A number of different types of party systems have been identified:
One-party system: a one-party system cannot produce a political system as we would identify it in Britain. One party cannot produce any other system other than autocratic/dictatorial power. A state where one party rules would include the remaining communist states of the world (Cuba, North Korea and China), and Iraq (where the ruling party is the Ba’ath Party).
The old Soviet Union was a one party state. One of the more common features of a one-party state is that the position of the ruling party is guaranteed in a constitution and all forms of political opposition are banned by law. The ruling party controls all aspects of life within that state. The belief that a ruling party is all important to a state came from Lenin who believed that only one party – the Communists – could take the workers to their ultimate destiny and that the involvement of other parties would hinder this progress.
Two-party system: as the title indicates, this is a state in which just two parties dominate. Other parties might exist but they have no political importance. America has the most obvious two-party political system with the Republicans and Democrats dominating the political scene. For the system to work one of the parties must obtain a sufficient working majority after an election and it must be in a position to be able to govern without the support from the other party.
A rotation of power is expected in this system. The victory of George W Bush in the November 2000 election fulfils this aspect of the definition. The two-party system presents the voter with a simple choice and it is believed that the system promotes political moderation as the incumbent party must be able to appeal to the ‘floating voters’ within that country.
Those who do not support the system claim that it leads to unnecessary policy reversals if a party loses a election as the newly elected government seeks to impose its ‘mark’ on the country that has just elected it to power. Such sweeping reversals, it is claimed, cannot benefit the state in the short and long term.
The multi-party system: as the title suggests, this is a system where more than two parties have some impact in a state’s political life. Though the Labour Party has a very healthy majority in Westminster, its power in Scotland is reasonably well balanced by the power of the SNP (Scots Nationalist Party); in Wales within the devolutionary structure, it is balanced by Plaid Cymru; in Northern Ireland by the various Unionists groups and Sein Fein.
Within Westminster, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats provide a healthy political rivalry. Sartori defines a multi-party system as one where no party can guarantee an absolute majority. In theory, the Labour Party, regardless of its current parliamentary majority, could lose the next general election in Britain in 2006. Even its current majority of 167 cannot guarantee electoral victory in the future.
A multi-party system can lead to a coalition government as Germany and Italy have experienced. In Germany these have provided reasonably stable governments and a successful coalition can introduce an effective system of checks and balances on the government that can promote political moderation. Also many policy decisions take into account all views and interests. In Italy, coalition governments have not been a success; many have lasted less than one year
. In Israel, recent governments have relied on the support of extreme minority groups to form a coalition government and this has created its own problems with such support being withdrawn on a whim or if those extreme parties feel that their own specific views are not being given enough support.
Dominant-party system: this is different from a one-party system. A party is quite capable within the political structure of a state, to become dominant to such an extent that victory at elections is considered a formality this was the case under the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. For 18 years (1979 to 1997), one party dominated politics in Britain. In theory, the Conservatives could have lost any election during these 18 years.
But such was the disarray of the opposition parties – especially Labour – that electoral victory was all but guaranteed. The elections of the 1980’s and 1990’s were fought with competition from other parties – hence there can be no comparison with a one-party state. During an extended stay in power, a dominant party can shape society through its policies. During the Thatcher era, health, education, the state ownership of industry etc. were all massively changed and re-shaped. Society changed as a result of these political changes and this can only be done by a party having an extended stay in office.
Two Party vs. Multi-Party Systems:
Democracy has functioned as successfully in multi-party systems as in two- party system. There are, however, certain relative advantages and disadvantages of a particular system. To begin with, the supporters of multi-party system argue that: (a) it more effectively corresponds to the division of public opinion especially in a plural society like India; (b) it represents and satisfies the aspirations of diverse interest groups; (c) under this system, a voter can choose among more parties and candidates than available under the two-party system; (d) it reduces the fear of absolutism of the majority; and finally (e) it is more flexible because under this system groups can be freely organized, can unite and separate in accordance with the exigencies of the circumstances.
In theory the multi-party system, has much in its favour, in practice not so much. As we see in India today, inability of any single party to command absolute majority and consequent inevitability of forming coalition government led to the crisis of stable government in India. The members of the Council of Ministers instead of working under the leadership of the Prime Minister seek guidance from their party bosses and even a single Member of Parliament tries to blackmail the government by threatening to withdraw its support.
Not surprisingly, the government does not find enough time to devote attention to the task of governance as it remains busy with keeping its partners in good humour even at the cost of national interest. The major party is also forced to abandon its electoral pledge to cobble a majority in the lower house of legislature. The Cabinet in consequence comes to represent, not a general body of opinions, but a patchwork of doctrines leading to a gap between the electorate and the government.
On the other hand, the supporters of two-party system argue that is enables the people to choose their government directly at the polls as voter is not perplexed by a multiplicity of candidates and he can simply opt between the two. Secondly, it providers unity of policy in the government since the party in power does not have to depend upon any other.
This facilitates effectiveness of the government. Thirdly, two parties hold each other in check and prevent either from being too extreme, since each party shall try to win over the supporters of the other and to appeal to independent voters. Fourthly, as democracy is supposed to be guided by the public opinion, the two-party system provides an ideal condition for debating the issues between two opposite camps.
Laski, therefore, observes, “A political system is more satisfactory, the more it is able to express itself through the antithesis of two great parties.” But the two-party system has to pay certain price for the stability provided by it. This system implies that there are only two schools of thought in a country.
In reality, however, there is always a variety of opinions and ideas present in process of political thought and discussion. This is seldom recognized in a two-party system. Certain artificiality is thus inevitably introduced into this system leading to the establishment of vested interests in public opinion which is best illustrated by the American spoils system.
In addition, the two-party system brings about the decline of legislature and paves the way for cabinet dictatorship. The party in power backed by a solid majority inside the legislature reduces the latter to its play-thing.
In view of the above-mentioned advantages and disadvantages of the multiparty and two-party systems, it is not prudent to lay down a general rule concerning the desirability of a particular type of party system in all countries. As such the merits and demerits of the various party systems need to be seen in the context of various social, economic and historical forces at work in a given country.
The whole world need not be patterned according to English or American way of life. In fact, what is most crucial in this regard is the nature of political culture. If the splintering process in the multi-party structure operates within a broad framework of normative and institutional consensus, the party structure is not likely to experience enormous strain as we find in the case of Scandinavian countries.