Since September 2018, I have been working on my doctorate in Politics at the University of Sussex where I am fortunate enough to be funded by the Chancellor’s International Research Scholarship. My research focuses on the relationship between political parties and the state in institutionalising party systems in South Asia. At its essence, party system institutionalisation is about how electoral competition between parties stabilises into a relatively continuous pattern with a predictable set of parties performing relatively consistently from one election to the next.
Evidence suggests that party system institutionalisation is beneficial for democratic consolidation, or at least averting democratic breakdown, as it provides predictability to the political system with voters able to develop expectations of the positions of the respective parties. A system lacking institutionalisation by contrast, would be one in which voters are faced with a completely new set of choices each election with no way of predicting how parties will behave or who will best serve their interests.
My research looks to challenge prevailing assumptions about the causes of party system institutionalisation which assumes that systems become stable if parties are institutionalised – which is usually understood as parties being well-organised and deeply rooted in society. Rather, I argue that electoral outcomes can stabilise without organisationally complex parties that have strong links to society. I argue that this can occur where parties are capable of supplementing these deficiencies with state resources.
Through my research, I am trying to better show the links between political parties and the state to show how parties interact with, and make use of the state to maintain the party organisation. This includes looking at how parties use the state to keep political activists within the fold of the party through party patronage and how parties use the state to fund clientelism and maintain links to society. As part of this project, I am constructing a new dataset spanning Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which, based on assessments by a group of experts on the region, will help with understanding the extent of party-state interpenetration and how parties link to society.
The dataset contains information on how parties are organised in terms of their internal processes for choosing leaders and policy and further assesses the strength of parties’ relationships to various groups in society as a measure of their societal rootedness. Additionally, it includes information on how parties maintain their relationships to these groups and the extent to which parties entice political activists with access to patronage. Ultimately, the dataset spanning countries and parties will be used to test my hypothesis that parties lacking formal organisation use their access to state resources to maintain the party and through this, remain prominent actors in the political system.
My interest in the topic was first sparked when I realised that South Asia was a particularly difficult case to reconcile with existing theories of party system institutionalisation and that, outside of India, relatively little research has been conducted on party systems in South Asia. Most democratisation literature regards political parties as leading actors in democratisation, yet relatively little attention has been given to the role of parties and their interaction in shaping the course of democracy in South Asia. I think that this gap also has broader implications for theorising in political science. I frequently read political science literature where there is a noticeable South Asia-sized gap – the filling of which, I think would prove useful for building more robust theories applicable to a broader range of contexts.
While my research currently focuses on South Asia, I am broadly interested in the challenges of governance and democratic consolidation in emerging democracies. Previously, I worked in South Africa on governance and security issues in Africa and I have since been teaching on governance in East Asia, and political thought at the University of Sussex. Beyond my doctoral thesis, I am also interested in research on the efficacy of democracy promotion initiatives and lately, I have been looking at how previously authoritarian parties compete in party systems after a transition to democracy.