Political Parties Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. The Formation of Political Parties

III. Party Organizations

IV. Party Systems

V. Formation of Government

VI. Decline of Parties

VII. Implications for the Future of Parties and Party Systems

I. Introduction

Political parties and party systems are of interest to the scholar of comparative politics because they are constantly in flux. A common understanding of the political party, according to Leon D. Epstein (1967), is of a group that “seeks to elect governmental officeholders under a given label” (p. 9). Party systems are described by the number of parties within a given country during a given time, along with their “internal structures, their ideologies, their respective sizes, alliances, and types of opposition” (Duverger, 1972, p. 18). Party systems can have as few as one major political party, or may have many political parties. Elections are the venue in which competition for government office takes place. Elections bring changes in the policies advocated by parties, the seats held by political parties, and of course the composition of government. It is important to note that political parties do not make changes in a vacuum; change often comes in anticipation of, or in reaction to, changes that other political parties in the system make. This makes the party system a system of interaction between political parties (Sartori, 1976).

This research paper will examine political party systems in a comparative context. We will begin with a broad discussion of political parties. The difference in number, type, and ideology of political parties across different party systems has much to do with the political development of a polity. Though there may be similarities in the ideologies of political parties in different systems, the parties may behave differently because of the dynamics within their own systems. Political parties that would never work together in one system because of ideological differences may be coalition partners in another system. This may have to do with the electoral rules of a system and the prospects for formation of a coalition government, or it may have to do with attitudes toward the political system in general. We will see that ideological considerations often have less to do in explaining the behavior of a political party compared with the potential for policy outputs. We end the research paper with a discussion of whether political parties are in decline, and the potential effects of such a decline.

II. The Formation of Political Parties

We understand political parties as organizations that regularly compete for public office in that they put forth candidates for election (Sartori, 1976). The formation of political parties is generally associated with the extension of suffrage and the development of representative government (Duverger, 1972). Joseph LaPalombara and endemic to “modern and modernizing political systems”: A political party will emerge once a “political system reaches a certain degree of complexity, or whenever the notion of political power comes to include the idea that the mass public must participate” (p. 3). These definitions seem to place political parties as 20th-century phenomena, although Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967) theorized that many of the political parties that existed at the end of the 20th century were based in part on earlier political conflicts dating back to at least the 19th century if not earlier. Specifically, these conflicts ranged from national revolutions to the political aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. From these events arose cleavages, or divisions, within societies that gave rise to political groupings. Lipset and Rokkan suggest that there are hierarchies in cleavages within systems and over time, which helps to explain the differences in political groupings across countries. It is important to note that the cleavages themselves may also change, or even lose relevance.

The most common cleavages can be classified as territorial and functional. Territorial cleavages arise when there is conflict between the central nation building culture and that of the periphery. Peripheral cultures are those differing in ethnicity, language, or religion from the center of the nation (Lipset & Rokkan, 1967), which often places the peripheral culture in the position of subject culture. Functional cleavages can be interest specific or ideological. Interest-specific cleavages are those that reflect conflict over resources (Lipset & Rokkan, 1967), whereas ideological cleavages often reflect differing worldviews. For example, in national revolutions the conflict between the nation-building center and periphery represents a territorial cleavage, whereas the often accompanying conflict between church and state results in a functional cleavage of religious versus secular worldviews. Industrial revolutions, which can pit the interests of industrialists against those of landed interests, can be territorial, whereas the conflict between owners and workers is functional in nature. Together, these constitute the four critical lines of cleavage that Lipset and Rokkan (1967) suggest explain the variance in many modern competitive party systems.

The transformation of a conflict into a cleavage and then a political grouping, or party, takes place only after particular thresholds are crossed in the development of a nation-state. These thresholds are (a) legitimation: Is there recognition of the right of protest? (b) incorporation: Are supporters of a movement given political citizenship rights? (c) representation: Can the new movement exist on its own, or must it join with older movements? and (d) majority power: Are there checks and balances against numerical majority rule? (Lipset & Rokkan, 1967). The first two thresholds specifically influence the development of a political party, whereas the latter two are related to the growth and development of the party system. As the first two thresholds occur roughly at the same time as the extension of mass suffrage, the contours of the party system are set relatively early in the life of the nation-state; thus the observation from Lipset and Rokkan (1967) that the “crucial differences among the party systems emerged in the early phases of competitive politics before the final phase of mass mobilization” (p. 114).

