A Way Out of Crisis

Robust reform can seem impossible for governments mired in corruption. But the solution is pretty simple: Focus on policies, not politics.


The last few years have seen more protests and more protesters than perhaps any time in history. From India to Bulgaria to Brazil, citizens have taken to the streets to express their frustration. Although it comes as no surprise that many of these protests (58 percent) are driven by economic concerns, anger over the state of political representation is a close second (45 percent). Citizens are making it loud and clear that they expect representatives that produce better results. So, what is a response-minded politician to do?

There are no quick fixes, but there are fixes. Research from the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) has shown that politicians who serve citizens by committing to nationwide policies — what we call "programmatic politics" — have a far better shot at making change than those who rely on patronage, ethnicity, or charisma for political success. Countries with programmatic party systems are more successful at public sector reform, develop stronger government capabilities and better-quality public policies, and implement higher measures of economic growth, inclusion, state effectiveness, regulatory capacity, anti-corruption success, and women’s empowerment. The same research explains how factors such as economic crises, state capacity, urbanization, ethnicity, institutional design, political opposition, and politically savvy leaders can facilitate a shift to programmatic politics.

Programmatic engagement does not come easy. It holds little appeal for those caudillos who opt to rely on patronage or identity politics. While certain macro-factors are more propitious for a country’s transition, leadership and policy decisions are decisive. Consider, for instance, the very different political responses to the outbreak of economic crises in Argentina and South Korea.

Argentina and South Korea appeared to be standout economic performers during most of the 1990s until suddenly… they weren’t. Hit by deep economic downturns in 1997 and 2001 respectively, the effects were quickly felt and all too familiar: currency devaluations, a sharp rise in unemployment, bailouts, and massive street protests. Voters in both countries showed incumbent politicians the door. In South Korea, the leader of the opposition won the presidency in general elections held just two months after the crisis broke out. In Argentina, four presidents were turned out in two years.

When the crises hit, neither country had a sustained history of democracy. South Korea had experienced intermittent democracy since the end of the Korean War, and repressive governments had taken turns in Argentina before the return of democracy in 1983. Importantly, both countries also were characterized by entrenched clientelism, institutionalized systems of political patronage. Whether by forming coalitions with business conglomerates or by co-opting unions and grassroots organizations, politicians depended on intricate patron-client networks to sustain their political success.

However, South Korea’s post-crisis path diverged markedly from Argentina’s. Opposition challenger Kim Dae-jung ran on a clearly articulated platform that featured universal social welfare reform, including national pension and health insurance systems. These developments triggered sweeping political realignments, and helped legitimize a new political party. Argentina, on the other hand, let opportunities for change stemming from the crisis go to waste — at least in terms of its political institutions. From 2003 to 2007, Néstor Kirchner’s government successfully steered the country out of economic crisis through an export-led model of growth that relied on a commodity boom and a helpful exchange rate. However, Argentine parties lack a programmatic tradition; Kirchner’s 2003 party platform was just three pages long. (The photo above shows Kirchner casting his 2003 ballot, accompanied by his daughter Florencia.) And as Steven Levitsky and Victoria Murillo explain, he did not take advantage of his time in office to put in place the type of poverty-reduction programs seen in Brazil and Chile, nor did the quality of the country’s political institutions keep pace with its neighbors. Rather, Argentine politics relied largely on subsidies and patronage with the distribution of safety net benefits, public jobs, and other favors taking place through partisan networks.

In South Korea, its moment of crisis and rapid change triggered a swing toward program-oriented politics. Voters questioned the status quo and many put their faith in the Millennium Democratic Party, which offered a programmatic vision of change. This is a classic case — when a ruling party faces pressure to reform, opposition leaders typically seek to provide programmatic alternatives. Another example of this case took place in Brazil, where the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s offered an opportunity to provide a programmatic vision that was seized by Fernando Henrique’s Cardoso PDSB and Ignacio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party.

Macro-level conditions can serve as enablers for the development of programmatic parties. Chief among these is sufficient state capacity for policy implementation and the delivery of public goods. South Korea’s strong civil service, forged during more than 25 years of autocratic rule, left the state well positioned to provide services once the financial crisis triggered programmatic tendencies. The government was able to harness that capacity to expand and effectively deliver public goods that, in turn, made political parties more credible in the eyes of voters.

