Party system

Political party First Party System Sixth Party System
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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

Party systems by country or region


European Union

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:

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

Central and Eastern Europe

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


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]

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]

United States

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:

"Scholars generally agree that realignment theory identifies five distinct party systems with the following approximate dates and major parties: 1. 1796–1816, First Party System: Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists; 2. 1840–1856, Second Party System: Democrats and Whigs; 3. 1860–1896, Third Party System: Republicans and Democrats; 4. 1896–1932, Fourth Party System: Republicans and Democrats; 5. 1932-, Fifth Party System: Democrats and Republicans."[13]

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 early-mid 1970s.[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]


  1. ^ Sartori (1976); Lipset and Rokkan (1967); Karvonen and Kuhnle (2000)
  2. ^ Sartori (1976)
  3. ^ Golosov, Grigorii V. (2010): The Effective Number of Parties: A New Approach. Party Politics, 16(2):171-192.
  4. ^ Simon Hix, "A supranational party system and the legitimacy of the European Union", The International Spectator, 4/2002, pp.50-59
  5. ^ Corriere della Sera, 8 November 2010
  6. ^ Steven Weldon and Andrea Nüsser, "Bundestag Election 2009: Solidifying the Five Party System", German Politics and Society, 9/30/2010, Vol. 28 Issue 3, pp 47-64
  7. ^ William E. Paterson, and James Sloam, "The SPD and the Debacle of the 2009 German Federal Election: An Opportunity for Renewal", German Politics and Society, 9/30/2010, Vol. 28 Issue 3, pp 65-81
  8. ^ Agh (1998) and Oppelland (2003), as quoted by Schmitt and Thomassed, "The EU Party System after Eastern Enlargement", Political Science Series #105, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, 2005
  9. ^ Alan Siaroff, "Democratic Breakdown and Democratic Stability: A Comparison of Interwar Estonia and Finland", Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol. 32,No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 103-124, esp. p 109 in JSTOR
  10. ^ Gagnon and Tanguay, 2007: 1
  11. ^ Patten, 2007: 57-58
  12. ^ Stephen Clarkson, The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics (2005)
  13. ^ Robert C. Benedict, Matthew J. Burbank and Ronald J. Hrebenar, Political Parties, Interest Groups and Political Campaigns. Westview Press. 1999. Page 11.
  14. ^ Marjorie Randon Hershey, Party Politics in America (12th ed. 2007) pages 119-123
  15. ^ Hershey, Marjorie Randon. Party Politics in America 14th ed. 2011: Longman Classics in Political Science. pages 120-121
  16. ^ Hershey, Marjorie Randon. Party Politics in America 14th ed. 2011: Longman Classics in Political Science. page 121
  17. ^ Marjorie Randon Hershey, Party Politics in America (12th ed. 2007) pages 119-123
  18. ^ Noam Lupu and Susan C. Stokes, "The Social Bases of Political Parties in Argentina, 1912–2003", Latin American Research Review Vol. 44#1, 2009 pp 58-87