Lipset and Rokkan suggest that much of the development of party systems in Western Europe followed this model. Although political parties may differ, overall one may speak of party families, in which ideological tendencies are reflected by parties across different states. Beyme (1985) suggests that parties based on ideological principles have had more success in establishing themselves in western Europe than have parties based on specific conflicts. The earliest modern political parties, liberal parties, established themselves as supporters of representative democracy and constitutionalism. This involved the recognition of individual rights and the preservation of individual property. Within liberalism was a secondary, more radical branch that supported direct rule by the people, meaning the extension of suffrage to the masses. Liberal parties first emerged in England in the 1700s and in France after 1830. In many cases, they were the first parties to form in representative democracies. Over time, they have become smaller parties in many political systems. Though smaller, liberal parties such as the Free Democratic Party of Germany often govern as part of a ruling coalition.

Conservative parties developed alongside liberal parties, often as a response to liberal parties. The conservative ideal is the preservation of historical continuity, with a belief in the divine, valuation of traditional forms of life, and recognition of private property and freedom (Beyme, 1985). Conservative parties serve as a buffer to liberal parties because conservative parties oppose rapid change, which is presumed to threaten the social order. Conservative parties tend to be in more secularized political systems. England’s Conservative Party is one of the most well-known conservative parties.

Both liberal and conservative parties established themselves while representative governments formed, primarily reacting to the conflicts within a particular political system. The constituencies for liberal and conservative parties were necessarily small; not all the inhabitants of a democratizing polity had the franchise, and liberal and conservative parties tended to represent the upper classes. In contrast, socialist parties were the first parties to form outside representative bodies of government, often at the same time in which the franchise was extended to all. According to Beyme (1985), socialists were aiming for revolutionary reversal rather than maintenance of the “principles of 1789”: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Socialist parties tended to mobilize the newly enfranchised working classes. Mostly worker based and highly unionized, socialist parties sought better conditions for workers and demanded more state intervention in the economy. The constituency for socialist parties has largely stayed the same, as can be seen in cases such as the French Socialist Party. After World War II, socialist parties largely abandoned calls for full state intervention in the economy, instead focusing on implementation of stronger control mechanisms in the economy.

Communist parties are often linked to socialist parties in terms of their advocacy for workers’ rights and state-controlled economies. However, their historical difference with socialists dates to World War I, when some believed socialist parties were not strong enough in their opposition to the war (Beyme, 1985). The antiwar attitude unified many communist parties across European nations and led to the formation of a communist movement. This communist movement was much more ideological than other parties were, resulting in an outlook that was more international than national. Within older democratic systems, such as in France and Italy, communist parties have retained some influence, although their significance has waned in many other countries. In post-Communist states, the personnel of former Communist parties has remained in politics, although the parties themselves have undergone some changes, especially name changes. The former East German Communist Party became the Party of Democratic Socialism after unification and more recently transformed itself into the Left Party.

Christian democratic parties also originated before World War I. As some nations democratized, in some of the more religious nations, the established church found itself at odds with the secularizing tendencies of liberal reformers. Christian political parties were “generally formed as a defense counter reaction to liberal or secular legislations by which ardent believers felt threatened” (Beyme, 1985, p. 81). Only after the excesses of the national socialist era did established churches begin to realize the importance of democratic forms of government (Beyme, 1985). Accordingly, Christian democratic parties became popular in the post–World War era because their ideological orientation tended toward the center, especially economically, with a religious focus on moral issues.

