Are party systems in Western Europe in the process of radical change?
In this essay I intend to examine the reasons for party systems being in place, and what the different systems are. Then I will look at three Western European countries to see what party systems they have in place and whether or not their party systems are radically changing.
Firstly, I think that it is necessary to classify what is meant by a party system. It is most commonly understood as being ‘the number of parties in competition’ (Mair 1997).
Historical factors have meant that European parties have developed differently,
and these differences are sometimes due to differences in social structure, some social cleavages existed in certain countries and not others (e.g ethnic diversity).
According to Peter Mair they depend to what extent particular cleavages wee effectively politicized; factors such as religion or class have been much more exploited than others. ‘Considerable variations also exist in the persistence of cleavage lines in the party system’ (Mair 1990).
The system in place in countries can be said to distinguish between ‘more or less stable and consensual democracies, which were those normally associated with the two-party system, as opposed more or less unstable countries and conflictual democracies, which were those associated with the multi-party system’ (Mair 1997).
In 1968, Jean Blondel devised a typology that looked at factors including the party’s relative size, and ‘their place in the ideological spectrum’, as well as the number of parties in competition. He found that there were four types: two-party systems, two-and-a-half-party systems, multi-party systems with a dominant party, and multi-party systems without a dominant party.
Later Sartori (1976) developed a new typology which highlighted the importance of party numbers and ‘the ideological distance separating the parties in the system’ (Mair 1997). ‘Party systems could therefore be classified according to the number of parties in the system, in which there was a distinction between formats with two parties, those with up to some five parties (limited pluralism), and those with up to six parties (moderate pluralism); and according to the ideological distance separating the extreme parties in the system, which would either be small (moderate) or large (polarized)’ (Mair 1997:203).
Using these two criteria Sartori found three types of party system- two-party systems, which were defined by a ‘limited format and a small ideological distance (e.g the United Kingdom); moderate pluralism, characterised by limited pluralism and a relatively small ideological distance (e.g Denmark); and, the most important for the typology, polarized pluralism, characterized by extreme pluralism and a large ideological distance (e.g Italy in the 1960’s and 1970’s)’ (Mair 1997: 203).
By using the typologies that have been developed over the years, it can be said that the main determinants of party systems, are the number of parties in competition, but it must be taken into account parties ideological beliefs, and the relationship between the parties only constitute a system if it is characterized by stability and a degree of orderliness.
The UK is an example of a two-party system, Labour and Conservatives have been the two major parties in Britain. Since 1963 the party system has been characterized by (1) stability of the main political parties, (2) the creation of a new party and electoral coalition that at a certain extent challenged the bi-partisan system in the 1987 elections, and (3) the increasing importance of regional politics. Britain’s single-member plurality system (or winner take all in each district), have created a party system with one of the main two parties in office (the Labour and Conservative Parties), and a third party (Liberals and/or Social Democrats) that may serve as a coalition broker in Parliament.
Party systems are constantly developing, due to the ever changing political climate. There are ‘three major developments in contemporary Western European party systems: the weakening of the old ‘people’s parties’; the virtual disappearance of predominant party systems; and territorial differentiation’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999). These changes can be looked upon as ‘signs of flexibility, innovation and experimentation within substantially stable systems, structured by competition for government’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999).
As well as these major changes others can be identified, the weakening of ‘peoples parties’ has given rise to the sudden entry of new parties such as ‘Mass parties’, also the ‘rising levels of electoral volatility, and generally the growing vulnerability of parties faced with the increasing restlessness evident in European electorates’ (Mair and Smith 1990).
The changes in electoral behaviour over the years, means that ‘the effects of socio-economic and other developments have worn down the once prominent cleavage structures on which voting loyalties were first built and party positions were cemented’ (Mair and Smith 1990). These developments can be analysed with two different views: on the one hand these changes are ‘leading to a permanent dealignment, or detachment of voters from parties’, giving rise to many negative implications for both parties but party systems as whole. Or the opposing view is that ‘this present phase in temporary, an interim condition pending the movement towards a realignment of electorates and parties along new cleavage lines’ (Mair and Smith 1990).
This all leads to the question of ‘Whether these changes are the same all over Europe?’ Electoral pressure may be similar throughout Western Europe, however ‘what will be different is the responses of different parties to them, and their degree of success of those responses’ (Mair and Smith 1990).
Parties are influenced by traditions, and their perceptions of political developments also vary. However, ‘how parties interact is a key factor in the process of system change’ (Mair and Smith 1990).
In order to try and answer my question, I have studied the party systems in Britain, France, Italy.
The British party system has been considered a two-party system, and this was undisputed until the 1970’s. By using Blondel’s criterion (1968), this two-partyism was made up of the ‘high proportion of votes absorbed by Labour and the Conservatives until 1970 (90% plus) and the degree of electoral balance between them’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999).
