The Multiparty System: History


Ancient Democracy

Political groups in ancient Greek democracy and in the Roman Republic were typically headed by leaders whose wealth, oratorical skills, or achievements could sway the citizenry. The factions often formed around two main societal interests — the wealthy aristocracy and the common property holders, traders, and artisans. These groups held different views of democracy in much the same way political parties do today. The most famous Athenian politician, Pericles, won enduring majorities of the citizens' assembly in part through his success at extending political participation to the “lower classes” of small property holders and traders, and in part through his adept management of Athens's foreign policy.  Unlike Athens, Rome was governed through layers of representative institutions and officials according to class and wealth. The Senate represented the elite landowning class, known as patricians, while the Council of the Plebeians represented the rest of the citizenry, including smaller landowners, merchants, and farmers. In this setting, there were no political parties as such but rather supporters or opponents of individual politicians based on personal interests or on their views regarding the balance of Senatorial privilege and plebeian power and rights.

History of British Political Parties first modern 

political parties were  

founded in Great

Britain and had their

roots in the Exlusion

Crisis of 1679-81.


known as Tories  

favored the defense of  

hereditary succession.

The first modern political parties were founded in Great Britain and had their roots in the Exclusion Crisis of 1679–81. Traditionalists known as Tories favored the defense of hereditary succession within the House of Stuart. Another faction, the Whigs, tried to pass an Exclusion Bill to prevent James, the brother of the Stuart King Charles II, from succession to the monarchy due to his profession of Roman Catholicism. If crowned, the Whigs believed James would threaten England's national church and return the influence of the Vatican to control the British state. Although James II assumed the throne on his brother’s death in 1685, he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in favor of his daughter, Mary, and her Dutch Protestant husband, William of Orange, who led a quick military campaign against James’s loyalists. In the second quarter of the 19th century, the Whigs, who had generally represented the upper middle class, merged with newly enfranchised middle-class groups to form the Liberal Party. The Liberals supported free trade, the eradication of slavery, and political reform, including expanding the franchise, or voting rights, to non-property owners. The more aristocratic Tories, or Conservatives, protected the interests of large (or titled) landowners and (evolving from their original tenet) defended the official Church of England. Generally, the Tories opposed expansions of the franchise.

As the Liberal Party dwindled in the early 20th century, the Conservatives increasingly replaced Liberals as champions of business interests. The Labour Party, which formed in the early 1900s, drew its strength from the trade union movement, which had gained strength towards the end of the 19th century. The Labour Party was the country's first explicitly working-class party and advocated a gradual transition to socialism. Over time, it came to dominate the “left” side of the political spectrum, while the Conservatives represented the “right” (see Essential Principles). In the 1980s, the greatly weakened Liberals merged with a centrist Social Democrats Party, a faction that had broken from the Labour Party, to form the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats won 23 percent of the vote in 2010 to become a significant third party in Parliament and coalition partner in government with the Conservative Party. In the 2015 elections, however, they lost support as the Conservatives won a full majority of the 650 seats in parliament. Regional legislatures were established in Wales and Scotland in 1997 and nationalist parties have since arisen in each, adding to the country's political diversity. Indeed, the Scottish National Party succeeded in putting independence of Scotland to a referendum. Although the referendum lost in September 2014, the SNP won all of Scotland’s districts from the Labour Party in the UK’s 2015 general elections to become parliament’s third largest party, with 56 seats.

History of Parties in the United States

In the United States, the first parties were the Federalist Party and the Democratic Republican Party. The Federalists favored a strong national government and commercial interests; the Democratic Republicans were anti-Federalists, supporting state autonomy and farming interests (including the protection of slavery). The Federalists held the presidency under George Washington and his successor, John Adams, but in 1800 Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams, ushering in 40 years of Democratic Republican dominance. The name was changed to the Democratic Party in 1828 under Andrew Jackson and the renamed party's first national convention was held in 1832. Succeeding the defunct Federalists, a Whig Party, supporting strong federal involvement in the economy, formed in 1834 in opposition to Jackson's Democrats. But the Whigs foundered by the early 1850s over the issue of slavery and how strongly to oppose it. The Republican Party emerged in 1854 as the antislavery party. Its candidate for president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln, defeated the Democrats’ Stephen Douglas. Since then, the Republicans and Democrats have been the two main parties vying for power. Short-lived third parties and independents have occasionally affected national and local policies (most notably the Progressive Party and the Socialists in the early 1900s).

Mostly, however, America’s changing politics have existed within a two-party system. The Republicans were long associated with the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery and the Democrats were linked to the protection of states’ rights (which after Reconstruction meant protecting Jim Crow segregation). However, the two parties' ideologies overlapped and shifted considerably over time, in part because they had to remain broad and complex enough to garner support across the country. After Theodore Roosevelt left the party to run as the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912, the Republican Party championed more business interests and free markets, while Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt brought about the New Deal government programs during the 1930s after the Great Depression. As Democratic presidents pressed forward with major civil rights reforms amid other societal changes in the 1960s, the Republicans also began to adopt conservative stances on issues of race and traditional values. The Democratic Party, which defended the legacy of the New Deal, came to represent the interests of labor unions and took more liberal or progressive positions on civil rights and social questions. In foreign policy, the parties have at times joined together on major issues (such as opposing the Soviet Union). At others, they have traded roles as philosophical internationalists and isolationists or opted to support or critique a president's handling of specific foreign crises on a case by case basis.