Smaller parties such as agrarian or regional or ethnic parties are not as widespread as the previous party families are, owing to the particular historical circumstances of their formation. According to Beyme (1985), “Agrarian parties only emerged in countries where the towns were still relatively small during the period of the extension of the franchise and the rural population was strong enough to stand up to the major landowners” (pp. 112–113). The most successful agrarian parties have been in some of the Scandinavian countries. Agrarian parties tend to be to the right on political and social issues and were at their peak during the interwar period. Most have been subsumed by other parties.

Regional or ethnic parties also reflect a carryover from the nation-building process, and representation issues to this day still divide the regional or ethnic minorities from the larger society. Most advocate for self-determination or autonomy in their own affairs. The most famous of these are the Basque Nationalist Party, in Spain, and the Scottish Nationalist Party, in Scotland. These parties advocate for the independence of the Basque and Scottish peoples from Spain and the United Kingdom, respectively.

The second half of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of political parties not traceable to the cleavages of national or industrial revolutions. The cleavages that would be politically relevant would be based less on redistributive issues and more on what Ronald Inglehart (1977) refers to as postmaterialist, or quality-of-life, issues. The emergence of ecological parties such as green parties marked the transformation of this cleavage into a political grouping. As opposed to other political groupings, green parties seemed to lack a particular social base of support and represented issues such as the environment, nuclear power, human rights, and democratic representation. These issues could not easily be placed within a traditional left–right understanding of politics and soon came to be known as issues of the New Left. Not surprisingly, the social and political developments that led to a New Left cleavage would also lead to a New Right, in which law and order, patriotism, and personal morality issues were similarly difficult to place within a traditional left–right understanding of political parties. Parties of the New Right are also referred to as right wing extremist parties or parties of the far right, but they share an emphasis on the above issues. The most famous of these has been the Front National of France.

III. Political Party Organizations

Political parties tend to differ in their organization on the basis of three factors: competition, institutionalization, and resource factors (Ware, 1996). Competition refers to ideological differences, as well as the way in which the party was formed. Institutionalization refers to the power relations both between parties and within parties. Resources refers to how the party perpetuates itself. Each of these factors is affected by the specific time in which a party emerges. Different organizational structures are thus related to specific social and political developments in the modern democratic state. Organizational differences become apparent when one observes what Richard Katz and Peter Mair (1993) term the different faces or responsibilities of political parties. The three faces are the party on the ground, the party in central office, and the party in public office. The party on the ground refers to the political party as represented by the electorate, or the voters a party can reasonably rely on to vote for it. The party in central office refers to the membership aspect of a political party, or those who actively participate within the party with respect to policy formation, recruitment of members, and campaign planning. The party in public office refers to the members of a political party who serve as elected representatives.

The earliest political parties, known as cadre, or elite, parties, predated mass suffrage. Elite parties were small parties that largely reflected the interests of the elite classes. Because suffrage was limited, political representation of those who could vote was also limited—essentially narrow constituency groups, often locally based. The party in the electorate was indistinguishable from the party in public office because those elected to office came from local constituencies and directly represented voters. Organizationally, elite parties were not complex. A clear correspondence between voters and representatives existed, and local interests were well represented by the local representatives elected to national legislative bodies. Katz and Mair (2002) summarize the elite party as follows:

A small party on the ground in each constituency able to provide its own resources, close and locally based ties between the individual members of the party in public office and the individual parties on the ground, weak or entirely absent party in central office. (p. 116)

The extension of mass suffrage, well under way by the middle of the 19th century, not only coincided with emerging political ideologies representative of the interests of the working classes, but also led to the formation of mass parties. As Peter Mair (1990) writes, “The extension of [suffrage] incorporated the mass of the citizenry into the political system; mass parties mobilize and integrate these citizens and inculcate a set of enduring political identities” (p. 4). Mass parties are parties with a focus on national issues and thus on winning national representation. Unlike elite parties, mass parties depend on the maintenance of high levels of party membership. This is partly because of the need to attract votes and gain political representation but also because of the need to attract resources, most obviously financial ones. Elite parties, because of their small size, can rely on the support of wealthy backers, whereas mass parties need to appeal to large numbers of newly enfranchised working-class voters because mass parties need the dues of their members to remain financially solvent. As a consequence, the organization of mass parties is much more complex than that of elite parties. Katz and Mair (2002) describe the case of the mass party as follows:

