Political parties: history, structure, functions, financing

Political parties are i “mediators” between citizens and institutions. When we elect a person to a public office, we almost always do so through a party. The modern form of party was born around the end of the nineteenth centurybut over the years it has underwent numerous changes, linked to the more general evolution of society. In this article we see what a party is, how it works and how it is financed.

What is a party: definition and functions

In a very broad sense, a political party is a citizens' association who share the same vision of public affairs and want participate in political life of a territory. Each party has a political line that it pursues by shaping the will of citizens within the confines of democracy. Political parties are distinguished from political movements essentially by the scale of their action: movements tend to have a specific political objective, while parties aim to solve multiple problems at a national level.

The parties, at least in theory, represent the interests and needs of citizens within the institutions. Naturally the interests of citizenship are multiple and for this reason there is one plurality of parties representing different interests. Generally, parties are divided into right-wing, left-wing and centre-wing parties. The functions of the parties are broad. We can summarize the most important ones in this way:

  • Translate the needs from the company into political proposals (legislative proposals, requests for government interventions, etc.).
  • Join the selection of the ruling classpresenting their candidates in the elections.
  • Take part indevelopment of public policiesthrough the elected representatives in the decision-making bodies.
  • Socialize politically with citizensspreading their ideology and trying to attract them among their militants or at least among their supporters.

How political parties have changed: the evolution from their origins to today

Already in the most ancient civilizations, people who shared the same ideas on the management of political affairs created unstructured groups (i.e. without a structure with leaders, grassroots militants, etc.) and they “got together” to strengthen their proposals. However, the beginning of the history of modern parties can be associated with English revolution of the 17th centurywhich questioned the principle of absolute monarchy, and above all the French Revolution of 1789. The protagonists of the revolution, in fact, gathered in so-called political formations clubdivided by political current (Jacobins, Girondins, etc.), which were a sort of ancestors of the parties.

A session of the French Constituent Assembly.

In the'Eight hundred established themselves liberal political systems in which the power of sovereigns and governments was limited by Parliament. However, the parties were not yet born like the current ones, because political exponents sought consensus above all on the basis of their own network of personal relationships and not through a party structure or their own ideology. In Parliaments, however, they were formed groups of people who shared the same ideas and planned common actions. In other words, there were no parties among the citizens, but there was something similar within the legislative bodies.

Modern parties are equipped with a permanent structurewhich is always active and not only during elections, and is generally made up of central organs (secretary, central committee, etc.) e sections branched out across the territory. In many cases, mechanisms exist internal democracy and the managers are elected by the members.

In their current form, the parties were born between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. What made them necessary was the growth of participation of citizens in political lifewhich in many countries led to the introduction of Universal suffrage. To seek the consensus of millions of citizens and try to “socialize” them politically, networks of personal relationships were no longer sufficient.

Modern parties, in addition to being equipped with a permanent structure, they seek consensus on the basis of their political ideas (they are therefore defined mass ideological parties). This, of course, does not mean that personal relationships have disappeared in the search for consensus, but they are no longer the only source.

The first parties to be structured in a modern form were the socialist onesespecially the German Social Democratic Partyfounded in 1875. Gradually the “structured” parties spread throughout all liberal and democratic countries and in many cases also equipped themselves with collateral organizationssuch as youth leagues, sports groups, etc.

Demonstration of the German Social Democratic Party in 1919 (credit Bundesarchiv)
Demonstration of the German Social Democratic Party in 1919 (credit Bundesarchiv)

In Italy the first modern party was that socialist, founded in 1892, which was followed by others after the First World War. The golden age of the parties, however, was that of the so-called “first republic”, which lasted from 1946 to 1994, during which the parties, in addition to becoming the main subjects of political life, they brought together millions of militantswho regularly frequented the sections scattered throughout the area.

The parties of the “first republic”.

How political parties are formed: registration

From a bureaucratic point of view, the parties are private associations. To form a party it is necessary register the foundation deed with a notary, including the symbol. To present the party at the elections, however, certain bureaucratic requirements must be respected collect a pre-established number of signatureswhich varies depending on the electoral appointments (only already established parties are exempt, based on specific legal provisions).

The simple founding of a party, however, is a bureaucratic act with no political consequences. After founding the party, it is necessary take care of communication and propaganda, gather supporters, and carry out many other activities.

party creation

In general, parties are created for represent certain interests of citizenship or part of it. Most often they derive from splits of already existing parties, whose representatives are divided because they no longer share the political line. In other cases, i parties are born in Parliamentthrough the aggregation of deputies, and subsequently they can structure themselves and present themselves at elections, although this does not always happen.

Recent developments: the reaction against the parties

With the passing years the weight of the parties in society has decreased. The number of registered citizens is decreasing almost everywhere, also due to the evolution of communication: to propagate their ideas, today the parties use especially the media, while the activism of militants, which in the past was the most important tool, is much less used. Furthermore, ideological affiliations are less “resistant” than in the past, because voters change their political references more easily.

In recent years they have also established themselves personalistic parties, led by a leader who holds his position by his own charisma and must give little or no account to the militants and other leaders. In these cases, voters' support is directed towards the leader rather than the party as a whole.

The parties, after all, are often judged negatively by some citizens, who believe that they only serve the interests of their leaders. In Italy this attitude has spread especially following the 1992 bribery scandal. It is no coincidence that today political formations rarely use the name “party” and often define themselves in other ways: movement, league, etc., or with simple slogans. Nonetheless, the current political formations, even if they are called by other names, they are to all intents and purposes partiesbecause they carry out the typical functions of the political party.

How political parties are financed: the three tools

The activities of a party cost money: it is necessary to maintain a permanent structure, pay officials, take care of communication, etc. To finance themselves, parties mainly use three tools:

  • THE contributions that militants and supporters pour in through membership and for specific initiatives. Many parties also provide that whoever is elected to a paid political office (for example a deputy) gives part of the salary he receives to the party.
  • THE private financing (companies, cooperatives, etc.), which can finance parties because they share their political proposals or, sometimes, out of interest: that is, they expect that if the party they financed wins the elections, it will use its power to favor them.
  • The public financingforeseen in many countries, including Italy, because the parties, despite being private associations, perform a public function.
The symbols of the Republican (elephant) and Democratic (donkey) parties in the USA
The symbols of the Republican (elephant) and Democratic (donkey) parties in the USA.

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