Majoritarian Party Systems

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Majoritarian Party Systems

Majoritarian party systems seem to organize the best links between people and government. They provide a choice to citizens in elections, unlike single-party systems in which decisions may be made rapidly and efficiently, but in an authoritarian manner by an elite group. Majoritarian party systems are able to function efficiently without the obligation of cutting complicated deals, as occurs in multiparty systems in which no one party has a clear majority. One danger of multiparty systems may be the slowness with which decisions are made; another is the fact that the people may play little part, if any, in the deals that party leaders have to make to achieve needed compromises. Majoritarian party systems thus appear to avoid the drawbacks inherent in either of the other two systems.

The majoritarian party system exists in Great Britain, where it was, so to speak, invented or, perhaps more accurately, "stumbled on." It spread to many Commonwealth nations as well as other countries, such as the United States. The formula is not always pure, however, and the system has often degenerated, for instance, in many African Commonwealth countries, to a single-party system (as seen in East Africa), to military rule (witness West Africa), or to a mixture of both, jointly or successively.

Nevertheless, it was not entirely by accident that Great Britain first, and many Commonwealth countries subsequently, adopted the majoritarian party system. This development resulted from the reinforcement, at times brutal, of a rather simple—indeed dichotomous—structure of social cleavage through the "first past the post" electoral system, in which a candidate wins by simply having more votes than the others. In Great Britain the original structure dictating social cleavage between the Tories and Whigs was almost tribal, but it eventually took on an ideological slant in the late seventeenth century when loyalty to a particular branch of the royal family came to be at stake. A certain conception of the role of the monarch in the political system was then associated with such a distinction: This naturally evolved into opposition between conservatives and liberals in the nineteenth century. The distinction was, in turn, superseded by the division between conservatives and labor, the rapid industrialization in England during that century having contributed to the strong rise of trade unions and demands for social change.

Nevertheless, passage to this last cleavage would not have taken place had it not been markedly helped by the electoral system. Under the first past the post system, a split is lethal to a party, and yet this is precisely what the Liberal Party did, partly on personal grounds, during World War I (1914–1918). The Labor Party was formed, and as early as 1923, it became the only realistic alternative to the Conservative Party. In contrast, on the European continent, proportional representation enabled traditional liberal parties and other "centrist" forces to remain significant: proportional representation was indeed introduced in Belgium to specifically prevent the demise of the Liberal Party and stem the rise of the Socialist Party.

Great Britain exported to the Commonwealth and other countries, including the United States, the notion that a majoritarian party system, ideally a two-party model, would provide the most "responsible" form of government. It was believed that such a system would enable voters to have a say in which party wielded power. It was also expected that such a system would ensure that government policies at least broadly represented the desires of the majority of voters: If this turned out not to be the case, citizens could use the ballot box to replace one party by the other. Those parties that did not follow the "line" of the majority of the electorate would therefore pay a price. It was believed that the fear of having to pay such a price would induce all parties to behave in the "correct" manner.

However, even in the Commonwealth and the United States, this idealized model did not always result in such a responsible two-party system. This was so even when the British electoral system was adopted. First, only one main cleavage could exist, and that cleavage had to be the same across the nation: If there was more than one major cleavage and if in some areas the cleavage was different from that which was relevant in other areas, the party system would not be majoritarian, even with a first past the post electoral system. This was the case when profound cultural differences existed, as in Canada. The result would be not a two-party system, but a party system fragmented geographically. As a matter of fact, the two-party system could exist in name only, if attitudes and the political culture differed sharply from one part of a country to another: This was traditionally the case in the United States, with the Democratic Party divided between North and South. It has even been suggested that at times, in the United States, almost as many parties existed as there were states.

Not surprisingly, the "textbook" two-party model has tended to take roots more easily in relatively small countries, like those of the Caribbean, rather than larger countries. Nevertheless, exceptions do exist, such as Australia, if the coalition formed between the Liberal Party and the National Party is regarded as being, at the federal level at least, one party only.

Significant variations from the British model, even in the Commonwealth, have thus occurred if cleavages are numerous and so profound that the system itself cannot give rise to two sizeable parties only. Variations in the other direction have also transpired, that is to say, toward a party system in which one party is so dominant that no alternative may exist. This phenomenon occurred rather widely, either when the single-party system was on the way out, as has been the case in some African countries, both within and outside the Commonwealth, or when the dominant party does not even need to impose total control, as was the case in Mexico for decades with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In fact, a similar circumstance existed for decades in eighteenth-century England when the Whigs exercised almost total dominance.

Majoritarian party systems may thus not always have the "balanced" characteristics that come to be expected in an ideal two-party system. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that the two-party system, even in its near-ideal form, does not always have, and perhaps has had less and less frequently, the consequences it was expected to have in terms of the relationship between rulers and the ruled. Scholar Anthony Downs suggested that a pure two-party system would lead to both parties proposing the same centrist policies, as each would wish to attract the support of key middle-of-the-road voters in order to obtain a majority. However stylized this approach seems to be, it has corresponded to the dynamics of party policy development in many two-party systems and even in party systems in which the two main parties did not occupy the entire political spectrum, as in Germany, or in those systems in which two coalitions, rather than just two parties, presented themselves to the electorate, as in France.

Such an interpretation of the political dynamics of two-party systems may be somewhat one-sided in that, since the 1980s, right-wing parties have been able to move further to the Right with electoral impunity, while left-wing parties have had to move to the Right to "catch up." This occurred in Great Britain, the United States, and parts of the European continent. Thus, both parties or coalitions are fairly similar to each other, but as part of a common movement, in this case to the Right.

It seems reasonable that in a majoritarian party system, the two parties or coalitions should remain close to each other. However, this has serious implications for the role of elections and for the part that voters can play in elections. On the one hand, the majoritarian system as it develops in the Downsian interpretation becomes more open to issues than the majoritarian party system based on a neat cleavage between voters and their party. On the other hand, if there is little

choice between the parties, it is no longer clear whether voters are likely to be satisfied with the outcome of elections: The superiority of the responsible party system will therefore fall into question.

The saving grace of the majoritarian party system may be that it never fully operates in practice along the lines of the Downsian model, partly because voting remains tied to both loyalties and issues—that is to say, voters are never truly rational. In addition, there is never, or almost never, just one cleavage and key personalities, whatever their limitations, further complicate the equation. This makes it possible to claim with some justification that majoritarian party systems are the best—or least bad—means of rendering rulers at least partly accountable and of inducing these rulers to pay some attention to the views of the ruled.

See also: Political Party Systems; United Kingdom; United States.


Dominguez, Jorge I., Robert A. Pastor, and R. DeLisle Worrell. Democracy in the Caribbean: Political, Economic, and Social Perspectives. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.

Dunleavy, Patrick, and Christopher T. Husbands. British Democracy at the Crossroads. London: Allen and Unwin, 1985.

Finer, S. E., ed. Adversary Politics and Electoral Reform. London: Anthony Wigram, 1975.

Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-six Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Rae, Douglas W. The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws, rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

J. Blondel