Party Systems Research Paper

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A party system is the system of interactions between political parties that results from their mutual competition or cooperation (see Sartori 1976, p. 44). For party systems to exist there must therefore be more than one party involved. One-party states do not have party systems. Beyond the requirement for a plurality of parties, party systems can be said to exist only when these interactions between the parties are patterned, familiar, and reasonably predictable. A plurality of parties is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition for the existence of a party system. Parties that exist alongside one another, but that do not interact in any patterned or structured fashion, do not make for a party system as such.

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While it may seem difficult to conceive of situations in which a plurality of parties exists without at the same time embodying a set of patterned interactions, two types of limiting cases can be identified. The first is where each of the parties involved exists in an entirely self-sufficient world, based on a closed electoral constituency, with neither its survival nor performance being in any way effected by the other parties in the polity. Even in this limiting case, however, the absence of interactions at the electoral level might well be accompanied by the need to interact—through competition or cooperation—at the parliamentary or governmental level. Thus, while no electoral party system would exist, it might well prove possible to speak of a party system in parliament. The second type of limiting case is where a new multiparty democracy is being established more or less from scratch, such as in the wake of a democratic transition, and where neither the new parties themselves, nor their interactions, have stabilized sufficiently to allow the identification of a distinct pattern. In these situations, a party system may be in the process of being structured or institutionalized but it cannot yet be said to have definitely emerged. In their survey of party systems in Latin America, Mainwaring and Scully (1995) adopt a similar distinction in specifying party systems as either ‘institutionalized’ or ‘inchoate.’ Strictly speaking, however, an inchoate or noninstitutionalized party system is a contradiction in terms: to be a system is to be institutionalized.

1. Classifying Party Systems

Although scholars have paid relatively scant attention to what defines a party system as such, tending instead to assume the existence of a party system in all polities where there exists a plurality of parties, they have devoted considerable effort to distinguishing between different types of party system. The most conventional and frequently adopted approach to distinguishing party systems is based simply on the number of parties in competition, and the most common distinction involved here, which goes back to Duverger (1954), is very straightforward—that between two-party systems, on the one hand, and multiparty (i.e., more than two) systems, on the other. This particular classification was also believed originally to reflect a more fundamental distinction between more or less stable and consensual democracies, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, which were seen as typical of the two-party variety, and more or less unstable or conflictual democracies, such as Fourth Republic France, Italy, or Weimar Germany, which were seen as typical of the multiparty type. Although this simple association of numerical categories of party system with levels of political stability and efficacy was later undermined by reference to a host of smaller democracies that were characterized by both a multiplicity of parties and a strong commitment to consensual government, the core distinction between two and multi-party systems has continued to be widely employed within the literature on comparative politics, although it is sometimes modified by taking into account not only the sheer numbers of parties in competition, but also their relative size. Thus, Blondel (1968), for example, uses the relative size of the parties to distinguish four types of party system: two-party systems, two-and-a-half-party systems, multiparty systems with a dominant party, and multiparty systems without a dominant party.

The most substantial attempt to move away from a primary reliance on the simple numbers of parties in competition was that of Sartori (1976, pp. 117–323), who combined counting the parties with a measure of the ideological distance that separated them. Sartori’s typology was the first that focused directly on the interactions between the parties—the ‘mechanics’ of the system—and hence on the differential patterns of competition and cooperation. Following this approach, party systems could be classified according to the number of parties in the system, in which there was a distinction between systems with two parties, those with up to some five parties (limited pluralism) and those with some six parties or more (extreme pluralism); and according to the distance that separated the parties lying at either extreme of the ideological spectrum, which would either be small (‘moderate’) or large (‘polarized’). These two criteria were not wholly independent of one another, however, in that Sartori also showed that the format of the system, that is, the number of parties, contained ‘mechanical predispositions,’ that is, it could help determine the ideological distance, such that extreme pluralism could lead to polarization. When combined, the two criteria resulted in three principal types of party system: twoparty systems, characterized by a limited format and a small ideological distance (e.g., the UK); moderate pluralism, characterized by limited or extreme pluralism and a relatively small ideological distance (e.g., Denmark or the Netherlands); and polarized pluralism, characterized by extreme pluralism and a large ideological distance (e.g., Weimar Germany, early postwar Italy, or pre-Pinochet Chile). Sartori also noted the existence of a ‘predominant-party system,’ in which one particular party, such as, for example, the Congress party in India, or the old Unionist party in Northern Ireland, consistently won a winning majority of parliamentary seats.

