Factional Politics and People's Interest

As political parties grow old they become large and cumbersome, unable to take care of the interest of all their party members. Those in the inner circle form cliques and usurp all the privileges, while those at the periphery are pushed into weaker positions. This creates resentment and becomes the breeding ground for the birth of factions. Small coalition parties too carry some of the traits of factions, as they seek their own interest by supporting the stronger party, though coalition parties may not be treated as factions. Most coalition parties that help to form a government complain that they are not getting recompense for their contributions to keep the majority party in power. But both the collation and opposition parties can work effectively with factions within the ruling party to influence agenda and policies. 

The history of modern political parties reveals that it carries within itself personal differences and group interests in the form of factions or power blocs. These power blocs are mostly informal groups of different party members who swear allegiance to their factional leader. The factional leader in turn looks after the interest of his members. A faction is a DNA signature of the diverse and often conflicting goals and aims of a political party. An influential faction can be seen as a 'party within a party.' At times the goals of a faction may not match the goals of other factions, or may run contrary to the goals of the party itself. Factions often use the party's resources and infrastructure to bolster their own power by backing a specific agenda or person. 

The rise of factions has made the political process a game of inducement and numbers. Politics is now seen as a lucrative profession, a business transaction, and less as a vocation. We rarely come across leaders who are willing to make sacrifices and work amidst deprivation and loss for the welfare of the people. The professionalization of politics has created puny leaders who seek their own self-interest and neglect the interest of others. They do not lead people but advance their careers and if in the process they have to hoodwink their electorate they do so with impunity. The electorate too understands this quite well. This tendency is not unique to political parties alone but is shared equally by other social and economic organizations as well. 

The History of Factions

The notion of factions can be traced to the Latin word factio, which refers to the commercial activities of private companies during the Roman Empire organizing chariot teams with distinctive color markings for either entertainment or competition. Over a period of time some of these factio acquired ideological overtones and political power and began to shape the destinies of individuals. During the heydays of the Byzantine Empire chariot factions, represented by the blue and green colors, acquired the power to even influence royal succession. However to justify factionalism on the basis of its historical antecedents would be to beg the question. Latent within the evolution of political organizations are ethical and egalitarian principles that do not conform to the transactional clientelism of modern factions. 

The concept of factions has acquired a negative meaning in the democracies of many countries, but in some democracies factionalism has given greater credence and legitimacy to the individual. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines factions as 'a small group of people within a larger one whose members have some different aims and beliefs to those of the larger group.' Given the often surreptitious nature of factions their objectives are often unwritten and their organization rather amorphous. Some factions do possess a formal structure and appoint their members to positions of authority such as negotiators. Often the secretive nature of factional dealings makes it prone to undemocratic, unethical and fraudulent practices that undermine the democratic process itself leading to conflict and violence. One of the shortcomings of the democratic process, as it is practiced in most countries today, is the inability of the electorate to dismiss a government before the expiry of its term if the government does not fulfill its promises. Factions play an important role during this interim period to subvert the party or buttress its strength.

Factions are often held responsible for creating fissures and disunity within a political party, impeding its efficacious functioning or even breaking it. Rather than supporting the main agenda of the party, factions invariably end up fighting each other within the party or pushing their own agenda for the party to endorse. Different factions lobby important agendas or candidates to bolster their power or interest. Aspiring politicians use the power of factions to advance their careers or gain political influence. However the influence of factions may not be always negative. It is common knowledge that within a political party there are many individual differences that prevent the smooth functioning of the party. Instead of focusing on different individual perspectives, factions consolidate different opinions and make the results of the party deliberations more predictable. They negotiate with each other to achieve a common goal. Through this process they give a semblance of stability to the deliberations of the party on significant issues at the same time sacrificing certain ethical principles. Some supporters of factional politics go so far as to maintain that factional politics gives rise to party harmony and stability.

The historical experience, ethnic divisions, religious composition and other factors of nation states often govern political institutions and the functioning of political parties within them. From this point of view we can say that older democracies like Britain or France are different from younger democracies like the United States, Japan, India or China. By and large, older democracies can absorb greater self-criticism and possess a more streamlined factional politics, while younger democracies may not. The political discourse and normative standards too play a significant role in shaping the actual workings of organizations such as factions within a political system. If we analyze the factional politics of dominant political parties in Japan, India, Italy and the United States we can understand both the strength and weakness of political factions in these countries.

