Factionalism: A Blessing In Disguise?


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Political parties are not homogeneous in composition but are held in place by balancing the centripetal forces that bring everyone to the table e.g. need to be elected into office and the centrifugal forces that push people away from each other e.g. differences in policy, personality and preferred candidate choices.

For starters, please allow me to put it clearly that political organisations are none monolithic in nature. For democratic organisations, none monolithicism is usually noticed during the formative stages or leadership and policy transformation especially at conventions. Otherwise these underlying deep ripples or waves are usually suspended momentarily in face of challenging times such as national elections and other events that threaten survival of the party resulting in a false solid water-tight monolithic structure, usually the order of the day in undemocratic parties, being exhibited.




Political parties have four distinct classes of membership i.e.

Party voters(these are active in the party activities especially in voting),

Passive party members( These have never held public office or been elected to any party office, they are not active in the party activities), Non office holders (these are active behind the scenes party members, sacrificing resources for the party, but have never held and office publicly or in the party), Public office holders (these include MPs and Councillors for a party).

Whichever of the four distinct classes mentioned you find yourself in when you join a political party, basically you are either a Principal or follower (called voter at times). Followers usually do not originate any factionalism. These are vocal, aggressive or violent and all but they vocalise what the Principals tell them to be vocal about. Principals group is the most volatile and delicate group in all organisations. Under Karl Marx’s stratification this Principals group would be classified among those who own means of production. Due to the intellectual capabilities of the people in the principals group, fissures always come up in this subgroup further dividing it into leaders and activists splinter sub-groups.

These two distinct sub-groups – Leaders and Activists are the engine of most organisations. Leaders will always gravitate towards mass opinion, regardless of ethical issues which may arise. Their focus is on getting elected under whatever circumstances. Activists on the other hand are policy oriented. They do not gravitate towards masses to even break their principles but instead toe the line and keep clear of ethical considerations in line with organisational standing rules.




The Cambridge dictionary defines a faction as: A group within a larger group, especially one with slightly different ideas from the main group.

Also using Steven Weldon’s theory on May’s Law we can safely say all political parties are held intact though existence of factions. Strange thing hey? Factions (sometimes called alliances or wings) can come to existence through similarities or differences in gender, age or policy perspective amongst members. These factions allow creation of platforms to express one’s self without shaking the whole party.

Women made a lot of noise for women rights, to the extent of refusing to be part of political party systems. Women pressure groups coalesced women into one unity and allowed them to speak with one voice even in political parties. Party leaders had no choice but to stamp and officialise the women faction as women league or wing or section. Same thing happened with youth. Their faction was officialised. Then came the policy and strategy factionalists. These are hard to formalise as the policies are open to interpretation and keep changing unlike youth age or gender of a person. It is this policy faction that creates problems for most party leaders.

The taxonomy of factionalism in organisations is in three levels which are cooperative, competitive and degenerative. Most inter organisational factionalism falls into the cooperative category, while most intra party factionalism is mostly competitive in nature. Degenerative is found both in intra and inter party interactions. It has been to the detrimental of political parties to think that all factionalism falls into one category – the degenerative category.

A leader of a political party or any organisation must not panic when they discover that their party has factions: it is very normal and expected. It shows your organisation is healthy and democratic. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder.


Andrea Ceron still argues that party’s members are not equal among themselves. They retain their non-identical preferences and different perspectives on how party strategy and party platform ought to be. But due to their limited influence as single units, members with similar preferences coalesce to gain influence on internal decision-making.

Within each party several members cluster together creating rival subgroups (factions) to enhance their stakes. Intra-party politics then is characterized by a twofold process: on one hand these subgroups face the incentive to compete against each other (competitive factionalism) to share the private goods (office, policy and electoral payoffs) while at the same time they need to cooperate (cooperative factionalism) in order to preserve party unity, which is the public good that allows to gain access to the payoffs.

Every time faction’s negotiation outcome/return is unsatisfactory, the subgroup faces the centrifugal force to leave the party joining another one or competing on its own to produce the good. Every time a faction proves to be degenerative in nature to the party itself it will be sent off. In this sense the party is the arena where groups with similar but non-identical preferences bargain to reach an internal equilibrium.

Sometimes factionalism arise as a result of membership reacting to corruption in the party. If ignored these voices of disgruntled members become a stumbling block to the progress of the party. Their anger limits creativity and personal push from other members usually marking the genesis of degenerative factionalism.

For the sake of preserving unity this equilibrium must take into account the stakes of all factions according to their contribution to the public good. This factional agreement will be the shield behind which the party achieves its unity to compete in the electoral market and in the parliamentary arena


The existence of a factional system can have serious negative consequences for a political organisation if not handled well. If factional strife becomes intensive and public, the organisation may suffer from perceptions of disunity. Taken one step further, if the conflict is particularly severe, it may cause ruptures within the organisation that seriously impede its effectiveness, leading to break-up or collapse of the organisation.

To avoid detection, factional operations are usually conducted under strong secrecy and with minimal public scrutiny. This, however, can lead to the proliferation of unethical behaviour. Warfare between the factions may lead to tactics such as ballot box-stuffing, stack-outs, membership fraud, and other generally fraudulent conduct.

Individuals who abandon a faction may be subject to intense personal vendettas where their former comrades go about sabotaging their careers. A climate of intense factional conflict can also motivate individuals to focus on attacking their factional enemies rather than furthering the broader organisation.

