Political parties are a means for people who share similar concerns to organize together and ensure that the concerns are addressed. They play important roles both in elections and in the process of government itself.

Also, they may be narrowly defined, covering one specific issue, or have a broad platform. Interestingly, political parties regularly change their positions, to refine their appeal to the people, and also to track, or instigate, developments in popular perspectives on which issues are most important. But, even given these vacillations, the parties generally are stable. They are substantial organizations that take a lot of resources to establish. Great effort is directed at their perpetuation.

In elections, parties nominate individuals for office, as through national conventions, and support their campaigns. Their goal is to organize large-scale backing for the candidates. One implication of this, though, is that someone who wants to run for office must join an established party, since in few countries is the option of starting a new party viable.

All democratic nations have political parties, but with one basic distinction. There are systems with two or three parties (for instance, the U.S. and U.K.), and others with more, sometimes much more. Which structure is used depends on the nature of the election districts. Small districts, from which one person is elected (in the U.S. – representatives, in the U.K. – MPs), have been shown to inevitably evolve into a two or three party system. This is because having broader parties enables wider support, more votes, and hence a higher probability of victory. Once such a system is established, it also becomes very difficult to begin a new party.

Countries where districts are larger and which have a number of representatives have multiple party systems, and also what is known as proportional voting. All such countries, and also the U.K., are parliamentary democracies with Prime Ministers. Under proportional voting the parties are allocated seats in the legislature, and also ministerial positions in the cabinet, based on the percentage of votes that they receive. For example, if a party gains thirty percent of the votes for a district it receives thirty percent of its seats.

This system prevents a single party from winning all the seats in a district, if it receives a relatively small percentage of the vote, yet which is the still the highest among the many parties competing.

The reason countries with proportional voting end up with many parties is that even a small party may receive enough votes to win a single seat. Some countries set minimum vote thresholds that the parties must meet, to ensure that they do not end up with dozens of parties and through this a fractured government.

Parties then fill the seats they have won from Party Lists of candidates, of which there are many variations in use around the world. In “closed list” systems people effectively vote for the parties, since the parties allocate the seats they have won starting with the names at the top of their lists. In “open list” systems, the specific individuals who receive the most votes win the party’s seats. In addition, the party that gains the greatest number of seats can choose the Prime Minister, although if it does not receive a majority it generally has to organize a coalition with other parties.

While the Prime Minister is the head of government, many parliamentary democracies also have a President, or head of state, although this position is frequently ceremonial. Head of State is held by a constitutional monarch, appointed by the government, or subject to a popular election as well. In countries where the position is elected, it generally has substantive responsibilities, and there is a second, runoff election. The top two vote recipients from the first election then compete in the runoff, with the individual receiving the majority winning the office.

In the government itself, according to the Irish philosopher and MP Edmund Burke, the role of the parties is to “give consistent and strong administration when in power, and provide principled criticism when in opposition.” What commonly develops in two-party systems, though, is that the opposition rarely exhibits a willingness to work with the party in power, to serve the interests of the nation. Instead, it concentrates its efforts solely on undermining the current government and forcing it from power, at which point the two parties change sides. Similarly, in parliamentary democracies with multiple parties, any one party can rarely garner enough votes to govern on its own. The leading party’s efforts to form a coalition can easily fall hostage to small, splinter parties, which have only a few seats in the government but which nonetheless are able to affect the balance of power.

Political parties manage the legislative process and set the government’s agenda. This may also include to block, for political reasons, consideration of important issues. In such cases, the parties focus on positioning and jockeying for power, rather than governing the nation.

As this discussion illustrates, political parties fulfill a number of essential functions, but they also incur many negative consequences. The most important of these is that they split the society into different factions. Many parties are designed to appeal to distinct social groups, and through doing this they reinforce the differences that exist between people, not our similarities. As a result, they have come to constitute the principal political barrier in a democracy to the desire of the people to unify and cooperate together.

Moreover, parties have the consequence that they tend to standardize the electorate. People are complex, with wide ranging opinions on different social and political issues. In addition, these opinions may range in strength from noncommittal through to being the foundation of our lives, and for which we would willingly die. Party membership though associates us with a platform of specific dogma. We want political parties to represent our concerns, not define us in a way such that we become simplistic caricatures.

A common occurrence is that political parties are more strident and intolerant than the people that they represent.

Political parties are also undemocratic. A few individuals, the party leaders, generally control the organizations. They further have a tendency to develop internal factions themselves, so rather than present a unified front they become characterized by discord.

This is typically accompanied by a system of patronage. Particularly in countries where elections campaigns are supported by contributions, rather than government funding, parties whose candidates win office then dole out appointed positions to individuals who worked for the party or who made large donations. In jurisdictions where a specific party dominates, this type of system is known as a “political machine.”

To perpetuate themselves and their power, political parties require loyalty. From their members, in addition to such gifts of patronage, this is reinforced through formal party registration procedures and the paying of dues. Party loyalty of elected officials is obtained through such things as the control of funding and other resources for election campaigns. This is enforced by a system of party discipline, which is run by the leading elected officials of the party in the government.

The negative outcomes of political parties are profound, particularly when a country is dominated by money politics. However, it is difficult to see how they can be eliminated, given that one of our fundamental rights is freedom of association. An alternative, though, is to impose limits, including on such things as party activities (in Japan, door-to-door canvassing is prohibited) and also campaign costs.

© Roland O. Watson 2008