European Political Parties

As in Great Britain, political parties in continental Europe can be roughly grouped into conservatives, liberals, and social democrats. At the end of the 19th century, Christian Democratic parties also emerged, competing with socialist groups through a combination of progressive socioeconomic ideas and a defense of traditional Christian moral values. Socialist movements developed into more moderate social democratic or labor parties and were among the first to draw true mass support from grassroots party organizations and trade unions. Conservative and liberal parties often merged, while some Christian Democratic parties took on a strong pro-business orientation. Many other groups competed within parliamentary systems, including rural, regional, and ethnic parties. Social Christian parties split from Christian Democrats as the latter became more pro-business. Starting in the 1970s, Green parties were formed in many countries, although they achieved little electoral success outside Northern Europe. In Germany, the Greens participated in a coalition government with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005.

Starting in the 1920s, fascist movements, espousing a form of extreme, militaristic nationalism, gained power in Germany, Italy, and Japan. They were outlawed after these countries, united in the Axis alliance, were defeated in World War II by the US and Allied powers. While other countries, like Spain, adopted fascism as a model, the ideology largely lost appeal after 1945.

Starting in the mid-19th century, communist movements (in contrast to more moderate left groups such as social democrats), advocated revolutionary violence to carry out complete economic and social transformation. In Russia, a Communist faction known as the Bolsheviks seized power by force in November 1917 and established one of the most brutal dictatorships in history, reconstituting the Russian empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR or Soviet Union). It also sought to organize new or existing Communist parties as its loyal agents in other countries. Communist parties in the Soviet bloc were discredited following the collapse of Communist rule in 1989–91, but some successfully transformed themselves into social democratic parties. In other parts of the world, small Communist parties continue to operate within democratic states. Communist Parties also still control a number of dictatorships modeled originally on the Soviet Union (China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba).

In Europe, new chauvinist and nationalist parties arose in the 1980s and 1990s arguing for restrictions on immigration and curtailment of civil rights. They have had some success. For example, France’s National Front Party leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, reached the runoff of the 2002 presidential election, and today the party, led by Le Pen’s daughter, polls higher than the two traditional major parties in France (see Country Study). Joerg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party joined a coalition government in 2000 and the Pim Fortuyn List joined a coalition as the second leading party in the Netherlands after the 2002 elections. in Great Britain,

political parties in

continental Europe can

be roughly grouped into

conservatives, liberals,

and social democrats.

Political Parties Around the World 

In other parts of the world where democracy has emerged, political parties have developed in distinct ways according to their countries’ political history, but often have similar characteristics as those in the US and Europe. Many evolved from anticolonial independence movements or formed to represent new or existing religious, ethnic, and interest groups. In India, for example, the two major parties are the secular, left-leaning Indian National Congress, which was originally established in the 19th century to advocate reform and independence from British rule, and the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party, founded in the 20th century largely to support Hindu nationalism but since its founding also espousing liberal economics. In South Africa, the African National Congress has transformed itself from the leading anti-apartheid organization into the dominant party in the legislature, governing in coalition with Communist and trade union allies. Many parties in the countries of the former Soviet bloc have their roots either in former Communist parties or the opposition groups that arose to end Communist rule.

Although democracy is limited in most of the Middle East, parties have emerged to advocate nationalist, conservative monarchist, or Islamist ideologies, or to represent ethnic or religious minorities. The Baath socialist parties in Syria and Iraq allied with the Soviet Union, but ended up being instruments for authoritarian leaders. In Tunisia, where free elections were held following the Arab Spring movement that overthrew an authoritarian government, a moderate Islamist party emerged as the leading party, but a major secular party won a genuine multi-party contest in 2014 elections. other parts of the world where democracy has emerged, political parties have developed in distinct ways, but having similar characteristics as those in the US and Europe.

As shown throughout the world, the existence of multiple political parties that can compete in fair elections is essential to democracy. The type, size, and viewpoint of the parties may differ markedly. They generally fall along a traditional political spectrum, with the “Right” today representing a conservative or capitalist orientation and the “Left” representing egalitarian principles that support the involvement of the state for solutions to policy problems. But political parties often stand for complex interests or non-ideological constituencies that defy such simple categorization. While parties are a vital part of democracy, not all parties are democratic. Within democracies, non-democratic parties and candidates emerge to champion anti-democratic principles and in some cases use the electoral process to gain power — phenomena that informed citizens must be on guard against. Within authoritarian states or other forms of dictatorship, ruling parties serve merely as instruments of control. Genuine opposition parties offering a political alternative to society and advocating change by peaceful means are usually suppressed in such countries.