Transitioning from a party to a movement | In Depth | DW | 11.07.2017
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In Depth

Transitioning from a party to a movement

Have the established forms of party politics outlived their purpose in a democracy? Movements and lists promise more citizen participation. But not all of them survive, and not all of them are as democratic as they seem.

Many people find political parties old-fashioned, stuffy and corrupt. Movement, on the other hand, sounds fresh; it sounds like public participation, openness, and, well, movement. It is no wonder that such groups are shooting up all over the Western world and competing against established parties. France has Emmanuel Macron's La Republique en Marche and Austria now has the Austrian People's Party under Sebastian Kurz. In Italy, the Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo has been in the news for a long time now, as has Spain's left-wing alliance Podemos.

Even US Democrat Hillary Clinton founded the Onward Together movement after her election defeat against Donald Trump. Like En Marche, it evokes the idea of a new beginning. The political scientist Carsten Koschmieder of the Free University of Berlin told Deutsche Welle that, "Those who are dissatisfied with the party system, are allergic to the word party. That is why new groups often do no call themselves a party." Lenz Jacobsen from Die Zeit, the German weekly newspaper, concluded that movements are attractive "because the term sounds innocent and unstoppable at the same time, as people gather together for a cause and not for the sake of power. Yes, movements have allegedly not been tainted by the necessities and ugliness of politics."


Sebastian Kurz gesturing while holding a speech in Linz

Austria's revamped ÖVP is tailored to Sebastian Kurz

But just how innocent and democratic are these self-proclaimed movements really? In Austria, 30-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has tried to convert the traditional Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) into a movement in which he wields almost unlimited internal power. The new name already says everything about his role: Liste Sebastian Kurz - the new Volksspartei (The Sebastian Kurz Liste – the New People's Party). In the Austrian newspaper Kurier, the Austrian political scientist Fritz Plasser calls the new ÖVP a "hybrid party" in which "a traditional party organization is complemented by an open platform." Carsten Koschmieder concludes that "Kurz does not want more democracy in the party, but instead, less democracy."

The former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky provided the newspaper Kurier with his explanation for his country. "The parties now barely play a role in the awareness and daily of life citizens." Now there are people like Sebastian Kurz who clearly distance themselves from their party. Apparently that goes down well.

Necessary professionalism

In Germany, a conversion of the Christian Democrat Union's (CDU) and Christian Social Union's (CSU) alliance, which resembles the ÖVP ideologically, is unimaginable. Koschmieder finds that the party system in Germany as too stable for this. He believes, however, that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) "is turning into a people's movement for a short while under Martin Schulz." But "it will not work out in the long term," also because one cannot work around local party associations. In general, a movement would have a problem in the long run. "At first, people like a grass roots movement. But then the question arises of how something serious and concrete grows from it."

Supporters of Macron wear T-shirts with En Marche slogans

Many of Macron's new joiners are political newcomers

The Pirate Party Germany failed. Disappointment often begins when a movement enters parliament or must assume certain responsibilities. Then groups lacking professional and established structures have a hard time. Koschmieder thinks Emmanuel Macron's La Republique en Marche has a shot at success. But his people in the National Assembly will probably ask themselves at some point, "Am I here to say yes to what Macron has come up with, or is this a people's movement – a democracy?" There is potential for conflict.

Learning from movements

It is no wonder that former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky has not given up on the standard party system. In Kurier he advises, "Do not throw away the parties and do not cling to people. Modernize the party so that it can keep up with the globalized world." Koschmieder believes, however, that the established parties can learn from the movements, for example "that one has to more actively involve not only the population, but also individual members."

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Nevertheless, one would be making a fatal error by copying the movements because "the movements are popular among the people, but they do not work." In Die Zeit, Lenz Jacobson also comes to the conclusion that the long path of political decision-making in parties is necessary. ​​"It takes a long time, and it often polishes interesting positions but also keeps special people in a modest position. Yet the process is valuable in itself because it involves people in politics and does not just impose decisions on them."

Germany's Pirate Party can tell us a thing or two about how quickly a movement can come to an end. In Austria, however, there was a party that was converted into movement – at least in name – and then a reconverted. In 1995, the former leader of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) Jörg Haider changed the party name to F Bewegung (F movement), even though it formally remained a party in order to keep state funding for political parties.

But very few followers joined the movement. At the end of 1996, the FPÖ returned to its normal party status and has remained that way since then. And yet, it is still worth trying out a movement today. Until recently, the FPÖ was the strongest party in Austria in the polls. Shortly after the ÖVP's conversion, it overtook FPÖ. The question remains whether Kurz's movement is just a phase like the one the FPÖ once went through.