In standing between the people and the state, political parties became, and substantially remain, integral to the political system in four main ways.
First, ruling parties offer direction to government, performing the vital task of steering the ship of the State.
Second, parties function as agents of elite recruitment. They serve as the major mechanism for preparing and recruiting candidates for public office.
Third, parties serve as agents of interest aggregation. They transform a multitude of specific demands into more manageable packages of proposals. Parties select, reduce and combine interests. They act as a filter between society and State, deciding which demands to allow through their net.
Fourth, to a declining extent, political parties serve as a point of reference for their supporters and voters, giving people a key to interpreting a complicated political world.
There is no doubt that in Malta political parties are an important historical, socio-cultural and political force. As a result, whatever debate the country wants to have on good governance, political parties need to be part of the discussion and they should essentially start with looking at themselves.
There is a need to ensure that our political parties are competently managed, internally democratic, law-abiding, financially trans-parent and adequately funded, ideologically defined, inclusive of women and youth.
Transparency and accountability form important characteristics of good governance and are also focal to the governance of political parties from within.
Under these overarching concepts, the issues of party financing and funding are focal to the governance of parties, and this remains an important debate that needs to happen in Malta. A discussion of state financing and the way donations are raised needs to start.
In parallel, also linked to the transparency questions that political parties raise, Malta should legislate and regulate lobbying, as most other European countries have done. It should introduce a register of lobbyists.
Transparency and accountability… are focal to the governance of political parties from within
Internal party effectiveness also stems from how leaders are selected, how internal party policies are set and how memberships are defined within the party.
This not only affects the organisation’s effectiveness but is also a component of responsiveness to intra-party conflict. Over the years, we have seen varying degrees to which political parties organise themselves in Malta. Today, both parties have leadership elections open to party members.
The participation of women in intra-party processes is an indispensable component of equal opportunity and ensures accession for women into the policy process.
It is thus one of the reflections of the good governance of political parties. So, if we want to start seeing more women in Parliament, it is not a question of quotas but more a question of inclusiveness in political parties.
In addition, parties are fundamental institutions of representative democracy. They are considered the analogues of firms in the market sector. Politicians can generally start their political careers by working for party organisations, therefore the recruiting strategies of parties play an important role in determining the quality of the political class.
From the instant members join a political party, human development and capacity building are the cornerstones of the formation of future politicians and policymakers. This is why it needs to be central to the promotion of good governance. The development of members, especially on the local level and youth, is a crucial element of good governance which needs to be given adequate importance here in Malta.
Unfortunately, popularity among constituents has been given much more importance than personal development. Political parties can be strengthened in order to play an effective role as actors for democratic consolidation, contribute to public debate and support government through constructive opposition, thus promoting transparency and accountability.
Capacity building also occurs through comprehensive research and publications in thematic areas, country dialogue workshops, training and international conferences, occurring at the strategic, organisational and structural levels.
Although we are seeing some of this, we need political parties to have strong policy research clusters in which policy debates, proposals and analysis are backed by proper research and not left to the whims of politicians. In Europe, political foundations serve as research clusters and powerhouses in policy development by taking a key role in analysing future trends and having academically backed responses.
This is unfortunately still lacking in Malta.
Our insularity seems to have limited the Europeanisation of political parties which instead remain too focused on running their commercial arms.
Political parties are the starting point for a discussion on good governance.
The leadership of any party has a huge responsibility to ensure that under their watch, the political party not only remains relevant but continues to evolve to ensure that it too remains a guardian, catalyst and promoter of good governance.
JP Fabri is an economist and visiting assistant lecturer at the University of Malta.