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Internal Party Democracy: A Necessity for Electoral Reforms

An election presents voters with different choices. The voters can choose their own candidates/representatives. These candidates may belong to different political parties (national and local) or can be even independent. However, many choices in this regard are made even before voters vote for the candidates. The candidates are already chosen for a particular constituency by the parties and voter’s choice is restricted in terms of voting for the people already chosen by the parties. Thus limits on the choices of the voters are already imposed even before the process of voting starts.

The first natural question arises is that who makes a choice of the candidates who will contest elections. It is the political parties that decide particular candidate for a specific constituency. The next obvious questions are: who in party takes these decisions, and how are these decisions made? There are various practices used by political parties the world-over. In some, party leaders make these decisions unilaterally. In others, decisions are made by a vote among party members, or even by a vote among the general public. In sum, these internal decisions can be made democratically or undemocratically.
The presence or absence of this democracy in political parties is an essential area of study. There can be various indicators to study this. The most important indicator is the process by which decisions are taken in a political party. For example, it can be ascertained in the processes like candidate selection or in the processes where office bearers and leaders are chosen in a political party. However internal party democracy also refers to more intangible aspects of democracy – open and substantial debate, free dissent, and respect for the views of others.

Why Internal Party Democracy Matters:

In a functioning democracy a number of roles are performed by a political party. However, their purpose was perhaps best encapsulated by Sartori, who argued that the primary function of parties was to link the citizenry with the government. This process is necessarily and fundamentally communicatory. A democracy needs strong and sustainable political parties with the capacity to represent citizens and provide policy choices that demonstrate their ability to govern for the public good. With an increasing disconnect between citizens and their elected leaders, a decline in political activism, and a growing sophistication of anti-democratic forces, democratic political parties are continually challenged.

To reduce this disconnect between citizens and political parties it is essential that the political parties should have the features of internal party democracy strongly embedded. This view is echoed by the enthusiasts of participatory democracy.

Those who emphasize the participatory aspects of democracy place the most value on intra-party democracy as an end in itself. Advocates of participatory democracy not only view political parties as intermediaries but also as facilitators for citizens to increase their political competence and maturity. To fulfill this role, parties’ decision-making structures and processes should provide opportunities for individual citizens to influence the choices that parties offer to voters.

These opportunities will help citizens expand their civic skills, and inclusive processes can boost the legitimacy of the alternatives they produce. In this way, party institutions can perform useful educative functions while also transferring power to a broader sector of society. Parties which are more inclusive toward their supporters also offer the voters better choices, because such parties are more likely to be open to new ideas and new personnel, and less likely to concentrate on retaining or enhancing the power of a handful of party leaders.

Thus we democratic reform of internal party structures is necessary for right selection of representatives and leaders who would in turn contribute to effective policy making and it is also essential for enhancing political competency of the citizens.

Examples from other countries:

There are many countries which have their own models of internal party democracy suited to their indigenous needs. Prominent examples are as follows:

