Can Political Parties reform themselves to guide South Sudan?

Dr Moses Matur Chol, Assistant Professor at the University of Juba

By Dr Moses Matur Chol

The need for political reform is a recurring theme in political life in virtually all ten states of South Sudan. This by itself is enough to show that people are to a decree rejecting the ways in which politics is currently conceived and practiced. The mechanisms (parties, electoral processes, representation, etc.) that have traditionally been seen as the legitimate way of “doing politics” are in crisis and have lost credibility among a large population.

In other words, the people do not feel that they are part of these processes. Politics has become the exclusive province of elite groups and consists merely of maneuvers within traditional institutions. To make matters worse, the State is reacting to the economic crisis with a corporatist survival instinct and is becoming increasingly closed, a process that is leading to an even greater loss of legitimacy of spirits of liberation struggle South Sudanese fought for.

Given this situation, how can new ways of doing politics be conceptualized? How can new democratic institutions be created? These questions are for people’s organizations and grassroots movements to try and answer because most political parties are concerned exclusively with fighting for resources instead of elections.
The question of political reform is also featured in academic debates and in the media. In the realm of academia, it is little more than a subject for study or research, while in the media it is either treated as the potential solution to all the country’s ills or presented in a pejorative way. In both spheres, however, it is considered an instrument to improve governance by the State (to maintain elites in power) or to make administration more efficient (to cater more efficiently to the interests of these elites in power).

In the NGO sphere and particularly among grassroots movements that defend the interests of the majority of the people political reform is seen in a wider context. It is necessarily geared to promoting changes to the political system, political culture, society and the States in South Sudan. In short, political reform should be understood as reforming the decision-making process itself, which in turn means reforming power and the ways it is exercised.

Democratic principles and systems

Democratic principles must guide genuine political reform and be the basis for new institutional systems. These principles include equality, diversity, justice, freedom, participation, transparency and monitoring by the people. The peoples’ movements that are pressing for reform to the political system have a platform in which these principles are defined as follows:

1) Equality: The rights and responsibilities of women and men should be balanced. These grassroots movements are also against great differences in income and land ownership, and unequal access to a range of resources including health services, education, decision-making spaces, political representation and international trade.

2) Diversity: There must be respect for diversity, including differences in gender, age, race or color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or other factors. There is also diversity in the different geographical spaces that have some sort of social organization (e.g., urban and rural areas, traditional communities, shantytowns, riverside communities, indigenous communities) and regards the different economic activities of a space (e.g., natural resource extraction, handicraft, family farming, fishing).

3) Justice: Human, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights must be defended, rights that are being violated must be restored, rights that are not yet officially recognized must be claimed, and new rights should be created where needed. These movements are against practices that benefit private interests to the detriment of public well-being, and this includes cronyism, patrimonialism, nepotism, corruption, bigotry and discrimination. These movements support the democratic system, the republic as a form of government, the rule of law and the struggle against inequality and injustice in all its forms.

4) Freedom: This basic principle embraces freedom of expression and the right to popular organization and mobilization in political activities. These movements seek to guide citizens to express themselves and act politically to defend democratic values such as equality and human rights and to oppose and act politically to rectify situations in which there is social, political, legal or economic inequality. The principle of freedom presupposes the right to freely organize political parties.
5) Participation: This involves participation by the peoples’ democratic movements and organizations in public decision-making spaces. This should come about preferably through the institutionalization of direct democratic mechanisms that are participative and should bring peoples’ movements into the conceptualization, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of public policies. This is also a learning process insofar as it develops people’s abilities to intervene and function effectively in public decision-making spaces.

6) Transparency: There needs to be transparency and open access to public information, which should be available in a way that is intelligible to the population as a whole. This includes the ongoing wide dissemination of unbiased information about public decisions, not only in the field of elected or designated representatives but also in the realm of State bureaucracy. The State has an obligation to uphold ethical standards, increase communication between citizens and the government, and fulfil the human right to information.

7) Monitoring by the people: People’s movements and social organizations with a democratic base should act as a watchdog over the State apparatus and monitor what the government is doing. Good quality monitoring presupposes transparency in the public sphere and access to State information. The aim of monitoring by the people is to ensure that public policies are defended and implemented in line with the criteria of equality, universal participation, diversity, justice and liberty.

