What the lack of critical party members in Ukraine means for the state of democracy?
Ukraine’s pre-election process is at its peak, politicians’ names, faces and slogans on billboards decorate streets and highways. Apart from billboards, social media campaigns and television there are campaigners in public places, unenthusiastically handing out leaflets about certain candidates.
Being a member of the German Social Democratic Party, I was surprised to hear that most of these campaigners were paid for their work and not members of the party they represent (which explains their indifferency towards the work they do). My German experience is a different one. Street campaigners for parties are generally their members, they listen to people’s problems, and try to convince them that their party or candidate offers the best solutions for them. These volunteers spend their free time advocating for their party, the materials they hand out are essentially paid by their own membership fees. This job is not always fun, especially when citizens approach campaigners why they dislike a policy of the party they are representing. Even though, German parties are internally discussing how effective street-campaigning is, it is still seen as an important way for citizens and parties to interact.
Party members have various reasons to campaign. Looking at their future party career, they might want to impress other party members in order to build an internal power base to gather support and public popularity for their future party career. The vast majority, however, is convinced that their party will change things to the better after the elections and that their efforts are crucial for their party’s victory. Campaigners roughly know the party’s detailed election programme, since they have either participated in the process of writing it or at least discussed it with fellow party members in one of the various forms of participating in the party. Therefore, citizens use the opportunity to get first-hand information about a party’s programme and their members opinions on current political affairs. Campaigning brings party members closer together and helps forming a party identity. The public on the other hand gets the impression, that a party is not something abstract and far away, but rather an organisation of ordinary citizens who care about political issues.
Comparisons with Ukraine
In Ukraine, party participation for ordinary people seems to be limited and parties are not designed to represent large groups of people, but rather the interests of their financial backers. Corporate interest groups invest in these parties in order to change legislation to their favour. Therefore, these parties do not exist to formulate the will of the people and are not attractive for ordinary people to participate in. Within the German social democratic party, for instance, the process of formulating policies and the party programme allows the participation of simple members. Simple party members in Ukraine, however, have no bearing on participating in politics unless they are influential in finance and business. The population can vote for certain parties and candidates but cannot influence them. Having hardly any members these corporate parties have no ideology other than what suits their businesses in the short run. The measurement of a candidate’s success is not implemented by a critical crowd of party members, but the corresponding financing group behind the party.
The problem of party financing through oligarchs goes hand in hand with the general absence of internal control through party members. A Ukrainian party that offered more internal party participation would develop a party programme, a voting guide for MPs in parliament. The degree to which MPs implemented their party’s interest (its election programme and manifesto) would serve party members as an indicator to whether this politician should run again in the next elections. A party without vision and ideology (let us use the word, despite its bad reputation connected to 20th century’s totalitarian regimes) cannot develop instruments of control and self-reflection.
Especially in parliamentary elections, where we do not always know the candidates in the lists we are voting for, we need to trust parties, that the pre-selected candidates represent the very best what the party stands for. Once these candidates are elected the party needs to closely watch its MPs and reflect whether they should run again in the next elections. In Germany, local party bureaus closely watch their representatives in parliament. If they do not comply with the election programme the party has campaigned with, this candidate will not be nominated by their party again. Voters may not know all candidates of the party’s list; however, they believe in the functioning internal democracy and the control mechanisms of a party. Ukrainian parties provide only little internal party democracy. Party programmes are hardly influenced by members, and consequently MPs cannot be judged by it. Therefore, voters cannot trust the candidates of parties, since they underlie no internal democratic control.
In order to become a true democracy, Ukrainian parties should start allowing more internal participation for their members. Only if there is true competition within the parties, independent from monetary capabilities of the candidates for political mandates, Ukrainian elections will be truly democratic.
Jan BEVER, intern-volunteer at CAY East, SPD member