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The Multiparty System: Essential Principles

"A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life."
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

Political parties are often portrayed in the popular media and culture as corrupt or incompetent. This is the case not just in the United States, where citizens have generally been skeptical of political parties, but also in Europe, where parties have had higher levels of support and public trust. Such negative views, however, overlook the essential importance of political parties as representative institutions. In fact, political parties reflect the spectrum of the people's views and needs, from their highest ideals to their basest instincts. They act together to create a balance or compromise between extremes, as the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill suggests in the quote above. Political parties have also been the vehicle for inspiring voters to support fundamental political change when it is needed. Thus, even in jaded times, idealistic citizens seeking change turn to political parties to make a difference. It is evident from last two centuries of history that no democracy can survive without a multiparty system in which the people are free to organize themselves politically. Absent the organization of free and independent political parties, power has been exploited by narrow cliques that pursue their own interests or monopolized by a single party that suppresses dissent and dispenses patronage to supporters.

Democracy was "rule by the passionate, ignorant, demagogue-dominated 'voice of the people'... sure to produce first injustice, then anarchy, and finally
tyranny."

Democracy Is Representative

The founders of the United States, both Federalists seeking a strong national government and Anti-Federalists seeking greater autonomy for the states, had a strong aversion to democracy, which to them meant direct citizen participation in public affairs. Democracy was "rule by the passionate, ignorant, demagogue-dominated ‘voice of the people'…sure to produce first injustice, then anarchy, and finally tyranny." What we know today as democracy is republican or representative government. It was this form of self-governance that the founders believed would provide not only the best protection of liberty against tyranny, but also the best means for reflecting the varied opinions and will of the people. In their view, only representative government, with its capacity for reflective deliberation, permitted the balancing of individual interests in a large political community.

The Necessity of Political Parties

Many of the founders were also hostile to the idea of political parties. James Madison's Federalist essay No. 10 famously argues that the organization of "factions" (meaning parties) would pose a serious danger to the new union. Yet Madison and other founders learned that political parties are a necessary—and natural—democratic instrument for representative government. They are the means by which citizens identify themselves politically. They organize citizens around ideological and policy platforms, establish the basis for voters to choose their representatives, and collectively represent the broad and diverse interests of the people. It is only in the framework of a pluralist party system that self-governance as the founders conceived it could be carried out.

Types of Electoral Systems and Their Influence on Parties

The multiparty system has many variants, representing the history of the struggle for democracy in different countries (see also chapters 1, 2 and 3). While political parties in democratic countries are generally allowed to develop on their own, without specific constitutional provisions defining their number or nature, partisan patterns are strongly influenced by a country's electoral framework. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, elections are conducted under a "first past the post" system in which the candidate with the most votes wins, and legislative contests are held in geographically defined, single-member districts. This arrangement favors the development of a small number of large parties, since minor parties have difficulty contesting multiple districts and outpolling all of their rivals in any given district.

Under proportional representation (PR) systems, used in many other countries, legislative seats are allocated according to a party's percentage of the vote nationally or regionally, meaning smaller parties can gain representation without actually defeating larger parties. Because multiple parties take seats in the legislature, coalitions of two or more parties are often needed to obtain a majority. There are many forms of PR. Some divide the vote into regional multiseat districts, require parties to win a minimum percentage of the ballots to gain representation, or use complicated formulas to convert vote percentages into seats.

Aside from the respective electoral frameworks that help to create them, there is no clear dividing line between two-party systems like that of the United States and systems with many
parties.

Aside from the respective electoral frameworks that help to create them, there is no clear dividing line between two-party systems like that of the United States and systems with many parties. Even though two large parties may dominate in some countries, they must represent broad interests and sometimes have a number of shifting factions within them. Third and fourth parties may also arise from time to time as alternative outlets. Meanwhile, in countries with many parties, two larger, broad-based parties routinely serve as the cores of rival coalitions, finding allies among smaller groups with narrow concerns or constituencies in order to form a governing majority or a united opposition bloc.

Platforms and Ideologies

Major parties generally represent different ideologies, which are coherent sets of ideas about the role of government and the organization of society. In Europe, parties can be grouped under a few general labels according to their places on the political and ideological spectrum. Roughly from right to left, these include conservatives, who defend political, economic, and social tradition; Christian democrats, who support religious values and social welfare within a capitalist system; liberals, who support free markets and secular social freedoms; social democrats, who advocate egalitarianism and some state role in the economy; and greens, who give priority to the natural environment. International organizations for each of these ideological groupings allow similar parties from different countries to exchange strategies and advice (see Resources).

There are ideological movements that reject the central tenets of multiparty electoral democracy but exploit the system's freedoms and processes to seek power. These include fascism, communism, and some forms of religious fundamentalism and ethnic or racial nationalism. Generally, parties with such ideologies use a utopian vision for the future to justify the imposition of a dictatorship once they reach government. While other parties are sometimes allowed to exist under their rule, real political power is exercised solely by the governing party. In these single-party systems, the ruling party is also a source of patronage, the main vehicle for personal advancement in politics and society, and a mechanism for strictly enforcing conformity to the dominant ideology. Underground parties or movements often organize against such regimes, but these are subject to severe repression.