The party in central office provides support for the expansion of the party on the ground and central coordination for its activities, while the party on the ground provides the resources that are necessary for the existence and success of the party in central office. (p. 117)

The necessity of coordinating activities between the party on the ground and the party in central office led to an increase in the importance of professional staff members. Adding to the necessity of strong organization is the importance of coordination with the mass party’s elected representatives, or the party in public office. Not only are elected officials answerable to the constituencies that vote them into office, but they also must answer to the party in central office, responsible for the electoral activities of the party. With mass parties, the importance of party organization is evident in the need to coordinate between the three faces of the party, on the ground, in public office, and in central office.

Understandably, elite parties, which represented a narrow constituency, would lose relevance in democratic societies when the franchise was extended. According to Otto Kirchheimer (1966), mass parties themselves would also begin to fade after World War II as the societal cleavages that Lipset and Rokkan (1967) described lost some of their relevance. The political and economic development of the modern state made distinctions based solely on class or denomination less divisive. Along with social and political changes within the electorate, political parties themselves changed, now with an increase in emphasis on winning elections and gaining seats in national legislatures. To win elections and gain seats, political parties needed to broaden their appeal past the narrow clienteles of the elite parties, or even the specific class-based focus of the mass parties. Some political parties developed a catchall approach, in which the aim was to catch all categories of voters, not just traditional constituencies based on societal cleavages. Ideological considerations were less important than not alienating a particular constituency group. Catchall parties would appeal to the median voter in society as opposed to a specific section of the electorate.

Organizationally, the catchall party differed from the mass party model on many fronts. New forms of media, such as television, made the activism associated with mass parties less of a crucial element for catchall parties. Rather than extend the effort involved in appealing to voters through personal contact and activist organization, political parties found that they could appeal to more voters through the media. It is important to note that the reach of the media also meant that catchall parties would emphasize the recruitment of party leaders who could appeal to the widest swath of voters. For the first time, the party in public office and the party in central office would be the most important faces of the party, as opposed to the party in the electorate and party in public office faces of elite parties and the party in the electorate and party in central office faces of mass parties. Catchall parties were formed specifically to win elections, and the way to do so was under the direction of a central office charged with the responsibility of running election campaigns and choosing the best representatives, from the point of view of the party, to stand for them.

Changes in political party organization echo changes in society and in politics. Modern political parties have placed more importance on winning elections, even though the importance of party membership has decreased. Catchall parties found they could win elections by appealing to the widest possible bloc of voters. At the same time, voters have become less likely to identify with a specific political party and more likely to shift their allegiances from election to election. With shifting voters comprising an ever larger proportion of the electorate, political parties are less likely to rely on voters for resources. Katz and Mair (1995) suggest a new type of party has emerged that has adapted to these realities: the cartel party. Cartel parties are characterized as comprising professional politicians whose main source of support is actually the state and public sources of financing for political parties. Although political parties may compete against each other for votes and seats, all implicitly understand that their survival depends on maintenance of office rather than ideological battles. Katz and Mair write that “as politicians pursue long term careers, they come to regard their political opponents as fellow professionals” (p. 23). The party in public office is the most important facet because elected officials both attract votes and make sure that sources of public funding remain in place for themselves.

IV. Political Party Systems

Both the competition and the prospects for cooperation between political parties in an electoral system constitute a party system. Party systems may differ on the basis of the types of parties within a system (both ideological and organizational) and the number of parties within a system. Which parties are included as part of a party system is decided on the basis of what Giovanni Sartori (1976) terms coalition potential and blackmail potential. Coalition potential refers to whether a party can be considered an acceptable coalition partner in order to control government. This definition does not imply that a party has to be in government to be considered a party of the party system, but rather that it has the potential to be part of a governing coalition. Blackmail potential refers to whether a party can affect the tactics of party competition of the parties that have coalition potential. This definition does not imply that a party must be part of a coalition, or have any chance of being part of a coalition, but that it can influence the political parties that do have coalition potential.

