Political Parties and Ideological Mainstreams
By Ronald Meinardus
It is a fundamental insight that more than one solution is available
for any given societal problem. How and with what recipe a government
chooses to tackle a political, economic or social challenge is
strongly determined by ideological inclinations. Basically, we
can differentiate between three political paradigms -- socialism,
conservatism and liberalism. In pluralistic democracies, these
three mainstreams (or combinations of the three) tend to be represented
in competing political parties in one form or the other.
Still, in today's political world, it is not always easy to identify
political leaders with clear-cut political profiles. Ideological
convergence has led to political confusion. In many countries,
political parties are mere voting clubs, political machines without
ideological content. This is particularly the case in many Asian
countries, where political parties and ideologies for various
historical, cultural and sociological reasons play a rather different
role than they do in the so-called developed democracies of the
West. I have become aware of these differences in the past years
working for the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation, first in South Korea
and now in the Philippines; in both countries, members of political
parties are important target groups of our educational programs.
In South Korea, geography remains a stronger political force than
ideology. The voters' decision on election day is not so much
determined by ideological preference, but by regional criteria.
I will never forget that not-so-funny political joke with which
a Korean friend explained to me this phenomenon shortly after
I had come to Seoul many years ago. "(Former political leader)
Kim Dae-jung could nominate even a dog as a candidate for mayor
in his hometown in the southwest of the peninsula, and the people
would vote for it."
Importantly, all major political forces in South Korea agree that
political regionalism is not compatible with a modern democratic
order and must be overcome. Fortunately, there are indications
that traditional voting patterns along geographical lines are
weakening due to ongoing urbanization and modernization.
While in Korea the political parties are well-established and
powerful organizations with branches in all parts of the country,
political parties as organizational entities are more or less
inexistent in the Philippines. In a commentary titled, "The
crisis of political parties," a well-known Filipino columnist
and sociologist lamented "the increasing insignificance of
political parties to our national life." Most observers here
would agree with his observation that "Filipinos vote for
individuals, not parties. They don't take political parties seriously."
Another respected local columnist gave the following explanation
for this state of affairs: "In the Philippines, political
parties are indistinguishable from one another. They have no platforms,
principles and programs of government. Politicians are political
butterflies who flit from one party to another at their convenience."
A while ago, I read a commentary in an international newspaper
entitled, "Right, left and center are out of fashion."
There, the author argues that voters in many traditional democracies
are no longer interested in ideological concepts and are solely
looking for political competence or -- as the writer states --
"less incompetence, whatever ideology." While, indeed,
disenchantment of voters with the political class is a serious
problem in many democracies (and political opportunism and turncoatism
tend to enhance popular disgust with politicians), I cannot agree
with the generalization that the citizens don't have ideologically
(and also sociologically) determined political and partisan preferences
anymore. In spite of all the talk about an "end of ideologies"
(or even "the end of history"!), throughout the world,
the labels left, right and center continue to dominate political
discussions -- and decisions.
The popular political topography of left, center and right may
be traced back to the early days of parliamentary politics in
Europe some 200 years back. Until this very day, even a superficial
analysis of political debates in more or less any country will
reveal underlying ideological preferences. While, surely, not
all democracies in Asia have competing socialist, conservative
and liberal political parties, listening carefully one may easily
identify politicians exposing these ideologies.
Then what are the main differences between these mainstreams?
And what are their core principles?
Socialists share the fundamental belief that it is up to the state
to solve the problems of society. This conviction has major implications
for economic policies, for when they are in government, socialists
tend to restrict economic freedom and private property as these,
in their eyes, generate or perpetuate social differences. For
a socialist, "collective ownership" is considered the
best safeguard against inequality. This is the exact opposite
of the liberal credo. For liberals, private property is a basic
human right. Therefore, liberals support the market economy. The
promotion of economic freedom and political freedom stands at
the very core of the liberal agenda. The shortest -- and therefore,
in my eyes, best -- definition of liberalism comes from the former
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who said that "democracy
and the market economy are two sides of one coin."
Unlike liberals and socialists, conservatives share a fundamental
belief in the existence of a God-given order, a metaphysically
determined status quo that needs to be protected and "conserved"
(thus, the term conservative). Therefore, throughout the world,
conservative parties often have a religious dimension, with the
Christian Democrat movement arguably the most powerful globally.
For liberals, religion and politics should be clearly separated.
Over the centuries, the demand for religious tolerance has been
a cornerstone of the liberal agenda. The quest for tolerance has
never been so timely as today with religious fundamentalists once
more leading the world to the abyss of a "clash of civilizations."
Business World Internet Edition, Manila : July 28, 2003
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Dr. Ronald Meinardus was the former Resident Representative
of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the Philippines and will
leave Manila late September for a new posting in the Middle East.
He writes a blog at www.myliberaltimes.com