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A party system is a concept in comparative political science concerning the system of government by political parties in a democratic country. The idea is that political parties have basic similarities: they control the government, have a stable base of mass popular support, and create internal mechanisms for controlling funding, information and nominations.

The concept was originated by European scholars studying the United States, especially James Bryce and Moisey Ostrogorsky, and has been expanded to cover other democracies.[1] Giovanni Sartori devised the most widely used classification method for party systems. He suggested that party systems should be classified by the number of relevant parties and the degree of fragmentation.[2] Party systems can be distinguished by the effective number of parties.[3]

Types of party systems


  • One-party system: a system in which a single political party has the right to form the government, usually based on the existing constitution, or where only one party has the exclusive control over political power.
  • Dominant-party system: a system where there is "a category of parties/political organizations that have successively won election victories and whose future defeat cannot be envisaged or is unlikely for the foreseeable future".
  • Bi-party system: a system where only two parties or alliances, typically placed either side of the centre, have a realistic chance of forming a majority. Other parties are very minor or solely regional.
  • Multi-party system: a system in which multiple political parties have the capacity to gain control of government offices, separately or in coalition.
  • Non-partisan system: a system of government or organization such that universal and periodic elections take place without reference to political parties.

Party systems by country or region


Two structures of party system have been identified in the European Parliament since its first universal direct election in 1979, albeit the main EU party groups remained the same:[4]

Italian party systems are usually considered only since the foundation of the Italian Republic (1946) as pre-fascist parties lacked a wide popular base.

The party system of the so-called First Republic (1946–1994), though based on a proportional electoral law, saw the dominance of the Christian Democracy (DC) and the conventio ad excludendum against the Italian Communist Party (PCI). DC and PCI together gathered around 85% of the votes in average. The system was thus a blocked bipolar system; governments were very short (in average lasting less than one year) and post-electoral, but the supporting parties and personnel could not change. With time, some parties (especially the Italian Socialist Party, PSI) gained momentum, till reaching the role of government-making in the 1980s. The system was completely destroyed by the bribery scandals of Tangentopoli, which shattered DC and PSI. According to Sartori, the two possible degenerations of proportionalism (fragmentation and lack of party discipline) were reduced by two factors: the strong role of parties ("partitocrazia") and the polarization between Christian-democrats and communists. Therefore, the first republic saw a maximum level of 5 effective parties, with only one dominant party.[5]

The so-called Second Republic party system (since 1994) bears the following characteristic marks:

  • a majoritarian electoral law, introduced by referendum in 1993, which brought about a bi-polarization of the game (although limited by the 1/4 of votes still gathered proportionally)
  • the birth of Forza Italia as personal party of Silvio Berlusconi, with a strong polarization effect
  • the rise of new parties (the environmentalists Verdi and the autonomist Lega Nord since the late 1980s, Alleanza Nazionale through a reform of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement)
  • the split of old parties (between reformed post-communist Democratic Party of the Left and neo-communists of Rifondazione Comunista; between left-wing and right-wing of old Christian Democrats and Socialists, siding with or against Berlusconi)

Though more fragmented in the number of parties, the system was bipolar in its functioning. With time, both sides saw a strengthening of coalitions (even if with ups and downs) and the birth of unified parties (the Ulivo federation and then the Democratic Party on the left, and the People of Freedom party on the right side). The change in the electoral law in 2005 and the return to proportionality (although with a majority premium able to transform, in the lower chamber, the plurality in a 55% majority) didn't bring about a return to collusion, while still leaving such prospect open for the future.