Early observers of political party systems such as Maurice Duverger (1951/1954) held that the number of parties within a system should be the main criterion for defining a party system. The number of political parties within a party system is largely dependent on the specific election rules of that political system. By election rules, Duverger meant the barriers to representation, or what percentage of the vote a party must secure in order to be represented in the national legislative body. The main difference is between systems following majoritarian representation rules and those following a proportional representation rule. A majoritarian system is one in which a party (or its candidate) must secure more than 50% of the popular vote. This type of system is also commonly referred to as a first past the post system, with the post referring to 50% of the vote: The party that first gets 50% of the vote gets representation. Majoritarian systems tend to limit the number of parties that compete in these systems because the parties must necessarily appeal to the widest range of voters. Were a party to appeal only to one or the other side of the political spectrum, it would only have the votes of a minority of voters. Thus, Durverger held that majoritarian systems tended to be two-party systems, with the parties themselves more moderate in their political ideologies because of the necessity of having to appeal to a wider group of voters. Two-party systems tend not to have cooperation between the major parties, given that one party necessarily has a majority of the seats in the legislative branch and thus does not need the opposing party to form policies. The United States is one of the most notable two-party systems.

Political systems that follow proportional representation tend to have a greater number of political parties because parties will win seats in the national legislature based on their percentage of the popular vote. Some systems, such as Germany, have instituted minimum-vote percentages, which lower the probability of extremist parties’ gaining representation because parties must win at least a specific percentage of the vote to gain seats. In political systems in which there is a minimum-vote threshold, the mean number of political parties tends to be lower than in systems in which there is no minimum-vote threshold. Even so, there is no standard number of parties within a multiparty system. Two and a half party systems are systems that have three parties, with the third party much smaller than the other two. Australia and Canada are notable two-and-a-half- party systems. The third party tends to alternate as a coalition partner between the larger parties, although a grand coalition between the larger parties is not unheard of. In a system with one large party and several smaller parties, the larger party tends to be in power for long periods, with a coalition of the remaining parties necessary to unseat the larger party. The party systems of Norway and Sweden exemplify this type of system. Systems with two larger par ties and several smaller parties necessitate the formation of coalitions between the larger parties and some, or several, of the smaller parties. In this case, a grand coalition between the larger parties is unlikely because of ideological distance. Israel can be said to illustrate this type of system. Finally, even multiparty systems consist of a broad category of multiparty systems that can range from systems in which there is complete cooperation between the parties to polarized and volatile party systems (Ware, 1996). Italy in the postwar era was long the main example of this type of system. The number of parties in a system is not sufficient in itself to describe the nature of the party system; the nature of party competition is an important component in the classification of party systems.

Following Duverger, Sartori (1976) suggested that ideological distance, as well as party fragmentation, determine the nature of party competition within party systems. Ideological distance is defined as the “overall spread of the ideological spectrum of any given polity” (p. 126). At the time of Sartori’s work, this primarily referred to parties aligned along a traditional left–right continuum. Ideological distance also refers to the attitudes of political parties toward the state, as well as toward other parties within the system. Thus, political parties may be close ideologically but differ in how they perceive themselves in relation to the state and to each other. Extremist parties, although having similar ideological tendencies as parties of the left or the right, may nevertheless be considered ideologically distant if their ideology incorporates antisystem tendencies.

Party fragmentation incorporates the number of parties within the system and whether any of the parties “approaches the absolute majority point” (Sartori, 1976, p. 124). The more parties within a party system, the more likely it is that a party system will be fragmented, especially if there is a large ideological distance between the parties. A large number of parties plus a large ideological distance between the parties can result in what Sartori refers to as a centrifugal system. A centrifugal system of party competition is one in which most parties exist at the extremes of the system, with a vacuum in the political center of the system. Conversely, a centripetal system of party competition displays a pull to the center for the political parties and is much more likely in systems with smaller numbers of political parties.