2. Party Systems And Structures Of Competition

At the core of any party system is the competition for executive office. It is this that structures the party system in the first place, and facilitates its institutionalization. Moreover, albeit often implicitly, the competition for executive office is also the most important criterion employed in many of the various classifications of party systems. Two-party systems, for example, are referred to as such not because there only two parties present themselves to the voters— indeed, this is rarely if ever the case—but rather because only two parties matter when it comes to forming a government, be this in a presidential or a parliamentary system. In two-and-a-half or multiparty systems, by contrast, there are more than two parties that enjoy the potential access to executive office. Even within the more complex classification developed by Sartori, it is the competition for office that proves most important. Sartori’s moderate pluralism, for example, involves competition between alternative coalition governments, whereas polarized pluralism involves a patterns in which a center party or parties is more or less permanently in office, with one or more extreme parties being permanently excluded from government.

It follows from this that party systems might best be understood not only in terms of some all-embracing classification, within which the question of the numbers of parties in competition obviously plays an important role, but also in terms of contrasting patterns of government formation (Mair 1997, pp. 199–223). Three related criteria are important here. The first concerns the ways in which governments alternate with one another, where systems in which there is a regular process of wholesale alternation, in which incumbents are replaced wholly by former nonincumbents, may be separated from those in which alternation is only partially complete. Systems in which two alternative parties or coalitions alternate with one another (the USA, the UK, Fifth Republic France) may therefore be distinguished from those in which one or more parties leaves office, while another remains, albeit often with a new coalition partner (Belgium, the Netherlands). The second, relevant criterion here is familiarity, where systems in which government is always contested by the same parties or sets of parties may be contrasted with those in which patterns of government formation prove more innovative or promiscuous. In postwar Ireland, for example, voters had long become accustomed to facing a choice at election time between, on the one side, the powerful Fianna Fail party, which always governed alone, or, on the other side, a coalition of all of the smaller parties. Once Fianna Fail decided to opt for a coalition strategy, however, in 1989, government formation became more innovative, and the formerly familiar patterns broke down. The third criterion involves the degree of access to the government formation process, and the extent to which new parties can hope to win a place in the executive. New parties have always found it relatively easy to join innovative government coalitions in the Netherlands, for example. In the UK, by contrast, no party other than the Conservatives or Labour has gained access to government since 1945.

Putting these three criteria together enables party systems to be ranged along a notional continuum according to the degree to which the structure of competition is open or closed. At one extreme lie the wholly closed systems, such as the UK or the US, where alternation in government is always wholesale, where government formation processes are wholly familiar, and where new or third parties are always excluded. At the other extreme, it is difficult to speak of a party system at all: there is no discernible pattern in how governments alternate, the potential alternatives themselves are unfamiliar and may never have governed before, and access to office is, in principle, open to all. To travel from this latter extreme to the other is therefore to witness the progressive closure of the structure of competition, which is simply another way of saying that systemness itself increases. Party systems as systems are strongest and are most institutionalized when the structure of competition is closed. They are weakest, and more or less nonexistent, when this structure is wholly open.

To understand party systems in this way, and hence to treat the systemness of a party system, or its degree of institutionalization, as a variable, also affords an insight into the question of the persistence and change of party systems. Strongly institutionalized party systems will inevitably enjoy a bias towards persistence, not least because the parties at the core of such systems will have a vested interest in maintaining the existing structure of competition. It is for this reason, for example, that Lipset and Rokkan (1967) could speak of the ‘freezing’ of west European party systems in the wake of full democratization in the 1920s. Less institutionalized systems, on the other hand, will prove more susceptible to change. This approach also affords an insight into the relationship between party systems and individual parties, for it is not just the individual parties that together create the party system, but also the party system that acts to reinforce the role and standing of the parties themselves.


  1. Blondel J 1968 Party systems and patterns of government in western democracies. Canadian Journal of Political Science 1: 180–203
  2. Duverger M 1954 Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. Methuen, London
  3. Lipset S M, Rokkan S 1967 Cleavage structures, party systems and voter alignments: An introduction. In: Lipset S M, Rokkan S (eds.) Party Systems and Voter Alignments. Free Press, New York
  4. Mainwaring S, Scully T R 1995 Introduction: Party systems in Latin America. In: Mainwaring S, Scully T R (eds.) Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  5. Mair P 1997 Party System Change: Approaches and Interpretations. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  6. Sartori G 1976 Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  7. Wolinetz S B, Brookfield U T (eds.) 1998 Party Systems. Ashgate, Aldershot, UK


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