

Election observation

Election (or electoral) observation "refers to information gathering or on-site fact-finding and making and informed judgment about the credibility, legitimacy and transparency of the electoral process. It is often carried out by external agencies that cannot intervene in any material way in the voting and counting operations."14 Electoral observation is "the political complement to election assistance. . . . In broad terms, election observation is part of election assistance. Technically speaking, they are different activities but essentially they should be considered and programmed in a complementary manner."15

Election monitoring

Election (or electoral) monitoring "refers to information gathering and examination and evaluation of the electoral process. It is often carried out by domestic agencies that are able to draw the attention of the presiding officers to observed deficiencies in the voting and counting operations."16 The terms "observation" and "monitoring" are often used interchangeably. However, the notion of monitoring generally conveys the sense of a more comprehensive process.

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Electoral processes are often framed within a broader process of democratization or democratic transition. Thus, it is helpful to elucidate what this associated notion means. Democratization itself is somewhat of a challenging concept to pinpoint. Broadly speaking, it may be understood as the process by which a country adopts a democratic regime.17 However, the tenets that make up democracy are contested. Often, democracy is thought to be based on social equality, elected and representative government, and respect for the rule of law. Yet, some contend that civil society and civic engagement, as well as a capitalist economy, are central to democracy.18 The importance of the type of economic system is a particularly debated point.

Furthermore, significant disagreement has emerged over what makes these features come about, which is central to the issue of why producing democracy has been such a challenge. This leads to difficulty in assessing at what point a regime has become a democracy, which is often referred to as consolidated.19 These debates are extensive and touched upon in greater detail in the portals introduction of democracy and good governance.

1. Krishna Kumar, "Reflections on International Political Party Assistance," Democratization 12, no. 4 (2005): 505.
2. Mattias Catn, Effective Party Assistance: Stronger Parties for Better Democracy (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2007), 7; Benjamin Reilly, Political Parties in Conflict-Prone Societies: Encouraging Inclusive Politics and Democratic Development (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2008), 1.
3. Catn, Effective Party Assistance: Stronger Parties for Better Democracy, 7.
4. Ibid., 8.
5. Reilly, Political Parties in Conflict-Prone Societies, 1.
6. Catn, Effective Party Assistance: Stronger Parties for Better Democracy, 7.
7. Alan Wall and Mohamed Salih, Engineering Electoral Systems: Possibilities and Pitfalls (The Hague: Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, 2007), 6.
8. Benjamin Reilly, "Electoral Systems for Divided Societies," Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (2002): 156.
9. Wall and Salih, Engineering Electoral Systems: Possibilities and Pitfalls, 6.
10. Ibid., 6.
11. Benjamin Reilly, "Electoral Assistance and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: What Lessons Have Been Learned?" (paper presented at the WIDER Conference on Making Peace Work, Helsinki, Norway, June 4-5, 2004), 12.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Commission of the European Communities, Communication from the Commission on EU Election Assistance and Observation (Brussels: European Commission, 2000), 4.
14. Electoral Commission Forum of SADC Countries and Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA), Principles for Election Management, Monitoring, and Observation in the SADC Region (Johannesburg: EISA, 2003), 30.
15. Ibid., 30.
16. Ibid.
17. Charles (Chip) Hauss, "Democratization," Beyond Intractability (August 2003).
18. Ibid.
19. Juan J. Linz and Alfred C. Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

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