The 2009 Bundestag election in Germany was characterized by widespread public apathy and record low voter turnout. Weldon and Nüsser (2010) argue that it solidified a new stable, but fluid five-party system that they see as a defining feature of the emerging German political system. The three minor parties each achieved historical bests at the polls with steep losses for the two traditional Volksparteien. They report that the increased volatility and fluidity of the party system is structured along the left-right ideological spectrum with the parties divided into two major camps and vote-switching much more likely within the respective camps rather than between them.[6]

The 2009 election also marked a devastating defeat for the SPD, leading some commentators to speculate about the end of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as a "catch-all party" and, against the backdrop of recent poor performance of center-left parties all across Europe—perhaps even "the end of social democracy."[7]

The 2013 election saw the first time that the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) that had been represented in parliament since 1949 and formed part of government as a coalition partner to either SPD or CDU (Christian Democratic Union, the major conservative / center-right party) for almost all of the period from 1949 to 1998 and again from 2009 to 2013 fell below the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. The same election also saw the rise of the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) party that ran on an anti-Euro platform and failed to enter parliament on their first federal election just barely with 4.8% of the vote.

After this election the second "große Koaltion" (big coalition of the major parties CDU and SPD) since 2005 was formed. Prior to that Germany had only had one big coalition that governed from 1966 to 1969, preferring coalitions of one big and one small party at the federal level instead. Whether this shift proves temporary or permanent remains yet to be seen

Four party systems have been identified in post-communist countries of Central-Eastern Europe:[8]

  • I system (late 1980s - early 1990s): dominated by the opposition between communists and anti-communists, i.e. from supporters and opponents of the old regime; spontaneous mass movements formed on idealistic bases and transformed into 'umbrella parties'
  • II system (early 1990s): opposition between winners and losers of the economic transition to a market economy. Anti-communist parties split and formed unstable coalition governments. Many parties, with a narrow political base, grew up
  • III system (late 1990s): the social conflicts of market transition aggravated, and social-democratic post-communist parties took over. The party system concentrated, while electoral volatility was extremely high
  • IV system (2000s): rise of a relatively stable and modestly concentrated party system, organized on a left-right dimension, including post-communist parties. Fragmentation did not rise again after the fall of many social-democratic parties from government.

Finland was a Grand Duchy controlled by Russia until 1918. Nationalistic demands from the peasants and workers for greater use of the Finnish language led to the first political party: the Finnish Party in 1860. In response, the Swedish-speaking aristocracy, landowners and businessmen formed their own political party. Thus emerged the first party system.[9]

According to recent scholarship there have been four party systems in Canada at the federal level since Confederation, each with its own distinctive pattern of social support, patronage relationships, leadership styles, and electoral strategies.[10] Political scientists disagree on the names and precise boundaries of the eras, however. Steve Patten identifies four party systems in Canada's political history[11]

  • The first party system emerged from pre-Confederation colonial politics, had its "heyday" from 1896 to 1911 and lasted until the Conscription Crisis of 1917, and was characterized by local patronage administered by the two largest parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives.
  • The second system emerged following the First World War, and had its heyday from 1935 and 1957, was characterized by regionalism and saw the emergence of several protest parties, such as the Progressives, the Social Credit Party, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
  • The third system emerged in 1963 and had its heyday from 1968 to 1983 and began to unravel thereafter. The two largest parties were challenged by a strong third party, the New Democratic Party. Campaigns during this era became more national in scope due to the electronic media, and involved a greater focus on leadership. The dominant policy of the era was Keynesian economics.
  • The fourth party system has involved the rise of the Reform Party of Canada, the Bloc Québécois, and the merger of the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. It saw most parties move to one-member-one-vote leadership contests, and a major reform to campaign finance laws in 2004. The fourth party system has been characterized by market-oriented policies that abandoned Keynesian policies, but maintained the welfare state.
  • It could be argued that a fifth party system has emerged at some point over the past decade as Canadian politics is no longer defined by the regionalism and fiscally conservative orthodoxy of the 1990s and early 2000s. The current make-up of the House of Commons, dominated by three nationally oriented parties (Liberal, Conservative and NDP), bears a far more striking resemblance to that of the third party system rather than the fourth; the governing Liberals have arguably abandoned or loosened their commitment to fiscal conservatism and free market economics by returning to a more Keynesian outlook; and the left of centre New Democratic Party (NDP) has been a contender in the past two elections, having occupied the role of official opposition in between 2011 and 2015. This greatly differs from the post-1993 situation in which aside from the governing Liberals, Canada's two other nationally oriented political parties (the NDP and PC Party) were marginalised, allowing the opposition benches to be dominated by the Western-based Reform Party and separatist Bloc Quebecois. However, it is difficult to pinpoint precisely when the fourth party system came to a close. As mentioned earlier, the Canadian Alliance and PC Party merged in 2004 creating the Conservative Party of Canada, but the Bloc Quebecois continued to dominate Quebec, benefiting from First Past the Post, until 2011. The Liberals, in opposition to the governing Conservatives after 2006, gradually moved leftwards as centrist parties often do when in an opposition role to a conservative government.

