The Crisis of Representation

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The digitalization of all aspects of our lives has contributed to dramatically change the context for inter-personal and political communication, agenda-setting and policymaking.

Today’s digitally connected world is characterized by the high speed of information and communication flows, which reinforces the increasingly globalized nature of our societies and contributes to 'horizontalize' relations between citizens and elected representatives. However, many traditional political parties originate in the 19th century, and still use 20th century tools to face 21st-century challenges. This is creating an increasing disconnect between citizens and political parties, which is often referred to as 'the crisis of representation'. 

While more countries than ever conduct elections and democracy takes roots in new parts of the world, there is a parallel phenomenon of decreasing voter turnout, voter apathy, decreasing party membership, and the rise of populist movements in various parts of the world. We have seen that these movements create stiff competition to traditional political parties, defying their structures, ways of organizing, mobilizing, financing, expressing themselves and connecting to citizens. Disenchantment with traditional politics, entrenched corrupt practices, and the growing gap between political representatives and ordinary citizens, lies at the heart of their raison d’ȇtre.

However, to chant the demise of political parties is unwarranted for. Political Parties are here to stay. Nevertheless, there is a lot that they can learn from these emerging political movements, especially on new forms of interaction with citizens. For example a better use of technological tools to enable citizen engagement in between elections; new ways of recruiting and mobilizing members; reporting their financial incomes; and the need to reconsider the boundary between insiders and outsiders.

International IDEA aims to be a leading knowledge provider in this field and our recently launched Digital Parties Portal provides a good example. It is an online repository of international good practices of digital tools that political parties can use to more effectively reach and communicate with voters, fundraise and mobilize constituencies. The film Power in our Pockets: Social Media, Money and Politics in the Digital Age highlights the role that digital technology and social media can play in enhancing the accountability and transparency of political processes. Our online tool on Digital Reporting and Disclosure also assists financial oversight agencies to receive and publish political party and candidate financial data digitally, with the aim of enhancing transparency of political party finance.

If political parties are to survive in this new era of citizen engagement, they need to adapt fast. And International IDEA aims to be a trusted partner in that process.

Photo: Yves Leterme, Secretary-General, International IDEA

About the Author

Yves Leterme

Prior to International IDEA, Yves Leterme served as Prime Minister of Belgium from 2007 to 2011. Belgium held the Presidency of the European Union during Leterme’s tenure as Prime Minister. He then served as Deputy Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris from 2011 to 2014.