When party fragmentation is taken into account, the classification of party systems becomes more complex. Two-party systems tend to have lower levels of party fragmentation in general, although Sartori (1976) warns not to assume that they “always work.” Rather, Sartori suggests that the “centripetal mechanics of twopartism creates consensus” (p. 191). In a predominant party system, in which one party has the majority of votes although other parties are represented in the system, as long as the predominant party retains the majority of seats, party fragmentation is also low. Japan in the postwar era is an example of this. However, should the predominant party lose an outright majority, the system may change into one in which party fragmentation is higher.

Moderate multipartism describes party systems of about three to five parties, with moderate levels of party fragmentation and centripetal tendencies within the system. That is to say, the parties are pulled toward the center. In contrast, polarized multipartism describes party systems with about three to five parties and centrifugal tendencies. The center is weak in such systems, which are more likely to suffer instability. Societies that have deep cleavages within them, and many parties to represent these cleavages, tend to display segmented multipartism. Although the political tendencies are centrifugal, or a lack of center exists, such systems can endure through institutional design. The best examples of segmented multipartism through institutional design are the consociational democracies such as the Netherlands, described by Arend Lijphart (1969).

Party systems are defined through the prospects for party competition and party cooperation in a political system. Party competition is a straightforward concept; parties compete with each other for votes and seats in a legislature. Party cooperation, however, has a slightly different focus in that it describes how parties interact with each other after receiving votes and seats in a national legislature. Levels of party cooperation are determined by the willingness with which parties will go into coalitions in the formation of a government. In a predominant party system, or a two-party system, party cooperation is not a necessity as one party has a majority of the votes and seats. However, in party systems with more than two parties, coalitions are a necessity in order to form a government because there is no clear majority party. The extent to which political parties can cooperate in the formation of a ruling coalition is dependent on various factors and is the subject of the following section.

V. Political Parties and Formation of Government

One of the functions separating political parties from other interest groups in society is the translation of issue preferences into policy. Ian Budge and Hans Keman (1990) suggest that contrary to some conceptions of political parties, winning elections is not the most important goal for political parties; formulating policy is. Per Budge and Keman, “explaining the behavior of parties in government is a natural corollary to explaining how they gain the popular support necessary to sustain a governmental role” (p. 2). Without the ability to translate preferences into policy, political parties would not have support from the electorate. Thus the extent to which parties can make or influence policy is a key determinant of their longevity within a political system.

Within majoritarian political systems, the party that receives the most votes forms the government because it controls the most seats in the legislative branch. In multiparty systems, the formation of a government is much more complicated. Budge and Keman (1990) offer a general theory of party government to explain the factors influencing the party coalitions that may form when no one party controls a majority of votes. According to Budge and Keman, this general theory has four assumptions:

  1. The party or combination of parties that can win a legislative vote of confidence forms the government.
  2. Parties seek to form a government that can survive legislative votes of confidence and most effectively carry through policy.
  3. The chief preferences of all democratic parties is to counter threats to the democratic system; where no such threats exist, the chief preference is to carry through differences related to issues along the socialist bourgeois1 dimension of issue competition; where these two threats do not hold, the preference is to pursue group related preferences.
  4. Within parties, factions seek to transform their issue preferences into policies.

The implications of this general theory of party government affect explanations of party behavior, how governing coalitions form and how they change, what governments do in terms of their policy outputs, and how governments come to an end. The formation of governments refers not only to which parties are part of the ruling coalition but also to how government ministries are distributed among the coalition partners. In fact, Budge and Keman (1990) suggest that parties may influence government more through their tenure of specific ministries than through the negotiations that lead political parties into coalition.

The coalition process begins when it becomes apparent that no one party has enough legislative seats to control the government. William H. Riker (1962) suggested that the most obvious coalition to form would be a minimal winning coalition, in which there are enough members within the coalition to assure control of government, but no surplus members. This approach explains the behavior of political parties if their main goal is the maintenance of office but does little, according to Budge and Keman (1990), to explain the formation of policy. A policy-based approach to explaining coalition formation may be better at “explaining why governments adopt the kind of policy they do” (p. 19) and ultimately how responsive elected governments are to voters.

