The Multiparty System: Essential Principles

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 have often been portrayed in the popular media as corrupt or incompetent and are frequently viewed as the cause of government gridlock or the failure of democratically elected governments to deal with urgent issues. Political parties may become vehicles for powerful economic interests seeking to dominate the political process for their own private interests or serve as the basis for anti-democratic ideologies, such as fascism or communism, that seek political control over the society. Such negative manifestations of political parties, however, do not negate their essential importance as representative institutions in a democracy, nor the positive impact they may have within them. Political parties are the indispensable vehicles for citizens to engage in the democratic process — no modern democracy has existed without them.

More than two centuries of political history have shown that no democracy can survive without a multiparty system in which the people are free to organize themselves into rival political organizations. 

In general, political parties are formed to reflect the spectrum of the people's views, interests, and needs, from their highest ideals to their basest instincts. As the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill suggests in the quote above, political parties in electoral democracies generally act together to create a balance or compromise between opposing and differing views. Just as importantly, political parties have been the means for inspiring and mobilizing voters to support fundamental political change when it is needed. Even in today’s age of dispersed social communications, idealistic citizens seeking change turn to political parties to carry it out.

More than two centuries of political history have shown that no democracy can survive without a multiparty system in which the people are free to organize themselves into rival political organizations or rival factions within political organizations. Absent the organization of free and independent political parties, power is generally exploited by narrow cliques that pursue their own interests or it is monopolized by a single party that suppresses dissent and dispenses patronage to supporters. 

Democracy Is Representative

The founders of the United States, both Federalists seeking a strong national government and Anti-Federalists opposing them, had a strong aversion to democracy. To them, democracy was direct popular rule and often cited the Greek political philosopher Aristotle, who defined democracy as "rule by the passionate, ignorant, demagogue-dominated ‘voice of the people' . . . [that is] sure to produce first injustice, then anarchy, and finally tyranny." What we know today as democracy is representative government. It was this form of self-governance that the founders believed would provide the best protection of liberty against tyranny and also the best means for reflecting the varied opinions and will of the people. In their view, only representative government, with its capacity for debate and deliberation, permitted the balancing of individual interests in a large political community. 

The Necessity of Political Parties  

Yet, many of the founders were hostile to the idea of political parties. James Madison's Federalist Papers essay No. 10 famously argues that the organization of "factions" (meaning parties) would pose a serious danger to the new union. But America’s own early elections, in which the founders divided among Federalists and anti-Federalists, showed how necessary — and natural — political parties were as a democratic instrument for representative government (see History). 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 & Their Influence on Parties

The multiparty system has many variants, representing the history of the struggle for democracy in different countries (see also History in Free Elections). Political parties in democratic countries are allowed generally to develop on their own, without specific constitutional provisions or mandates defining their number or nature. But partisan patterns are strongly influenced by a country's electoral framework. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, legislative elections are mostly conducted under a "first past the post" system. The candidate with the most votes — whether a majority or a simple plurality — wins the electoral contest. Legislative contests are held in geographically defined, single-member districts. This system favors the development of a small number of large parties since minor parties have difficulty contesting multiple districts. 

Under proportional representation (PR) systems, used in most other countries, legislative seats are allocated according to a party's percentage of the vote nationally, regionally, or locally (depending on the election). This means that smaller parties can gain representation without actually defeating larger parties. Because many parties take seats in the legislature, coalitions of two or more parties are often needed to obtain a majority of members in parliament to vote in favor of forming a government, although sometimes one party may dominate to get a majority on its own. There are many forms of proportional representation or PR. Some electoral systems divide the vote into regional multi-seat districts, or require parties to win a minimum percentage to gain representation, or use different formulas (some quite complicated) to convert vote percentages into seats. PR systems generally have thresholds for the percentage of votes needed for political parties to gain seats in parliament. These range from less than 1 percent in the Netherlands to 10 percent in Turkey. Obviously, more parties gain representation with lower threshold requirements.

Aside from the respective electoral frameworks that help to create them, there is no clear dividing line between two-party dominant systems like that of the United States and United Kingdom and multi-party systems. Even where two large parties dominate they must represent broad interests and sometimes have a number of shifting factions within them. Also, even in “first past the post” systems, third and fourth parties arise as alternative outlets, while in multi-party systems with proportional representation, two larger, broad-based parties routinely serve as the core or dominant parties of rival coalitions. 

Platforms and Ideologies

Major political parties generally represent different ideologies, namely 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. The terms “right” and “left” were originally used to identify the two main sides of the political spectrum in the French Revolution: those wanting to keep a constitutional monarchy were seated on the right of the assembly hall and those favoring a citizens’ republic on the left. “Right” now encompasses several political groupings supporting the maintenance of the existing order of things: these include Conservatives, who defend political, economic, and social traditions and practices; Christian Democrats, who support traditional religious values and social welfare within a capitalist system; and Liberals, who are backers of free market economic principles but base their ideology on secular freedoms and not religious morals. “Left” is used to categorize several types of parties: Social Democrats and Socialists, who advocate egalitarianism and a strong state role in the economy, including ownership of property; Greens, who give priority to protecting and preserving the natural environment; and other groupings that are skeptical of business or oppose traditional social institutions or values. International organizations for each of these ideological groupings allow similar parties from different countries to exchange strategies and advice or be represented in regional or cross-regional bodies (see also History and 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 when there is opportunity to do so. These include fascism; Soviet and Chinese communism and their variants; 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 either by violent revolution or through a coup backed by military, police, or paramilitary organizations. Other parties may sometimes be allowed to exist under their rule, but they are generally surrogates or puppet parties. Real political power is exercised solely by the governing ideological 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 organize against such regimes, but at the risk of severe repression. Communist parties have also regularly participated in elections in democratic countries but generally have lacked large enough support to create or participate in a government. Often, these arose in support of (or as agents of) the Soviet Union, but several evolved to accept the basic democratic structure of politics in their country. Communist parties declined significantly following the collapse of communist systems in 1989–91, although in Eastern Europe “post-communist parties” were reformed and often continued to hold power.


The multiparty system is often criticized for the emergence of partisan conflicts and political standoffs in decision making, resulting in political gridlock. While partisan conflict and gridlock are indeed problems — it has been a recent characteristic in American democracy — the multiparty system is the fundamental and necessary bulwark of a democracy and in US history has been the means for resolving its most fundamental conflicts and crises. No other model has emerged to replace the party system. Generally, parties bring people with common interests together and provide a forum for the discussion of key issues and public policies. By joining and voting for a political party, people have the opportunity to express their support for its policy platform rather than simply endorse an individual personality. They can also peacefully express opposition to the policies of a rival party or use their vote to reject the “system” as it is currently functioning. Elections are the opportunity to give a popular mandate to leaders to implement their party’s program and hold them accountable if they stray from the voters’ wishes or if their initiatives fail in practice. The regular rotation of power among parties prevents the entrenchment of power and tends to curb corruption and cronyism.

Ultimately, though, the multi-party system — and democracy — relies on the respect of opposition parties for the will of the people as expressed in elections. Generally, opposition parties that obstruct the legislative or governing initiatives of majority parties tend to lose support. At the same time, democracy also relies on the understanding of ruling parties that they may soon be in the opposition. This usually keeps ruling parties from abusing the rights of their opponents so that their own rights will be protected in the event they are no longer in power (see also Majority Rule, Minority Rights).