In modern societies, political parties seem to be an indispensable part in almost every country. A political party is a group of people organized to seek influence in government policy and for the purpose of winning government power, by nominating their candidates in electoral and other means. In a democratic society, a political party is on the input side of a political system, that is, the demands and interests of the people are collected from political parties and analyzed by the government before any policy decision is made.
E.E. Schattschneider (1942), a political scientist, did a comprehensive research over party politics, concluded that political parties created democracy, and modern democracy is unthinkable save except in terms of parties. To a certain extent, it is impossible to run a democratic government without the help of political parties as they have quite a lot of important functions to the government.
The main function of political parties is to ensure a two-way communication system between the government and public.
Public opinion has long been of vital importance to democratic governance. And political parties, under this circumstance, act as a bridge between government and public. Public opinions would be collected by political parties. Different viewpoints from the public would be delivered to the government after the integration of opinion and moderation of differences by political parties. As a result, different people can be brought together so that they can compromise and reach a consensus for policy making, which in turn create a more democratic and harmonious society.
Another function of political parties is to bring aggregation of people of different interests. Apart from political parties, it is not uncommon to find interest groups in the society, which simply want to promote their group’s interest and inform the public of it. However, chaotic and unstable government would be resulted if interest groups became the highest form of political organization. As interest groups would mainly focus on their needs and have conflicts with each other easily, it is difficult to set comprehensive goals or values in policy making. Political parties, in this situation, help pulling interest groups into a larger organization. In doing so, interest group conflicts can be calmed and settled by interest aggregation. Therefore, many large political parties nowadays, such as the Democratic Party in the United States and the Labour Party in Britain, are coalitions of different interest groups.
Integration of different new groups into political system can also be done by political parties, especially for integrative parties, which attempt to mobilize, inspire and educate the public instead of only responding to public concerns. Political parties usually welcome new groups join in and provide them support by giving them educational opportunities, welfare benefits and so on. In doing so, members of the group may feel represented, thus develop a sense of belonging and loyalty to the political system. The U.K. Labour Party and German Social Democratic Party would be related examples. Labours in the above parties are integrated successfully into the political system and learnt to strive for their needs by democratic rules. On the contrary to countries where integration of working class into the political system was failed, radical movements might easily be resulted.
After integration into political system, political socialization is essential for transferring knowledge of the political system and social concern to the people. – Political parties provide political values and factual assumptions in politics. For instance, they teach their members to organize meetings, speak in public and influence government policies. Through these teachings and trainings, the public can form positive attitudes, values and beliefs which sustain the political system
As a result, members can be politically conscious and get more involved in politics. Political parties can also be the training grounds for leaders through political socialization. As a result, citizens can be represented by the educated officials and democracy can be achieved by bringing public opinion in the government.
Apart from the aforementioned, political parties act as a monitoring tool to the government. As party members can be part of the government after winning elections, they can oversee the government by participation. And they can bring people’s voice in and suggest alternate policies and choices to the government, then hold the government to be accountable and responsive. Once the government has done something wrong that would harm the citizens, political parties can immediately voice out the opposition. Under this situation, it would be relatively harder for the government to ignore public voices and thus achieve a more democratic society.
From the above mentioned, political parties serve a number of vital functions to create a democratic society. Political Parties, as a communication channel, facilitate the interactions and understanding between the government and the citizens. People’s demands can be effectively transmitted to the government. To achieve real democracy, other aspects, such as honest and well-informed press and a stable party system, are other important factors as well. Nevertheless, political parties are the most direct way to influence government policy-making. Without political parties, the government may be loosely organized and people’s opinions would hardly be reflected. Therefore, political parties are necessary for the advancement of democracy.
Political parties operate within party systems, and the type of system will have profound effects on party behavior. Party systems are the interactions of different political parties. There are three types of party systems briefly, which are one-party system, two-party system and multi-party system.
By definition, one-party system has only one party dominates the political system. According to Almond, one-party system can be divided into three types. The first type would be authoritarian party system. Under authoritarian party system, there is only one party controlling the interest aggregation and articulation. There is no other competition for political powers, and opposition is suppressed and disallowed.
Another type is totalitarian party system. Under this system, only one party has the legitimate right to govern. No competition for political powers is allowed. Party uses indoctrination, highly emphasizes people interest and party interest should be equal. The system uses the official ideology to mobilize the mass so as to gain political support. For instance, China was under this party system and used mass campaign, such as the Cultural Revolution to mobilize people. In modern society, it is believed that North Korea is one of the remaining countries that is still under this totalitarian party system.
The last type is dominate non-authoritarian party system. This system exists with only one strong party. Even though other parties are permitted to exist in the country, they are not strong enough to challenge or compete with the dominant political party for power. As a result, practically, there is only one party in power. Take the example of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a system called ‘multi-party cooperation under the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership’ has been developed. That is, there are at present eight so-called democratic parties in China apart from the Communist Party. However, these eight other political parties, such as China Democratic League, China Association for Promoting Democracy and Jiu San Society in the PRC are only under the leadership of the Communist Party. At the end, the only party that matters and gains the power is the Communist Party.