‘Following the 1974 elections there were a number of signs that the nature of the two-party nature of the system was breaking down under the impact of the multiple challenges it encountered. The average vote taken by the major parties was less than 75% between 1974 and 1987, while electoral imbalance between
Labour and the Conservatives emerged’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999).
Also the Liberals began to emerge as an important ‘small’ party, meaning that Britain was now showing Blondel’s criteria for a ‘two-and-a-half’ party system, but the first-past-the-post electoral system meant that the third party on received a low level of parliamentary representation. This may also be explained as a ‘suppressed two-and-a-half party system, because there were two major parties and one minor party which were all well supported across Britain, but due to the representation, the old two-party model seemed intact’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999 ).
Key elements in moderate pluralism still seem to be a realistic prospect, however due to the influence of the electoral system, might not be.
In 1992, after Conservatives forth consecutive victory, it was observed that the two-party system was not making way for moderate pluralism so much as one-party dominance, according to Satori’s views that dominance occurs when the major party generally obtains an absolute majority of the seats.
According to Paul Webb and Justin Fisher: ‘Conservative dominance of the 1980’s and 1990’s was never more than a transient state of affairs, and the British party system has restabilized at its two-party equilibrium for the time being; nevertheless, the suppressed two-and-a-half partyism also characterizes the system may yet emerge as the new orthodoxy of British politics as it enters the twenty-first century’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999).
In France, they have a multi-party system, and the underlying cleavages such as social class and religion remain. Since 1958 the party system has witnessed major changes in the parties and the party system. Also the party-governmental relationships have radically changed. ‘Alternation in power now poses few problems, coincident majorities are no longer a pre-condition for government creates no panic’ (Mair and Smith 1990).
The party system changed from; a moderate multiparty system with two main parties (Union for the New Republic and Moderates), to an extreme multiparty system with one dominant party 1962-73, then between 1978/1986/1993 a moderate multiparty system with a balance among parties, to a moderate multiparty system with one dominant party 1981/1988/1997.
The fifth Republic has a single-member majority-plurality system, which consists of a two ballot system, unless a candidate wins an absolute majority.
In September 1992 the Maastricht referendum split the country down them middle. ‘The majority of core parties are integrationist in outlook whilst all the peripheral parties were nationalist’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999:68).
The French party system in the 1990’s, has sort of stabilised or at least seems able to satisfy the demands of a varied society without great difficulty. The governments function, even though the electorate are not always satisfied with the results. ‘The system allows voters to enforce change easily and recently they have made full use of this’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999:70). The French party system seems to have been effective so far, and I can see no real reason for any radical change.
Since the 1990’s the Italian party system has seen essential transformations. Between 1946-58 Italy had a extreme multiparty system with one dominant party, then in 1963-87 a extreme multiparty with two main parties, which has changed and from 1992- (96) was a extreme multiparty system with a balance among the parties. . A new electoral system was introduced and the decline of the ‘traditional regime parties have had a bipolarizing effect on the system’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999: 93). The party system is still fragmented and multi-party at parliamentary level due to the bipolarization effect in the electoral arena, this is causing all the old problems of government instability which plagued post-war Italy.
‘The new election system and party alliances have so far failed to produce secure parliamentary majorities and cohesive and durable government coalitions’ (Broughton and Donovan 1999: 93).
According to Philip Daniels, a change in the electoral system alone is inadequate to reform the Italian party government and party politics, due to the existence of two different types of party system, one within the electoral arena and the other in the parliamentary arena. This transformation would have to include reforms of the organization of party groups in parliament and the rules on the formation of governments (Adapted from Broughton and Donovan 1999).
‘If the parties fail to agree on further institutional and electoral reform, then the Italian party system is likely to remain in a highly fluid state characterized by looser ties between parties and voters, a proliferation of parties, tenuous electoral alliances and unstable parliamentary party groups’ ( Broughton and Donovan 1999:95).
This point of this essay was to understand what the current party systems are in European countries and to see if and why they are changing. Firstly I had to understand party systems, what the different systems were, and why they were in place. A countries traditions and social cleavages give rise to the formation of many different parties. In France for example there are many different ethnic minorities which need representing, therefore need more parties in order to cater for this.
I have studied three Western European countries. From my research I have found that Britain is one of the only countries to be currently in the process of change. It has been a two-party system since 1963, and is now beginning to show signs of becoming more a two-and-a-half party system. This could be due to the decreasing number of votes, and the electorate favouring pressure/ interest groups. Therefore in the future is the electoral system is reformed we may see Britain becoming more like Italy and France with multi- party systems.
France seems to be stabilizing, and the electorate like having the power to change the system.
The Italian party system seems to be continuing in its transformation, it needs to continue in stabilizing the parliamentary and electoral systems, a process which is never easy.
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