Other factors that support programmatic politics are urbanization and ethnic politics. As urbanization increases, the higher population density favors scaled-up access to public service provision, makes information flow faster, and is often related to greater literacy. These factors increase the receptiveness of voters to programmatic appeals. Ethnic politics, too, seem to spur the growth of "ethnic-programmatic" parties in countries such as Zambia and India. In Zambia the Patriotic Front came to power in 2011, heavily supported by the rural Bemba-speaking ethnic group, while at the same time committed to deliver universal policies, which would benefit other groups and urban voters. The recent elections in India also may have signaled a form of "caste-plus" politics. Pre-election polls showed that voters identified economic growth, inflation, and corruption as decisive issues. Key state and national parties — including now Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — ran campaigns highlighting similar issues, but the BJP only released its electoral platform on April 7, the same day of the first voting round.

While the above factors are largely macro-level and difficult to influence, opposition parties can work with the "rules of the game" to drive programmatic gains. Programmatic leaders attract like-minded followers who demand venues for deliberation and competition over policy objectives that make the "party brand." Rules such as the democratic selection of candidates offer such opportunities. It is no coincidence that the two main political blocs in Chile (which, like Uruguay, has one of the most programmatic party systems in Latin America) held simultaneous and binding primaries in the 2013 presidential election. Brazil deepened its programmatic tendencies in 2002, when it eliminated the candidato nato (or "birthright candidate") provision that previously guaranteed the re-nomination of an incumbent by their same party in the next election and created disincentives for competition and accountability.

Opposition groups tend to build a following based on programmatic policies. Parties such as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador, the Social Democratic Party and Workers’ Party in Brazil, and the Frente Amplio in Uruguay spent long years in opposition. Denied access to the perks of incumbency, these parties began building distinctive positions on national policies and mobilizing potential voters. Being outside government also gives opposition parties an incentive to reach out to new constituencies. As Nic Cheeseman notes, civil society groups can provide political parties with a ready-made roster of programmatic demands, a constituency, and organizational infrastructure. Depending on specific national circumstances, close links to groups such as trade unions or women’s movements can galvanize programmatic efforts (for example the Brazilian Workers Party’s close connection with the labor movement).

However, even with all the right conditions and incentives, program-minded political leaders must get elected. Politically savvy and electable leaders such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva in Brazil are as essential as voters who demand programmatic messages.

International IDEA’s research didn’t reveal any easy path to developing a programmatic party. However, there are a number of lessons political parties might keep in mind to better serve their citizens. First, they should start with "low-hanging fruit": sectors, policies and public goods for which the state machinery has better-than-average capacities. They should find out which sections of the government have the greatest capacity to deliver public goods. Which department or programs have a competent bureaucracy? Which sectors receive the greatest amount of funding? Successful short-term delivery of public goods builds the trust constituents have in government programming.

Parties should also strive to develop their platform and "brand" around key policy areas that are meaningful to voters. They should emphasize positions that are distinct from their competitors, and communicate them in ways that are consistent with their record and ideology at all levels of the party organization. They also should develop alliances with civil society organizations and social movements associated with those issues, as well as members of the legislative caucus. These ties build the party’s credibility and capacity to effect change, emphasizing cohesion and discipline. It’s also important for party leaders to engage mid-and grassroots-level members for internal debates that can attract and mobilize more policy-motivated members. This is increasingly possible through electronic platforms that allow direct interaction around policies, such as the recent GPS Politico project in Peru.

In the event of economic downturn, alliances at all levels can help a party respond quickly and responsibly. In these situations, groups should focus on building and communicating anti-crisis platforms that strike a balance between short- and long-term responses. On these (and other) issues, party organizers can collaborate with relevant issue-based civil society organizations, such as social movements or interest groups.

All of these efforts point to a commitment to the transparency of party finances to reduce the risk of undue influence over policy making. Parties should tout and exhibit their commitment to transparency by taking advantage of new technologies for broad-based fundraising, tracking, and communications.

Would-be reformers should be encouraged by the research that shows that parties can deliver on development, even under seemingly adverse circumstances. These experiences, from a broad spectrum of countries, can lead parties in their design of roadmaps that contribute to stronger democracy and sustainable development.

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