Clarkson (2005) shows how the Liberal Party has dominated all the party systems, using different approaches. It began with a "clientelistic approach" under Laurier, which evolved into a "brokerage" system of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s under Mackenzie King. The 1950s saw the emergence of a "pan-Canadian system", which lasted until the 1990s. The 1993 election — categorized by Clarkson as an electoral "earthquake" which "fragmented" the party system, saw the emergence of regional politics within a four party-system, whereby various groups championed regional issues and concerns. Clarkson concludes that the inherent bias built into the first-past-the-post system, has chiefly benefited the Liberals.[12]

The concept of the party system was introduced by English scholar James Bryce in American Commonwealth (1885).

American Party Systems was a major textbook by Charles Merriam in 1920s. In 1967 the most important single breakthrough appeared, The American Party Systems. Stages of Political Development, edited by William Nisbet Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham. It brought together historians and political scientists who agreed on a common framework and numbering system. Thus Chambers published The First Party System in 1972. Burnham published numerous articles and books. Closely related is the concept of critical elections (introduced by V. O. Key in 1955), and "realignments." Critical elections or Realigning elections involve major changes to the political system, regarding the coalition of voters, the rules of the game, finance and publicity, party organization, and party leadership.

A political science college textbook explains:

There have been at least six different party systems throughout the history of the United States:[14]

First Party System: This system can be considered to have developed as a result of the factions in the George Washington administration. The two factions were Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party. The Federalists argued for a strong national government with a national bank and a strong economic and industry system. The Democratic-Republicans argued for a limited government, with a greater emphasis on farmers and states' rights. After the 1800 Presidential election, the Democratic-Republicans gained major dominance for the next twenty years, and the Federalists slowly died off.

Second Party System: This system developed as a result of the one party rule of the Democratic-Republicans not being able to contain some of the most pressing issues of the time, namely slavery. Out of this system came the Whig Party and Henry Clay's American System. Wealthier people tended to support the Whigs, and the poorer tended to support the Democrats. During the Jacksonian era, his Democratic Party evolved from Democratic-Republicans. The Whig party began to break apart into factions, mainly over the issue of slavery. This period lasted until 1860.

Third Party System: Beginning around the time of the start of the Civil War, this system was defined by bitter conflict and striking party differences and coalitions. These coalitions were most evidently defined by geography. The South was dominated by the Democrats who opposed the ending of slavery, and the North, with the exception of some major political machines, was dominated by the Republicans, who supported ending slavery. This era was a time of extreme industrial and economic expansion. The Third Party System lasted until 1896.

Fourth Party System: This era was defined by Progressivism and immigration, as well as the political aftermath of the American Civil War. Northeastern business supported the Republicans while the South and West supported the Democrats. Immigrant groups were courted by both parties. The Fourth Party System came to an end around 1932.[15]

Fifth Party System: This system was defined by the creation of the New Deal Coalition by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression. This coalition supporting new social welfare programs brought together many under-privileged, working class, and minority groups including unions, Catholics, and Jews. It also attracted African-Americans, who had previously largely supported the Republican Party due to Lincoln's freeing of the slaves. This era lasted approximately until 1968.[16]

Sixth Party System: The transition to this system appears to have begun with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the Democrats subsequently losing their long dominance of the South in the late 1960s, leading to a Republican dominance as evidenced by election results.[17]

Scholars of Argentina identify two distinct party systems, one in place between 1912 and 1940, the other emerging after 1946. The first party system was not consistently class based, but the second was, with the Radical Party representing the middle classes and the Peronists, workers and the poor.[18]

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