In forming coalitions, then, parties take into account the seats held by other parties within the system, as well as the policy positions of all parties within the system. Coalitions tend to form on the initiative of the largest parties within the system (Budge & Keman, 1990). Parties are more likely to enter into coalition with other parties that share the same policy preferences as they do and that have enough legislative seats to form a coalition of at least 50% plus one of all legislative seats. Policy positions are not static; they can change, given historical situations, which implies that particular coalitions are not necessarily a given. Nevertheless, parties will enter into the coalition that they figure will provide the best possibility of implementing their policy preferences, and they do so based on a calculation of policy preference overlap between the parties within a system. The more overlap in terms of policy preference, the more stable over time the coalition will be. Coalitions can form in the absence of policy overlap; in more fragmented systems, prosystem attitudes may be enough to enter into coalition, although these coalitions tend to be the least stable over time. Generally speaking, the smaller the coalition, the more stable the coalition tends to be.

Coalition agreements specify not only which parties will control the government but also which ministries are held by the specific coalition members. Generally, the largest coalition member holds the prime ministry, with other ministries allocated on the basis of the policy interests of the specific coalition members. The most likely scenario is one in which the number of ministries held by a coalition partner reflects the proportion of seats it holds within the coalition (Budge & Keman, 1990). In a broad sense, the policy priorities of political parties will differ by political families, so the distribution of particular ministries is somewhat predictable from the party family of a coalition partner. For example, an agricultural party would reasonably be expected to retain the ministry of agriculture within a coalition. If there are potential conflicts between coalition members over ministries, the parties will bargain over ministries until the ministries have been allocated to reflect the proportional distribution of seats held by the coalition members.

In their examination of coalition formation and government functioning in 20 states over time, Budge and Keman (1990) noted a correspondence between parties and the policies that governments made, with parties clearly moving “policies in the direction of their own preferences and values” (p. 158). The importance of policy also plays a role in the termination of governing coalitions; when there are policy differences between coalition partners, the termination of a governing coalition is more likely to take place. A single-party government tends to last longer than governing coalitions because of the absence of policy difference. However, the single most important cause of the termination of government is in fact an election. Voters ultimately decide on the longevity of a government. If they do not like the policies of a government, they are more likely than ever before to vote against the parties of a governing coalition. An overall trend of less stable voting patterns among voters is a major factor in this development.

VI. Decline of Political Parties

Party identification is defined as a long-term psychological identification with a particular political party (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960) and has long been one of the most reliable indicators of the individual vote. If a voter identifies strongly with a political party, the voter is likely to vote for that party in an election. Political partisanship is primarily transmitted during childhood; children will imitate their parents in terms of the political parties they identify with, and this identification lasts well into adulthood. Family is not the only agent of socialization; education, occupation, and social networks serve as alternative venues in the transmission of political partisanship. Although party identification can be influenced by social demographic factors, ideological and issue orientations play a role in the identification of a voter with a specific political party. Party identification has a central role in the study of democracies because political parties provide a linkage for the voters with their government. Political parties can serve as an information cue for voters in elections by educating voters on political issues and candidates, and political parties can mobilize voters to vote in elections.

The discovery of a decline in the percentage of citizens identifying with a specific political party at the end of the 20th century has led to some concern. Initially, partisan realignment was thought to be taking place because of fluctuations in elections in the 1970s and 1980s (Dalton, 2008). Voters were not voting consistently for the same parties over election cycles, as they once had. Partisan realignment is the conversion, or realignment, of large numbers of voters from one political party to another political party. Public opinion research supported a different argument: Voters were not realigning themselves, but instead were displaying dealignment, or an erosion in party loyalties. The evidence for dealignment included a decrease in party loyalty, lower levels of confidence in parties as political institutions, and an increase in the percentage of voters who not only shifted their votes from election to election but also waited longer to make their choices (Dalton, 2008).