  1. D66 party of the Netherlands, a member is able to request an “intermediate congress” at any time to put forward a motion to sack any office bearer. This allows the membership to hold their officials accountable.
  2. In Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT) governed a one-party state from the 1950s through the late 1980s. With the end of military rule in 1987, and the rise of new opposition parties, the KMT was challenged to adopt new ways of holding onto an electoral mandate. In 1989, the party introduced closed primaries to select candidates for that year’s legislative elections. The change was pressed for by the party’s national leader, but it was subsequently blamed for contributing to the party’s loss. Two factors played a role in this: First, the change removed the selection power from local factions; these factions retaliated by withholding their support if their preferred candidates failed to gain the nomination. Second, the party members who participated in these primaries turned out to be more conservative than the party’s potential electorate; as a result, the candidates they chose were not as appealing to voters as they could have been. In the wake of this defeat, the KMT changed its selection procedures several more times, developing procedures that included roles for individual members and local party factions, but that also gave the central party latitude to override local choices to provide more “balanced” slates.
  3.  Formally founded as a political party in 1980, the Green Party in Germany emerged out of the milieu shaped by the social-protest movements of the 1970s. From the beginning, the party was committed to developing a new organizational style, one that left as much power as possible with the “grassroots,” and in which the party’s officeholders were subordinate to the party, and not vice versa. One early manifestation of these principles was the widespread use of party meetings to set party policies on various issues. Such meetings, generally held on a local or regional level, were often open to all party supporters, not just paid-up party members. Given that only a small proportion of party members would attend these meetings, it was not unusual to have a small group of committed individuals push through resolutions that were unrepresentative of (or even embarrassing to the wider party. After several years of experience with this, state Green parties mostly changed their rules to place less weight on all-member meetings, and more on delegate conventions. They also began to exclude non-members from decision making.
  4. In some political parties, members are given a strong role and their opinions are taken seriously. In the Ecologists Green Party of Greece, for instance, those who disagree with the party’s decision often voice their dissent publicly.
  5. Despite the importance of a legal framework for parties in some countries, in others democratic processes are followed in spite of no legal provisions expecting them to operate in a certain way. For instance, even though not mandated by law political parties in Argentina have consistently preferred conducting elections for candidate selection.
  6. Some parties in the world have developed a “corporatist,” or group-based, style of internal representation, in which leaders of interested constituencies have privileged positions within the party. Delegates from these groups (such as church or trade union networks) sit in party councils and act on behalf of their supporters. Members of the represented groups are sometimes considered to be indirectly enrolled in the party as a result of such representation. Examples of parties adopting this practice are Sweden’s Social Democrats, the Austrian People’s Party, and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, amongst others.
  7. The Constitutions of the countries stipulate how political parties should manage themselves. Interestingly, except briefly in the 10th Schedule, there is no mention of political parties in the Constitution of India. Many developing countries such as Liberia, Nigeria and Nepal have used their Constitutions to micromanage party organisations and behaviours. In Syria, the Constitution stipulates that the only party in the country shall be Socialistic Bath Party. In Netherlands, Poland, Ivory Coast, Italy, Algeria and Senegal, the constitution ban parties which refer to use of force, foreign control or promote social biases.
  8. The American primary system for determining presidential is also mention worthy in this list of various kinds of internal party democracy mechanisms. In the US the two primary political parties (Republicans and Democrats) each decide on their presidential candidate through a series of elections within each state. The details are complex, but in general each state's citizens vote to decide which candidate should represent the Republicans, and which should represent the Democrats. In some states all citizens are allowed to vote for each party's candidate, in others only registered members of the Republican Party can vote for that party's candidate, and only registered members of the Democratic Party can vote for their candidate. After all the elections have been conducted, the candidates with the most number of votes represent their parties in the presidential election.
  9. Candidates and the leadership selection process within Canadian political parties also involve principle of internal party democracy. Selection of party leadership can also be done through an open democratic process. For instance, both the Liberal and Conservative parties of Canada select leaders according to a modified 'one member, one vote' system. In both parties, each constituency is afforded 100 points which are divided among the candidates depending on how members in that constituency vote. For example, if a constituency votes 60% for candidate A and 40% for candidate B, then candidate A gets 60 points and candidate B gets 40 points. The national leader of the party is the candidate who first achieves a majority of points across the entire country. Thus here votes of the general membership are what determine the leader of the party.
  10. Party leadership selection in the UK is a restricted system unlike US and Canada. Since 1997, the UK Conservative party has given its general membership the final vote between two candidates for party leadership. However, the two candidates are always selected by Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs), which allows leading party members to tightly control the leadership options available to general members. The other dominant party in the UK, the Labour party, uses a system whereby Labour MPs, constituency associations and affiliated unions all have a one-third vote for party leader. Both systems are notable mention in that they represent a half-way point between absolute control and open leadership selection.
  11. In 1996, two of the three largest Israeli parties, Labour and Likud, used closed primaries to select their parliamentary candidates. The party members’ decisions were binding and could not be overridden in the interests of creating balanced slates. Both parties, however, devised processes that were supposed to ensure balanced outcomes. For the election, each party had to present a single national list. But to ensure that candidates represented all areas of the country, both parties selected candidates according to geographic district. Both had “functional” districts, as well, to ensure the representation of certain groups (non-Jewish members and those on collective settlements in the case of Labour, those from agricultural settlements in the case of Likud). In both the geographic and functional districts, only members from the district were eligible to vote. Finally, both parties also reserved positions for candidates from certain social sectors (women, young persons, non-Jews, etc.), guaranteeing that the top vote-getter from each category would be moved up into a more prominent spot on the list if he or she did not reach this level in the primary election. These district and reserved seats together made up a large ratio of each party’s safe seats. Thus, rules established ahead of time enabled both parties to have some control over the demographic face of the party’s candidate slate, reducing the perceived need for slate-balancing intervention after party members had made their choices.


