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Classifying Party Systems. What do parties do? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a two party system?. What is a party system?.

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Classifying Party Systems

What do parties do?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a two party system?


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What is a party system?

“Parties make for a “system”, then only when they are parts (in the plural); and a party system is precisely the system of interactions resulting from inter-party competition. That is, the system in question bears on the relatedness of parties to each other, on how each party is a function (in the mathematical sense) of the other parties and reacts, competitively or otherwise, to the other parties.

Sartori 1976


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Classifications of Party Systems

  • The most widely accepted criteria for classifying party systems is the number of parties vying to gain power.

  • The simplest classification of party systems is the differentiation between two-party and multi-party systems.

  • This classification method was seen to show a more fundamental distinction between stable and consensual democracies, and less stable and conflictual democracies.

  • This was later challenged by the experiences of some European democracies, but still remains the starting point for categorizing party systems.

  • However, this system of simply counting parties does present difficulties and is open to much interpretation as to what constitutes a party and what is an interest or pressure group.

  • Furthermore, most political theorists have come up with their own methods for classifying party systems.



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Reasons why Sartori’s typology is often viewed as the most significant

  • It is the most comprehensive of all the typologies, both in terms of how it was developed and the way in which it has been applied to certain cases.

  • It can and has been applied to national and cross-national studies and has been found to be “incomparably” better than all the other theories.

  • It underlines the influence exerted by systemic properties and party system, on electoral behaviour and outcomes. It recognises the importance of the party system in either constraining or directing electoral outcomes.

  • It is explicitly concerned with the patterns of competition and interactions between parties, and is therefore concerned explicitly with the party system itself.


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Is Sartori’s typology still applicable today? significant

  • Since the publication of Sartori’s volume more than 30 years ago, the world’s political situation has changed. This has led to an overcrowding of the moderate pluralism category and an emptying of all other systems.

  • It is also now relatively difficult to find examples of clear-cut two-party systems:

    The US often cited as a two-party system, can now be understood to have a four-party system, with presidential and congressional two-party systems, or even as having 50 two-party systems, each functioning separately in each of the 50 states.

    The UK has experienced the rise of the Liberal Democrats, even though it fulfilled Sartori’s conditions for a predominant party system with the successive majorities of the Conservative party in 1979,1983, 1987, and 1992.


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What do parties do? significant

  • The choice between parties aggregates the preferences of individual voters. Therefore parties are the method by which people participate in the political process.

  • Other forms of citizen participation may exert substantial influence on government, but they lack this representative quality.

  • Although this is a simple definition, there are problems in that there is a distinction between “parliamentary” and “electoral” parties. However, if this method was used then every country can be considered to have a multi-party system. It is therefore important to remember that these theories are concerned with “parliamentary” parties. This is particularly argued by Norris, she further claims that it is very hard to discern a total two-party system, certainly when many different countries are taken into account


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Competition significant

  • Sartori’s approach remains influential as it is focused on the most important aspect of party systems; that of the competition between parties to gain government.

  • However, in terms of the distinctions themselves it is only Dahl’s which uses distinctions directly related to government formation.

  • Competition itself can be broken down into three main factors, which when examined show the advantages and disadvantages of a two-party system, these are the prevailing mode of government alteration, the stability or consistency in the governing alternatives, and finally the question of who governs and how open that process actually is.


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1. Alternation in Government significant

  • The ability to alter the governing party has been seen as a major advantage of the two-party system. In that it is often easy to remove that party and replace it with another, this is known as wholesale alteration.

  • However, to say that this did not occur in more fragmented systems would be incorrect.

  • A second pattern can also be discerned, that of partial alternation, in which a newly incumbent government contains at least one party that formed part of the previous government. This is of course impossible in a two-party electoral system, which do not see coalition governments.

  • The final pattern is non-alternation in which the same party or parties remains in exclusive control of government over an extended period of time. This again is generally found in multi-party systems where the same coalition holds power. This is harder to achieve in a two-party system as the electorate has a more discernable choice to make.

  • A two-party system therefore can be viewed as preferable, in that there is a far greater ability to change the ruling party than in multi-party, coalition-dominated systems.


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2. Innovation and Familiarity significant

  • This refers to whether or not a party or coalition of parties has governed in a particular format before.

  • There is no clear distinction to be made between two-party and multi-party systems, as examples can be found of a continuation of governing formulae in both.

  • A lack of innovation is not necessarily a bad thing in two-party systems as this does not mean a lack of change or choice, just that there is stability in that no coalitions are formed. Where as in multi-party system this can mean that the same coalition gains power on every occasion, and a continually changing and innovative governing formulae can lead to instability and a lack of clarity.


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3. Which parties govern? significant

  • Party systems can be distinguished by the degree to which access to office is narrowly or widely accepted. In other words whether all relevant parties gain representation in parliament or whether this privilege is only given to a small number.

  • Sartori’s polarised pluralism seems to call for a number of anti-systemic parties, but whether these actually exist is another matter. Perhaps it would be simpler to talk of “outsider” parties; those which other parties are not prepared to form a coalition with.

  • This can be seen as an advantage and a disadvantage of the two-party system. The two-party system limits the number of parties that have a significant say in government, and while it can be argued this does not reflect voters views, it also protects the political system from anti-systemic and extremist parties. In this case would it be preferable for other parties to gain representation, or limit it to only two parties that aggregate the majority of people’s wishes?



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Questions to consider significant

  • Is it unrealistic to create a formulae for classifying party systems? Is every party system unique to that country?

  • Does a two-party system offer better competition, in relation to the three factors that make it up?

  • Which is preferable a closed or open structure of competition?


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