Factional Politics in the LDP

The Liberal Democratic Party is a party divided by faction and intrigue and yet it can negotiate amongst its nine factions to arrive at a common consensus to support a presidential candidate. In Japan factions publicize their support for ministerial candidates or a specific agenda. Few see factional support for ministerial candidates as negative or something to hide. This may have to do with the development of the party system itself.

During the 1950s most conservative parties in Japan felt threatened by the rise of the Socialist Party and combined to form the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP therefore reflected different group interests but never a single ideology. Broadly speaking it supports capitalism, anticommunism, antisocialism and security cooperation with the United States. Since it represents a wide range of domestic political interests it identifies itself with populist conservatism, social liberalism and right wing nationalism. The lack of a single ideological perspective is offset by factionalism, consensus and non-ideological politics. Factions within the LDP arrive at a consensus on various issues relating to cabinet positions, electing a party leader, foreign policy, elections and legislation quite easily. Perhaps it is because of the unique nature of Japanese factions that any discussion on public policy can be found within a party and not between parties. When both former prime ministers, Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, unilaterally chose candidates for the top three governmental positions it created enormous resentment within the different factions of the party and subsequently led to their defeat. 

In the recent political crisis created by the sudden resignation of Mr. Shonzo Abe as the leader of the LDP, the various political factions within the LDP are using their factional power base to elect a new president. The two LDP factions, the Machimura Faction and the Aso Faction, have fielded two leaders, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso. As support for the dovish Fukuda grows, other factions have given their support to the Machimura Faction. It seems inevitable now that with the support of 8 factions within the LDP, Fukuda would undoubtedly win. Although Fukuda may not be allowed to deliberate upon a situation independently, he will nevertheless have no problem whatsoever in arriving at a decision based on the interest of the dominant factions that have backed him in his presidential candidacy. As his victory becomes certain, Fukuda is approaching different factional leaders seeking their consensus over appointments in his new government. 

Factional Politics in the Congress Party

From its inception in 1885, the Indian National Congress (later called the Congress Party) sought popular support from different political leaders that at times cut across ideological and religious lines. This method created a working group of coalitions and factions that gave it strength but also threatened its very existence. Factionalism in the Congress emerged after the death of Gandhi in 1948 when Patel blocked the functioning of the dissenting Congress Socialist Party within the INC through a constitutional amendment. After independence factionalism retreated as charismatic leaders like Nehru led the people quite easily. The election in 1967 revealed the simmering conflict between the ministerial and organizational groups within the Congress party and once again gave rise to factional politics. Factionalism began to grow in response to Indira Gandhi's authoritarian and centralized rule in the 1980s. A lot of factions emerged along class, regional and individual lines to protect their interests. 

Political factions that emerged within the Congress were more difficult to handle than opposition political parties. Even before independence and the rise of the modern political party system, the political center in India was dominated by upper caste English educated Hindus. The political elites have always formed a homogenous network of connections that cut across party lines. Factions therefore emerged not so much in response to socio-economic interests of groups but in response to specific needs of the individuals who wished to enter higher echelons of political parties. So, it is difficult to find a radical difference between factions within the government and the opposition as they are all a part of the ruling elite class. 

It was relatively easy for the Congress to deal with regional political leaders from the opposition than with regional leaders from its own party, as many of the Congress leaders were also national leaders. In Uttar Pradesh the Congress Party could deal effectively at the local and district levels by diffusing tension between the Hindus and Muslims, creating caste-based alliances and empowering ex-landlords in the rural areas. As the Congress Party became corrupt and criminalized it began to lose its hold over Uttar Pradesh and created the conditions for the ascendancy of the fundamentalist Hindu party, the Bhartiya Janata Party or the BJP which controlled the government between 1998 and 2004. As the BJP became Congessified it lost its appeal and the reconstituted Congress Party returned to power as part of the United Progressive Alliance linked with the Left Front.

Factional Politics in the Democrazia Cristiana Party

The politics of Italy from the thirteenth century to the present reveal both the power and the politics of factions. Factional politics has helped the Democrazia Cristiana Party (DC) to dominate Italian post-war politics for nearly half a century, but personal interest arising out of factions has led to its demise.