The sources of voter dealignment are said to range from a decrease in the importance of sociopolitical cleavages to changes in the mass media and to changes in political parties themselves (Dalton & Wattenberg, 2000b). The modernization hypothesis put forth by Ronald Inglehart (1997) suggests that socioeconomic changes after World War II have led to higher levels of education and standards of living, which have led to an erosion of group-based politics based on class. If the cleavages in society that led to the formation of political parties no longer apply, then the relevance of these parties would also seem less applicable. Higher levels of education, coupled with changes in the mass media, also play a role in partisan dealignment. If the mass media have assumed many of the information functions that political parties once performed (Dalton & Wattenberg, 2000b), then it stands to reason that parties would lose some of their relevance. Finally, changes in political parties themselves, such as an increased emphasis on candidates over party ideology, have led more people to vote on the basis of specific issues and candidates, which further decreases the relevance of political parties.

Kay Lawson and Peter Merkl (1988) suggest that major “parties fail when they do not perform the functions they are expected to perform in their own society” (p. 5). The emergence of interest groups, single-issue movements, and different forms of political organization as motors of interest aggregation—one of the primary functions of political parties—serves as further evidence of party decline. In some systems, parties may fade away, while in other systems, new parties based on political movements may emerge. Party decline is not a uniform phenomenon but is influenced by the type of political system in which the party is located. Even so, Lawson and Merkl note that although there is evidence of party decline, the persistence of political parties in general suggests the continued relevance of political parties, although in different ways.

VII. Implications for the Future of Political Parties and Party Systems

Dalton and Wattenberg (2000a) indicate that political parties have made adaptations in the face of evidence of their decline. The emergence of cartel parties is one example of party adaptation. Dalton and Wattenberg further suggest that “parties are benefiting themselves (financially and electorally) at the expense of some of the functions that have made them so essential to the democratic process, such as socialization, mobilization and representation” (p. 269). Given that voters have a declining propensity to identify with the same party over time, and an increased propensity to change their identification from election to election, this loosening of the linkage between parties and voters leads to higher volatility within the electorate. More distressing to Dalton and Wattenberg is the possibility that parties may become less responsive to voters because of the decrease in ties to voters: “If organizational maintenance becomes a party’s primary goal, democracy will inevitably suffer” (p. 270).

Even so, the emergence of cartel parties, which may block the emergence of new parties as challengers within the political system, may not stem all democratic opposition or democratic representation. That is, cartel parties may limit competition among themselves but are unable to limit political opposition and challenges from outside the cartel (Katz & Mair, 1995). Referring again to Lawson and Merkl (1988), the emergence of social movements and single-issue groups suggests that interest articulation is alive and well in democratic societies. Although it is the case that there are lower levels of partisan identification in the electorate and lower levels of trust in political parties, some suggest that these developments reflect another stage in democracy itself (Dalton, 2008). Higher levels of education and cognitive mobilization have led to more politically sophisticated citizens who are even more likely to participate politically, although not through political party mechanisms.

Throughout much of the literature on political parties and political party systems, a common theme has been that of change. Over the stages of democratic development, we see that there have not been single types of parties in specific periods but rather many different types of political parties over extended periods. The organizational forms of parties tend to reflect changes within the broader system, be they ideological shifts, organizational shifts, or even shifts in the competitive framework. An example of this was seen in the transition from mass parties to catchall parties based on technological and social changes. Ideological shifts also take place over time; a party such as the Austrian Freedom Party was considered an example of a liberal party in the 1960s and 1970s but by the end of the 1980s was considered to be more an example of the New Right (Cole, 2005). As political parties remain part of the democratic framework, they must necessarily adapt to account for a greater proportion of the electorate with lower levels of partisanship but higher levels of political sophistication. This need may imply further changes in party organizations, or it may reflect different ideological orientations. It may also mean the fading of parties from party systems or the inclusion of new parties in party systems. Much as the formation of political parties and party systems reflected political conditions at their founding, transformations of parties and party systems reflect political conditions. This is perhaps the only constant in an area of study that is based on constant change.


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