No matter which type of the one-party system does the country follow, various political consequences might likely be resulted.
Decision making under one-party system is efficient. As there is only one party in power, other viewpoints need not to be concerned much. Without public consultation and discussion process, swift changes or decisions are likely to be made. Take China as an example, the Communist Party holds all political power and has the exclusive right to legitimize and control all other political organizations. As a result, the Communist Party, alone, determines all the social, economic and political policies and goals for society efficiently without too much hesitation.
Nonetheless, corruption would be possible as there is no checks and balances in the country. No out party is there to supervise in party. Even there are other parties in the state, they are too weak or ineffective to challenge the political power. And as there is only one party who gains the political power and controls the government, politicians would have a low risk to be prosecuted, punished, or to lose their seat. As a result, it may be relatively easier for them to take bribes. In the long run, corruption under one-party system can undermine public trust towards the whole political system and government and threaten the viability of democracy.
Moreover, political apathy may be caused due to only one party in power. No matter how people express their point of views to the government, the political party may only focus on its narrow point of view, not accepting others. In some countries, such as China, would even have censorship to control people’s freedom of speech, preventing them from expressing opinions harm the party’s governance. As time passes, people may feel themselves as incapable and powerless in politics, led to the cause of political apathy.
Apart from the one-party system, two-party system is adopted by some countries nowadays as well. It is a competitive system with two major political parties dominating the system and competing for power. Other political parties are allowed to exist under the two-party system, but they are not strong enough to challenge the two large ad well-supported parties under most situations. Usually, the two dominant parties hold equal power, having an equal chance to win the general election depending on their previous performance. The United States of America is one of the countries adopting the two-party system, which the Republican and Democrats are the major two parties in the country.
With two strong parties in the system act as opposition party, the governance may be relatively stable. There would be checks and balances between parties and the government. Unlike the situation in one-party system, the political ideas would be relatively diverse as the two parties do not incline to only one and narrow standpoint. And the two parties may ensure the government is responsive and responsible towards people’s need and concern.
Although the opposition from the two parties ensures the government is responsive and responsible, several political drawbacks may be resulted. The political views from the two parties might vary a lot. Take the two-party system in the U.S. as an example, within each party, there are moderate republicans or democrats and extreme republican or democrats. For moderate republicans or democrats, sometimes they may express ideas based on their views but not following the party lines. For extreme republican or democrats, as they need to distinguish themselves from the other, their political views may become more and more extreme and two-sided, and lead to the rivalry of partisan politicsmay lead to rivalry of two parties like partisan parties may lead to rivalry of two parties like partisan parties. The great variance on political viewpoints within a party may cause confusion to the citizens. And if the views are too extreme or mostly only divided into two standpoints, it may be hard and time-consuming to have consensus between two parties on certain policy and people’s choice on policy making may possibly be limited.
In addition, it may discourage independent or third-party candidates due to low winning chances in elections. For example, in the U.S., people have tried to set up others parties, such as the Green Party. Ralph Nader, a person who was not from the two major parties, was one of the president candidate in 2004 election. However, candidates like him simply have no chance of winning in the election, so it is hard for them to survive. Under this circumstance, in long term, new political ideas and opportunities of participation may be limited, as the major parties may be too stuck in their ways, affecting policy-making quality.
The last type, the multi-party system, consists of two or more major political parties with equal strength, but none of which can win majority votes and the general election. A coalition government can be resulted, which composed of the two or three parties that win the largest number of votes or seats in the legislature.
The existence of a multi-party system reflects efficient aggregation and expression of minority interest within the society. Parties concerning minorities may also get the chance in winning elections and thus the related viewpoints can be brought in various policy discussions. Under this system, a willingness to compromise and cooperate may be shown.
However, this system is often criticized to be unstable. As there are many different political parties holding different political platform, values are extremely diverse, they may not be able to keep government in power for long. Germany Parliamentary election, with parties having extreme diverse values, in September 2005 showed as an example of unstable multi-party system. Besides, Italy and Israel, with multi-party system, has had years of diverse politics. And the coalition government under the system is inherently unstable, since when a party withdraws from the coalition due to internal conflicts, the government will no longer enjoy majority support from the legislature. Instability, to both the government and citizens, is non-beneficial. In long-run, citizens may lose confidence in governance.
To conclude, each political system has its own political consequences, with merits or demerits. In modern democratic society, checks and balances are of certain importance in the government and any political system. Therefore, one-party system may not be preferable for a country’s governance. For two-party system and multi-party system, it is hard to conclude which is better, and there has been even a middle ground version of these two systems- two-plus party systems. But anyway, as long as parties can effectively use their power and represent public opinion, a stable and moderate party system can be established. And this, in long run, can make democracy possible.