Following on from Philippa’s mathsy bit on the UT2, here’s a wordy bit that briefly looks at multi-party systems, hopefully in a way that avoids the ‘it’ll be bloody anarchy, I tells ya’ rhetoric. It was mostly hastily cut and pasted from an essay, so it might have a few errors arising from that, and be a bit boring, but hopefully it’s still fairly readable.......
In the Liberal Democratic tradition, parties, and levels of competition between them, are considered essential because they ‘process and structure the options to be made available to the electorate, thereby converting millions of votes into a collective decision about who will govern’.
Given the implications for democracy attached to this interpretation, criticism of multi-party systems has been extensive, and charges include, but are not limited to; the fact that there are too many parties; they are not well-rooted in society; and, perhaps as a result of these factors, tend to contribute to political stability and policy outputs in uncertain ways.
I will firstly take the charges of the great number of parties and the extent to which they are rooted in society, and examine them together.
I will do so in the context that political parties, wherever located, have a dual purpose; that of aggregating interests, preferences or opinions, but also of then translating them into government policy.
Of the first point, it seems almost counter-intuitive to argue that a greater number of parties is less beneficial than fewer in aggregating opinion, or ensuring that particular interests are adequately represented in government and policy-making decisions. Indeed, the presence of differentiated political parties almost certainly affects positively the capacity of the subordinated classes in particular, to pursue their interests or concerns, when perhaps a two or three party system does not.
Although it could, and has been argued, that high levels of representation could threaten stability, particularly where the masses pursue a radical or redistributive agenda which may threaten elites or the privileged classes, I would argue that if significant portions of the public are left unrepresented, they may well withdraw support from the regime, and thus create serious ‘legitimacy/mandate’ issues (of the kind we’re seeing recently) and, essentially undemocratic forms of government.
With regards to the charge that parties are not well-rooted in society, in an M-PS, the number of parties must surely also go some way to counteracting this claim.
With so many alternatives from which to choose, parties must reach some level of acceptable accountability or face the risk of losing support. Politicians or parties who refuse to be responsive to their constituents needs, demands or preferences, or who fail to perform effectively, will be held accountable by them, and may no longer receive material contributions, support or votes. Essentially, if you remove the ‘wasted vote’ thing, and you also eliminate ‘tactical voting’, each party must compete for their votes on merit.
However, as I mentioned, the aggregation and articulation of preferences is but one role of political parties, and for all the arguments in favour of diverse representation, one must consider the part it plays in policy performance and generation.
Here one might reasonably suspect that a large number of parties, particularly when they may be diverse and distant in terms of ideology or programme, can not bode well for an effective and efficient legislation process. Once again, an investigation of this reveals interesting, and perhaps surprising results.
In an article about the effect of multi-partyism and party discipline on legislation, Josep M Colomer found that multi-partyism can in fact be a beneficial feature in the legislative process where it reflects appropriately the pluralism of citizen preferences and concerns.
Although a large number of parties has been hypothetically associated to a lack of democratic and policy success, empirical tests have not borne out this theory. In contrast, in legislatives with a small number of parties, and with strong party discipline, there is more tendency for bi-partisan confrontation and more instances of gridlock.
Where there is a greater number of parties, or high levels of party indiscipline, this tendency is reduced, and has proved much more favorable for a smoother decision-making process.
Similarly, if the number of parties present in the legislative arena is high, and accurately reflects the diverse interests of the society it is supposed to represent, it is more likely that policy output is more acceptable to the greater number of people.
The degree to which compromise and concessions must be sought will necessarily entail that the resulting legislation is acceptable to more than just one party, and therefore more than just one section of society.
This can be illustrated further by reversing the argument. A small number of disciplined parties, with a clear position on a given issue, are likely to come into conflict with each other – either meaning that the legislation is gridlocked, or, if passed by a small margin, is unacceptable to nearly half of the peoples’ representatives in congress.
However, the presence of a larger number of parties, with either an undisciplined or disciplined nature, ensures that significant compromise must be achieved, from a diverse section of representatives, and this is reflected in the resulting legislation, which will more likely have been at least in part acceptable to more than one group or party.
Therefore, not only does the number of parties in an M-PS necessarily reflect the number of interests amongst the citizenry in a given country, but it can mean, and frequently has done, that the policy output from any given legislative assembly comprised of this diverse group, often reflects this delicate balance of interests and preferences in society at large.
Finally, interestingly, with regards to the number of parties, and their effect on the quality and durability of a regime, it is perhaps illustrative to draw parallels with those liberal democracies in the West, against which an M-PS is so often judged unfavourably.
Low, and falling, turnout in these so-called ‘established democracies’ has increasingly been attributed to a general feeling that ‘all parties are as bad as each other, and pretty much the same’, offering no real alternative to the voter.
In this respect, PR and a truly Multi-Party System seems to, at least in part, create solutions to the problems of legitimacy that so often coincide with the lack of adequate representation and the poor electoral turnout that results.
For this reason alone, I would argue that it’s most certainly worth a pop!!
 John Peeler, Building Democracy in
J Foweraker et al, Governing Latin America, (
 J Foweraker et al, Governing Latin America, (
 Juan P. Luna and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, ‘Political Representation in
 Herbert Kitschelt, ‘Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities’, Comparative Political Studies; 33; 845 (2000)
 Josep M Colomer, ‘Policy making in divided government: A pivotal actors model with party discipline’, Public Choice 125: 247–269 (2005)
Josep M Colomer, ‘Policy making in divided government: A pivotal actors model with party discipline’, Public Choice 125: 247–269 (2005)