>Partying at Sussex University

Today I went to a impressive work-in-progress seminar on parties and the state at Sussex University, whose fresh air, landscaped campus and slightly more relaxed ambiance were a welcome break from UCL’s busier urban setting

The story about political parties was this. Political parties have are traditionally seen as products of social cleavages, vehicles for representing social interests and channels for citizen participation, whose relationship with the state is occasional and contingent – a way of thinking harking back to the Golden Age of the mass party, In fact, as has been widely pointed out in well rehearsed academic literature of 1980s and 1990s, the position is now largely reversed. Parties are now increasingly professionalized organisations in and of the state with n contingent and sporadic relationship with the grassroots mediated through the TV screen, rare forays into ‘knocking on doors’ and – every few years – a trip the ballot box. Parties are more akin to the gas company than the grassroots organisations with a presence in every community of yore. Party- state relationships, however, need analyzing systematically and comparatively to bring together the diverse literatures on party funding, corruption etc

The relationship can be seen in terms of dependency on the state for resources (state funding and benefits in kind like media access), state regulation of parties activities, both internal and external, through constitutional frameworks and legal regulation; and rent-seeking within the state through patronage (use of public appointments), clientelism (exchange of state resources with favoured constituencies by the party in exchange for political backing) and straightforward corruption (cash-for-favours). Patronage and clientelism are cheap and effective organization-building strategies in new democracies.

The picture that emerges globally is of a general trend to state dependency in Western and Eastern Europe. Despite stronger state legal regulation in the East and high public subsidies, there seemingly has little to with patronage and clientelism. Africa is an interesting story with no effective public funding and incumbent parties using rent-seeking to sustain themselves – the benefits of the party-state relationship are very unevenly distributed and tend to underpin or lock-in a pattern of dominant parties in office for decades until economic mismanagement and a head of social discontent blows them away (Kenya) – replacing them with a new opposition-based dominant party – or full blown authoritarian emergences (Zimbabwe).

The relationship between party-state relationship – specifically its rent-seeking dimension – and patterns of competition is fascinating. The ‘robust competition’ idea, for example, says alternation and two-bloc competition is a mechanism to clean out or limit rent-seeking. The other question uppermost in my mind is in many contexts there are weak (unstable, poorly institutionalized, weakly bounded, poorly co-ordinated) parties and weak state structures – are both not just vehicles for elite networks?

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