Tackling deep-seated problems

Genuine political reform must tackle problems that have their roots in the very origins of many countries, such as male dominance, patrimonialism, oligarchy, nepotism, cronyism, personality cults and corruption. In the platform of people’s movements these are defined as follows:
a) Male dominance: Any system of political, economic, industrial, financial, religious or social organization in which the vast majority of the senior positions in the hierarchy are held by men.

b) Patrimonialism: Political conduct on the part of dominant elites in the exercise of public government functions whereby public resources (of the States and/or its institutions) are appropriated as if they belonged to these elites.

c) Oligarchy: A form of government in which power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of individuals who are in many cases united by family ties or political connections, and who belong to privileged social classes. Typically, oligarchies tend to be dominated by men and function in a Patrimonialism way.

d) Nepotism: The practice of individuals in positions of executive power in the State apparatus granting favors by awarding jobs to their relatives.
e) Cronyism: The exchange of favors and mutual preferential treatment by individuals in executive positions in state structures and public services.
f) Personality cults: Creating cult status for individuals in the political sphere which leads to the devaluation of political debate and the de-politicizing of conflicts.
g) Corruption: When individuals appropriate or re-allocate public resources for private ends and are able to act with impunity and maintain themselves in power. Another aspect of corruption is that it is a way of usurping the power that rightly belongs to the people.

To whom does power belong and who should exercise it?

Returning to the South Sudanese case, the country’s Constitution defines the fundamental objectives of the Republic as “To construct a society that is free, fair and supportive”, “To ensure the development of the country”, and “To eradicate poverty and marginalization and to reduce social and regional inequalities” and “To promote the common good regardless of origin, race, ethnicity, gender, color, age or any other kind of discrimination”. It is also proclaimed that “All power emanates from the people and is exercised by representatives who are elected or directly appointed”.

If all power really does emanate from the people, as the Constitution stipulates, then the move to political reform is the move to find a way to return this power to the people. They should have the right to exercise power directly and not just through appointees or representatives. Today power is exercised basically by political parties and through appointment processes. Is this enough? Or should new ways be sought through which power can be exercised?

It is only too evident that the current institutions are unable to fully attain the objectives of the Republic of South Sudan as laid down in the Constitution, and there is a feeling that a gulf has opened up between the appointees and their representatives.

Political questions and heterogeneous organizations.

Political reform should be aimed at radicalizing democracy so as to tackle inequality and exclusion, promote diversity and foster participation by ordinary citizens. What is needed is a reform that can widen people’s possibilities and opportunities to participate in politics, that can include and process projects for social change, that can bring into politics those sectors of society that have been excluded such as women, people of different tribes, the young, people with different abilities, the elderly and all members of society who are being denied their rights.

However, these groups do not want to be “included” in the established order; they want to change the established order. And for this to happen, political reform must be seen as a key element in the criticism of the structural relations that make up the system, not only political relations but also personal ones. These population groups know that patrimonialism and the male dominance that goes with it, cronyism and its inseparable accomplice nepotism, populism and personality cults have all combined to eliminate ethical and democratic principles from politics. They know that these oligarchies are ridden with corruption and based on many kinds of exclusion including tribalism, ethnocentricity, sexism, homophobia and other types of discrimination. These are all structural elements that are built into today’s political system.

How can democracy be radicalized and still be coordinated with the system as it stands with its political parties and elections, for example?

One strategy has been to create nuclei or sectors within the parties themselves, but this approach has proven to be fragile. Even the strategy of founding a new political party has proved to have limitations. So, what new strategy can there be SPLM ruling party? There is as yet no clear answer to that question, but there are things in the air that might have the potential to trigger change, such as the whole process of constructing the Social Forum, the emergence of networks of grassroots organizations on a horizontal basis, public meetings to debate popular projects for South Sudan, and so on.

However, it is important when talking about these “new political questions” to have an idea of how these people’s movements and organizations are organized and of the political relations among them. The organizations in this field are not homogeneous; quite the contrary, they are extremely heterogeneous, their interconnections are complex and their political ideas vary widely.

