One hears a lot these days about political parties, the shuffle and reshuffle of personalities and policies. Sometimes, indeed, there seems to be more interest in the parties than the work of government: if a party was not successful at the last election a big effort must be made to win next time. That can be exciting.
In a democratic system parties compete to get the biggest number of members elected to Parliament, and if successful to be able to form the government. In a more autocratic system there may still be parties, but they have less influence.
People work effectively in groups: As a general rule people are more effective working in groups, speaking more or less with one voice, promoting or defending coherent interests – common interests. They are alliances to get things done. In a democracy they generally express a more or less consistent approach to issues, which may be called their philosophy – and at times they may have noisy disagreements and people may resign, or just fade away.
All good citizens should take a responsible interest in politics – the management of the community – and look for others with similar ideas, principles and interests, or worries and fears. They should argue that their approach to current issues is the best for the community as a whole (and that in due course the voters will decide).
Life goes on. New issues arise. Old problems seem to disappear. The economy develops. Improving communications change everybody’s range of contacts and sources of information. Over time parties shift their focus, some people drop out and new (maybe younger) people arrive with fresh ideas.
How political parties work: The actual process changes from country to country. Initially some enthusiasts form a party, people join (possibly paying a subscription). Members chose a candidate – or ambitious citizens find a party reflecting their ideals – and support them during the election. Once in Parliament members of the same party work together in government or opposition.
But much depends on personalities, developments locally, or events around the world.
And in some countries the political parties will play an active part in local as well as national elections. A member of a city council can also be a member of Parliament.
In federal systems – such as the US and Australia – the individual states elect a local Parliament and premier or governor, and then (at another time) a federal Parliament and overall president. The political parties are active throughout the system. A high proportion of the citizens are actively involved at all levels.
A Pacific Parliament?: An interesting recent development is the formation by the European Union of a European Parliament, with headquarters at Strasburg. Members of Parliament from the 27 member states meet to discuss issues affecting the Union. Participants carry with them their home party membership, and they link up with people with broadly similar approaches: a Conservative from Britain will work together with others in the informal “centre right” grouping. This is all still somewhat experimental. The processes are not yet firmly settled, and the role and power of the European Parliament is still being debated.
But it is a remarkable step. Citizens and politicians and we all are, at home (and now?) abroad. Can we imagine in a few years time a South Pacific Parliament meeting – where?
Keep informed: It underlines the importance for citizens and party members to keep themselves reasonably well informed on local, domestic, regional and international developments. It is a big responsibility.
By Roger Peren, Board member, Centre for Citizenship Education.
Written April 19, 2010
Updated May 2, 2010