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The Party Is Over
Traditional parties are dying. We need a clearer vision from those vying to replace them.
By Valentina Lares
The first time I voted, a little more than 20 years ago, my options were straightforward: I could vote for a conservative politician put forward by a conservative party, or I could vote for a liberal candidate put forward by a liberal party. I didn’t much like either of them, but each was proposing a recognizable path for my country, Venezuela, to follow.
At the time, I didn’t know that this would be the last time I would walk into a voting booth where parties would serve as the key guideposts. And I could never have guessed that it wasn’t just Venezuela’s traditional parties that would disappear, but that the big-tent political party as such would become a distant relic in Latin America and an endangered species worldwide.
I’d barely made my choice when Hugo Chávez, a charismatic military man, came onto the scene. He seized the pendulum of power that had been swinging between left and right for decades and yoked it to an authoritarian project. We thought Chávez was an oddity; in fact, he was a forerunner, the first leader to intuit that the era of traditional political parties was about to end.
Let’s be clear: It’s not that anyone really liked those old parties, with their clubbiness and their corruption. It’s just that we knew who they were. We knew where their ideas came from, we knew from what clay their ideas had been molded and whose interests they championed. Your identity folded neatly into your vote: If you were a union member, you voted for the Social Democrats; if you went to church, you voted for the Christian Democrats. Simple.
Each party stood for a body of ideas and attitudes we could all recognize and build political identities around. Most democracies had two, three, at most four big parties that represented a vision for the country, that championed a given point of view and on whose ideological rails our democracies rolled along, sometimes smoothly, always predictably.
That era is fading from memory, and the institutional void it left behind is bringing democracy to the breaking point. Unloved though they were—unlovable though they were—traditional parties wove democracies together. Can the system work without them?
All over the world, yesteryear’s parties let us down. They got too comfortable in the halls of power, and from their death throes came the fragmentation that has replaced them.
This is clear in Europe. The de facto two-party systems of Germany, France and Spain have given way to fractured parliaments, with six, seven, or eight parties each trying to capture the zeitgeist.
Regional parties are all the rage: In 2017, Spain had a head-spinning 4,772 registered political organizations. They represent narrower and narrower segments of opinion, often just one town or locale. The paradigmatic case here is Teruel Existe, a party whose main goal is summed up in its quirky name: reminding Spaniards that one small town in the province of Aragon, population 36,000, is in fact still there. Teruel Existe now holds a single seat in Spain’s Congress and is highly unlikely to win anywhere else.
But while Europe faces some fragmentation, in the Americas all hell has broken loose. In Argentina, there are now 44 nationwide political parties, 24 of which are less than ten years old. In Brazil, there are 33; in Perú, 24; in Ecuador, 21, and in Chile, 25. The exception is my own country, Venezuela, where the entire party system has been buried under a wall of authoritarianism.
Party fragmentation can send entire political systems careening off the rails. Take Perú, where candidates for 18 different parties contested the first round of this year’s presidential election, and the top two candidates, who advanced to the second round, had less than a third of the vote between them. As it happens, those top two were the most extreme candidates on offer: In Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, Peruvians faced a stark choice between the authoritarian left and the authoritarian right.
In Chile, the election for the convention that will draft a new constitution nearly wiped out the traditional center-left parties that led the transition to democracy in the 1980s. The Concertación, the center-left coalition that brought down the Pinochet dictatorship in 1988 and has ruled Chile for most of the years since, scored just 25 out of 155 seats, while 64% of those elected to the constitutional convention don’t belong to a political party at all. Can this mishmash of personalities really sustain Chilean democracy? We’ll find out.
The multiplication of parties has been accompanied by widespread doctrinal hollowing. In Latin America, for instance, we’re no longer liberals or conservatives, radicals or centrists. We are chavistas, uribistas, correístas, bolsonaristas, fujimoristas, kirchneristas. What ideas do they represent, what vision do they champion beyond support for a given person? It’s often hard to tell.
Even the oldest, most established democracies are not immune from all this: in the U.S. the GOP has morphed into a simple vehicle for Trumpism. In the UK, the Labour Party became so thoroughly identified with Corbynism that many members no longer recognize themselves under a more moderate leader, Keir Starmer.
Again and again, parties are eclipsed by charismatic leaders or handicapped by fragmentation. Take Spain, whose institutions are designed for a two-party system, and which now struggles through elections every couple of years, with micro-parties like Teruel Existe suddenly winning seats and a much weakened Socialist Party reduced to cobbling together coalitions alongside secessionists literally dedicated to tearing the country apart.
Where parties can’t serve as a locus for traditional, big-tent identities, politics dissolves into a squabble between personalities. Much as Chávez’s populism dismantled Venezuela’s corrupt two-party system, Viktor Orbán in Hungary has spent three terms in office leveraging the discourse of “repairing the damage” done by socialism to crush his opponents. Donald Trump’s cornerstone election promise in 2016 was to jail Hillary Clinton.
There are, of course, some exceptions. In Germany, a resurgent Green Party seems to be both institutionally cohesive and doctrinally coherent. Even in Colombia, despite the spasm of protests in recent weeks, political parties launched early this century remain key channels for political participation, and not just during elections.
That’s hardly enough on a global scale, and the aftershocks of the dissolution of traditional parties continue to reverberate. As media-driven and often authoritarian leaders take center stage, dozens of micro-parties lacking a history of compromise and electoral victory provide no counterweight at all. As the partisan web degrades, messianic leaders and extremists are filling the void.
The challenge is to leave room for new political groupings, while avoiding a free-for-all. To put forward a comprehensive vision of a better future, alongside a reasonable way to make it a reality. We have a right to know where they propose to take our countries, and how. It’s time we demand that those who aspire to lead us take that responsibility seriously.
Valentina Lares is a journalist and managing editor of Armando.info, an investigative journalism site. She is the former Caracas correspondent for the daily El Tiempo in Bogotá, Colombia.
Translated from the Spanish by Francisco Toro