Thus we can see that political parties in different countries have adopted a wide range of approaches to their internal organization, and they are constantly experimenting with new structures and new procedures to cope with internal and external pressures. It remains to be seen as to what is the situation in India.

Political Parties in India and the Case of Internal Party Democracy:

In India we have both national and state level parties. All of these have some or the other kind of organizational structure and internal decision making process. In some parties, this organisation can be very formal, whereas in others some aspects of the party may be unregulated or informal. All organizations follow one or the other constitution. However, when it comes to reality all constitutional norms are flouted for the sake of political convenience. Decision-making is not democratic in these parties and the process of candidate selection is done by a bunch of influential people who are at the helm of operations. Information flow is unidirectional (from top to bottom) and there is so significant discussion among the high party officials and the members. Candidate selection mostly is marked with casteism, factionalism and many a times with corruption.

How do Congress and BJP compare to the international examples discussed earlier? Both Congress and BJP use highly restricted methods of candidate and leadership selection. Power is centralized in the hands of a small number of party elites. In both cases national presidents are elected by other party elites, rather than by ordinary members. Candidate selection is carried out with input from local leaders, but the final choice is almost always made by smaller, national executive bodies. Ordinary members elect only the lowest level of committee and have little voice in the national affairs of the party. These restrictive systems allow the party to retain significant control over its ideology and message. But they also prevent new ideas and new people from entering the party and climbing the ranks.

It is an open fact that even towering leaders in India assumed power through democratic means but once they got it they systematically destroyed the democratic structure in their party. Early leadership of Congress contributed heavily in terms of subverting democratic ethos within the party and consolidating their power by centralizing the process of decision-making. The concept of ‘high command’ was invented and glorified for the same purpose during these years.

The functioning of a democratic governance system in a large and diverse country like India would be impossible without the existence of intermediaries such as political parties. There are, however, two major problems with the way our political system functions. One, parties function completely unfettered, a law into themselves. Their formation and functioning is left entirely to the parties themselves. There is a provision for registration of political parties under Section 29A of the Representation of People Act, 1951 under which “any association or body of individual citizens of India calling itself a political party (has to) make an application to the Election Commission for its registration as a political party”. While the EC can ask for information, by and large it registers parties as they apply for registration. Subsequently, there is no guideline or requirement for their functioning. This matter has attracted the attention of several government appointed bodies, particularly the 15th Law Commission of India and the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC). The 170th Report of the Law Commission on Electoral Reforms is by far the most comprehensive document on the functioning of the political system in India. One whole chapter, Chapter I of Part III, deals with the ‘Necessity for providing law relating to internal democracy within political parties.’ Para 3.1.1 of the Law Commission report says, “...for bringing a sense of discipline and order into the working of our political system and in the conduct of elections, it is necessary to provide by law for the formation, functioning, income and expenditure and the internal working of the recognised political parties both at the national and State level”.

The Law Commission Report actually gives the draft of a new chapter titled ‘Organisation of Political Parties and matters incidental thereto’, to be added to the Representation of People Act, which specifies regular holding of elections, transparency of financial affairs, etc. Non-observance of these provisions will attract de-recognition. The party will cease to exist as a legal entity and consequently will neither be able to put up candidates for elections nor be entitled to the benefits available to registered political parties. The NCRWC has categorically said that “a comprehensive law regulating the registration and functioning of political parties or alliances of parties in India should be made” (Para 4.30.1). The Commission goes on to describe the broad contours of such a law. The Law Commission’s Report was submitted in May 1999 and the NCRWC Report in March 2002. The political establishment has either not found the time, or does not consider it important enough to deliberate upon their recommendations.


Thus it is evident that the issue of internal party democracy in India is not given as much importance by the political parties as it should be. In fact it has completely been put on back burner to cater to the needs of political convenience. In words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

“Political parties are the main conduits through which power is organised in society. They set the menu from which we choose. But if the internal functioning of political parties does not have a modicum of institutionalised democracy, important transmission mechanisms for new ideas get blocked. And most political parties do not institutionalise internal party reform because it could jeopardise the hold of current party incumbents.”

The importance of institutional reform in electoral system in terms of internal party democracy mechanisms cannot be overstated. To quote Mr Kanan Dhru of RFGI: 

“Democracy requires more than just institutions. It also requires that people use those institutions in good faith, and believe in them. It requires that individuals encourage substantial debate and seek compromise rather than abuse power. Democratising India's political parties is an important step towards improving Indian politics as a whole.”