The rise of factional politics in the middle of the thirteenth century was partially instigated by the conflict of interest between the emperor and the pope. However other factors such as the local and regional conflicts of the northern communes, the assertion of papal and imperial landowning rights and the reform movement were all responsible for the rise of factional politics. As the relationship between the bishops and the communes became stronger the pars ecclesiac or the party of the church gained political control of Italy driving the imperialist ideology out. This shaped early urban politics in Italy. The DC party controlled the government for a long time, basing its ideology on notions of social capitalism and political clientelism. It entered into collation with parties of all stripes just to retain power. This 'you help me, I help you' approach entered into political alliances as well, what Giovanni Sartori called 'polarized pluralism.' The system of factional alliances and party coalitions worked well, by providing a predictable, stable voting pattern. Leaders like Alcide De Gasperi, Giuseppe Dossetti, Amintore Fanfani, Aldo Moro and others controlled its politics, which was characterized bycorrenti or factions. However it had its flip side too. Too much of mutual self interest based on political clientelism can become too narrow ignoring the welfare of the people. The DC suddenly lost in 1992-94 amidst charges of corruption and sleaze. When Aldo Moro was abducted and murdered in 1978 by terrorists the DC party lost credibility as many conspiracy theories surfaced that remains unresolved till today. 

Factional Politics in the Republican Right

Though factional politics in the United States have not been clearly theorized it has always influenced not only domestic agendas but also the choice of presidential candidates and foreign policy. Most factions function on a clear ideology and work persistently to achieve their objectives. The Republican Party has many factions, which are by and large informal groups with their own specific agendas. Most of these factions are conservative and range from the religious right, neo-conservatives, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and paleo-conservatives to security oriented, states rights' oriented, log cabin republicans, liberals and libertarians. Then there are those whose ideas overlap as they share their sentiments with two or more than two factions. 

The religious right is socially conservative and comprises of Evangelicals, conservative Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews. Recently they have been campaigning against abortion, same sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research. They have always endorsed a larger role for religious organizations in constructing welfare programs in the United States. There are many important public figures in the religious right faction such as the former attorney general John Ashcroft and the activist Gary Bauer.

The Neo-Conservatives are known for their interventionist foreign policy that includes preemptive military strikes on any nation perceived to be a threat to the United States or the 'enlightened' western world. After the many failures and faux pas of the Bill Clinton administration in international diplomacy, American foreign policy turned somewhat isolationist, but when the neocons came to power they reversed this trend making American foreign policy more muscular and aggressive. The neocons believe that military intervention in any part of the world is justified if it serves US interest or endorses a moral position. Famous neocons are the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Neocons drummed up support for a unilateral military action in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein and contain his Baathist Party. The U.S. involvement in Iraq continues till date.

The social conservatives are emphatic about preserving moral values and oppose abortion and gay marriage. They want the U.S. to maintain a strong military and are against gun control, affirmative action and illegal immigration. A lot of them support school vouchers but some do not. Those who do not argue that government-sponsored education has not worked, or that government would use school vouchers to coerce churches to conform to its agenda. In the initial stages the No Child Left Behind Act endorsed the voucher system, which many institutions found suspect as it forced them to divulge personal information to military recruiters in lieu of receiving public funding. The fiscal conservatives like Newt Gingrich believe that the health of the U.S. economy would improve if taxation is reduced, domestic spending cut and deregulation is implemented. They support free market and open trade. The paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan campaign for a protectionist trade policy and oppose multiculturalism. They are more visible in the activities of think tanks and political publications. The Log Cabin Republicans are against the Religious right as the former support gay rights while the latter is against it. However there are many factions that overlap and differ on political and social issues. The support for President George W Bush in the 2004 reelection came primarily from the religious right faction. 


Most political analysts find that factionalism in politics is detrimental to the general health of the nation. By encouraging political clientelism, factionalism lays greater emphasis on self-interest than public interest and can turn unethical or deceitful. This may be truer especially in poor and unequal electorates where clientelism may lead to vote buying. A lot of factors influence factional politics within a political party, and often, factional politics can force a political party to choose clientelism politics over program strategies thereby undermining the interest of some groups, communities and the electorate at large. When this happens it can undermine the democratic process itself and can work against social welfare.     


More by :  Mukesh Williams

Top | Opinion

Views: 3319      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.