Factionalism leads o voter apathy or protest vote in some cases. Faction members end up resorting to using ballot box to communicate with their leader. It usually leads to serious damage to the party and at times it may not recover from it. Such faction members are even capable of initiating the self discruction path for the party. These members get to a stage where they resort to: it’s either us or them mentality as they fight for attention.


Harnessed correctly, factions act as internal party watchdogs or pressure groups that keep party leadership under check. This in a long run creates democracy and propagates betterment of the party in many ways. Unfortunately most often than not, factions (read alternatives views) are crushed brutally or ignored in non-democratic parties. This leads to frustrations and quick metamorphosing of these factions from competitive or cooperative into the degenerative form.

The aims of a political faction are as diverse as the different types of bodies within which they appear. Typically, however, they include: advancing a particular policy or policy agenda, preventing the adoption of alternative policies and supporting given individuals to positions of power within the organization or in the wider political world.

A faction can primarily be based around supporting a given person or group, or a single major aim, with little in the way of common agenda otherwise, or it can have a comprehensive and definitive set of policies. Either way, factional politics typically revolve around personality, with a few individuals playing key roles, acting as a magnet for like-minded people, leading the activities of the faction, and acting as a prominent voice for the shared objectives of the faction.

Factions differ in the amount of organisation and internal structure they possess. Most factions are very loose organisations, having no definitive list of members(policy factions), but some factions, have a formal internal structure(women or youth wings), with membership lists, regular meetings, official positions – such as negotiators, conveners, whips, and organizers, – and a definitive policy position on every issue affecting the broader organisation. Such factions will typically be binding; that is, they rely upon all members casting their votes in accordance with the pre-ordained official stance of the faction.

In any political organization there are likely to be many highly opinionated and passionate people. The existence of a factional system allows its operations to be more predictable and stable. Compromise and give-and-take between factions allows the organisation to operate without having to satisfy the whims of many different, uncompromising individuals who might otherwise cause a split. So, somewhat counter-intuitively, factionalism can actually promote organisational harmony.

Factions also help to broaden and diversify the organisation’s appeal. A person who might otherwise find the organisation’s goals unattractive might be persuaded to support a faction within it whose goals are closer to their own. Just as a democratic government is often invigorated by a strong opposition, so having a number of distinct points-of-view with an organisation can energise it and allow it to perform its role more effectively. It is also highly unlikely that any sizeable political organisation is wholly united in purpose, so arguably factions simply represent a way of managing pre-existing differences within the organisation.

Despite all this, the benefits of factional systems are still overlooked. It is often incomprehensible to outsiders why members of a broader organisation would engage in factionalism. This stems from the assumption that the natural factional relationship is one of conflict and strife, when in fact, factions are often able to engage in productive co-operation.


Most leaders believe their job is to be on lookout for emergence of factions and to keep factionalists atomised. That is where they lose it.

The greatest threat to survival of a political party is not the existence of other rivalry parties. The greatest threat to survival of a political party lies within the organisation, especially in a organisations that have at least one capable leader. The silent killer to these parties is the usual stand where there is an unfounded principle that people belonging to a certain party are unitary in reasoning and ideology. Armed with such mentality, usually leaders will be on constant lookout for anyone raising their head, or even eyes at times. Such people are quickly labelled “factionalists”. Such (mis)Leaders have a misguided notion that factions are ephemeral.

What becomes tricky is HOW you deal with the factions. As a leader of an organisation your paramount job will be to identify the ring leader(s) of a faction and understand what makes them tick. When you deal with the faction leader you would have subsequently dealt with a thousand of followers behind him. By the time you meet the whole faction team you will be welcomed with warm hands.

Never try to eliminate or victimise the alpha factionist(s) as you risk creating a guerrilla underground movement which will strike you with a velvet glove. By victimising the alpha factionalist(s), you create a heroes out of nothing. People are attracted to heroes. Do not ignore the concerns of the factions. They usually run deeper than they look from a distance. Never make a mistake of picking the most vocal or visible factional person and mistake them for a leader of a faction, it would be better if you drank rat poison than to do that high school boy mistake.

Usually victims of factionalism purges are not the faction leaders themselves but the most vocal followers of that faction. After expelling a lot of members, usually party leaders get amazed that the faction they seek to kill still exist albeit under different names or form. The war of factionalism is never solved using a hammer and sledge instead it is solved through compromise and understanding.

Factional leaders usually have emotional and personal attachments to people even those who could not even acknowledge them in public. If a party removes or deals brutally or expels the faction leader from the party, this leader usually leave alone physically but emotionally and psychologically he leaves with a thousand more. Gaining a hundred new members does not equate to losing one physically and a thousand psychologically. That is one danger most parties do not understand.

Usually we mistake factionalism to infiltration. This is a wrong approach in many ways. First of all, an infiltrator does not come to the front nor lag behind. They are always in the middle of a larger crowd. Hence when u expel faction leaders, one is not removing any infiltration but instead reducing numbers of genuine members hence making it easy for the infiltrator to study each person. An infiltrator would rather your organisation survives than for them to start a new infiltration assignment. Rarely would they cause its split, unless in extreme cases when the assignment calls for such.

By Mangosuthu Mbele

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    You dont even know what “Shona” means, yet you wear it as a bage of honour. Some real certified idiots indeed!!