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New Political Parties in the Information Age: Has Structure Really Become Useless?

12/12/2013 11:52 GMT | Updated 10/02/2014 10:59 GMT

In the last few years Europe has witnessed a profound transformation in the way politics is being done. New political parties and movements have emerged across the Continent, which are now challenging the modes and the outcomes of mainstream politics. From the German Pirate Party to the Italian 'Five Star Movement' (M5S), these groups explicitly reject the current political establishment, advocate a more participatory form of democracy and use the Internet as a platform for open discussion and policy-making. But what makes these new political exemplars truly exceptional is their structure: they tend to lack one.

No hierarchical framework or clear set of rules exists within these parties channelling the decision-making process. Formally - at least - policy grows out of the movement's grassroots rather than being agreed at the party's top floors. Using the software Liquid Feedback, the Pirates have set up a mechanism whereby citizens can express their vote on specific proposals, which, if approved, may then become part of the party's agenda. In a similar fashion, the M5S has employed the popular blog of Beppe Grillo - the movement's founder and leader - to select candidates, discuss issues and mobilise supporters.

The absence of the traditional coordination machinery sustaining the parties has led to an unprecedented degree of citizens' participation, a factor that played a key role in the rise of these new actors. Between 2011 and 2012 the Pirate Party succeeded for the first time in overcoming the 5 percent threshold required to enter a German State Parliament, winning 15 seats at the Berlin state elections. The success of the Five Star Movement was even larger: after a series of notable results at the local level, in 2013 it managed to secure around 25 percent of the vote nationally, thus becoming the major political force in Italy.

This new way of doing politics has called into question the effectiveness of the traditional party structure. Is a top-down framework increasingly becoming a burden for political parties in the age of digital communication? Is the 'network' the kind of structure the best suits the requirements of today's politics? My answer to both questions is the same: yes but only in part.

A closer look at the political trajectory of these new entities reveals that structure is not only important but also necessary for the organisation of big political groups. While a loose type of architecture presents considerable advantages in terms of reaching out to a geographically dispersed public, it is a problem when it comes to defining a clear political line and preserving the ideological coherence of a movement.

The Pirate Party has recently paid dearly for this lesson. The last twelve months have seen the Party being progressively eroded from within: members regularly attacked their leaders, while leaders attacked each other. Debating in an inherently anarchic space such as the Internet, combined with the Party's failure to establish clear rules regulating discussions, ended up enhancing internal confusion and discord.

Such an environment has prevented the Pirates from being able to formulate a comprehensive and unified strategy. The lack of well-defined procedures regarding the decision-making process has meant that proposals with high levels of support online could then be easily dismissed by Party members offline. It has also meant that on many crucial issues (e.g. the civil war in Syria) the Party failed to develop a clear position, limiting itself to abstract principles such as 'peaceful conflict resolution'. The result has been a rapid fall in voter's trust: at the last federal elections in September the Pirates didn't even make it into the Bundestag, securing just 2,2 percent of the vote.

The Five Star Movement may be experiencing a similar dilemma. Its networked structure has allowed it to reach an extraordinary number of people: in addition to its enormous following in Italy, the Movement also organises a range of activities across Europe. Two weeks ago I attended one of them in London. I found at least eighty strongly motivated activists, genuinely willing to reverse their country's course by promoting a type of politics run by the citizens for the citizens.

However, soon two major weaknesses became apparent. First, a large heterogeneity of viewpoints among activists: some wanted Italy to leave the Eurozone, others insisted on staying, no one really knew what the Movement's exact stance on the issue was; and when asked about the upcoming European elections, one MP in attendance candidly admitted that no direction had yet been given regarding the Movement's position in terms of alliances.

Secondly, participants themselves recognised that the Movement remains too vague on a number of key issues: from immigration and the environment to education and unemployment, many problems are only dealt with superficially or not dealt with at all in the Movement's programme. Such a dynamic has enabled Grillo and Casaleggio - respectively, the Movement's voice and mind - to often make delicate policy decisions on their own, which is hardly compatible with the ideal of direct democracy the Movement seeks to promote.

In the absence of a structure connecting the Movement's grassroots with its highest branches, the Five Star Movement may end up losing its intrinsic bond with the citizens and, therefore, its appeal as an innovative political force. The rapid decline of the German Pirates has already shown the dangers of overestimating the coordination powers of the Net while neglecting the risks inherent to it. We may be moving towards an increasingly decentralised and flexible way of doing politics. But at least for now, some form of organisational structure still remains vital for the proliferation of large political groups.