One of these ideas is that the instrument of change is the States, and everything will be resolved when the contradictions inherent in the relation between capital and labor are resolved. Consequently to bring about change an instrument (a political party) is needed to compete for control of the States. According to this idea, for example, inequalities rooted in gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc., will be resolved automatically with the establishment of a socialist. Thus there would be a kind of hierarchy of movements consisting of a general movement that is concerned with the sphere of capital and labor (mainly the union movement), and also specific movements that are concerned with relations between people.

On the other hand, some people have ideas that have very little to do with the capital-labor relation or the class struggle, but Centre on the notion that it is possible to resolve inequalities rooted in gender, ethnicity, race, etc., just by winning over individual consciences. In this philosophy, the struggle on the institutional level, and hence the role of the States as one of the main forces perpetuating these inequalities, is not important.

This analysis of two kinds of approaches makes explicit some of the political differences and therefore possible strategies. Of course, it is only a simplified overview of a panorama that is in reality much deeper and more complex, as there are many more philosophies on the scene than the two mentioned here.

Core elements for political reform: new institutional structures:

In order to initiate the process of radicalizing democracy in South Sudan, action is needed in five broad areas, as follows:
a) Strengthen direct democracy;
b) Strengthen participative democracy;
c) Improve representative democracy (the electoral system and political parties);
d) Democratize information and communications;
e) Democratize the judicial system.
The Constitution includes several instruments for the direct manifestation of the people’s sovereignty. As to people’s direct initiatives, the regulations governing this process have become so complicated by bureaucracy and red tape that they are simply not viable as an instrument of direct participation. In fact, Parliament has used its power to impose regulations to neutralize all three instruments. They, therefore, need a new regulatory framework, and new forms and mechanisms for direct participation have to be created, such as a people’s veto, for example. One basic principle of this new regulatory structure must be that people are able to utilize these instruments.

Representative democracy needs to be improved and strengthened, with priority given to making political parties genuinely democratic and facilitating the incoming electoral processes. The essential priorities must be party loyalty, financing campaigns exclusively from public funds, closed-list voting and proportional representation with respect to gender and ethnicity. It must be possible for the citizens of the country as a body to revoke government mandates. Above all, there must be equity in political disputes that are carried on in the institutions of representative democracy.

Information and communications must be democratic. The information must be treated as a public good, and all citizens should have the right to produce and disseminate it under the same conditions. This means a public, people-oriented – rather than State – system of communications will have to be set up, a system with the power to counterbalance the power of the private information distribution media.

In addition, the judicial system must be democratic. A republic cannot have a judicial system that is as centred on itself as the one in Brazil today. There ought to be a system or mechanism that makes this state organ accountable to the population as a whole and obliges it to keep the public informed. There must be an overhaul of the ways in which judges are appointed and senior positions in the courts (including the High Court of appeal) are filled.

Power relations in society have to be made democratic as well, and this includes the relations between women and men, children and adults, and the young and the elderly, not only in people’s personal lives but also in the public sphere. From this perspective, democracy is much more than a formal political system, it is also the way in which people are interconnected and organized. Therefore, bearing these factors in mind, political reform means giving power back to the people. It should never have been taken from them in the first place.

How can parties be reformed in South Sudan?

a) Income tax returns have to be filed by political parties and organization elections have to be conducted as per orders passed by the Election Commission of South Sudan.
b) Every candidate who contests elections has to give an affidavit providing details of criminal cases pending against him and details of his properties. This has been made mandatory due to the orders should pass by the High Court of South Sudan. This order is to keep a check on criminals and money power.
c) Due to the above-mentioned order of the High Court, citizens have information in the public domain. However, there is no system to cross-check the information given by contesting candidates.
d) To keep a check on the Defection by appointed or elected Members of Parliament (MP) or Members of Legislative Assembly who defected for cash rewards or reward of ministry; Constitution is to be amended to prevent elected MP’s from changing parties. If they do, they will lose their seats in the Legislature.
e) To regulate the internal affairs of political parties, a law must be framed so that elections will be held within the party to fill the highest positions in the party. If there are disputes in the party, an independent authority must be appointed, there needs to be a registry of members of the political parties.

By Dr Moses Matur Chol, Assistant Professor at the University of Juba

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