Modern Democracies



  • A system in which two political parties dominate the political landscape.

  • One of two parties holds a majority in the legislature - the 'governing' party - while the other is referred to as the 'opposition' party.

  • Two-party systems are a natural by-product of single member plurality voting systems (Duverger's law).

  • Often a dichotomous division of the political spectrum with an obvious left-wing and right-wing party.

  • Example: UK with the centre-left Labour Party and the centre-right Conservative Party.
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  • Offers voters a clear choice between two alternative sets of public policies;

  • Two main parties have to compete for swing voters (i.e. those voting across party lines), so have to advocate moderate, centralist policies;

  • Necessary for single-party majority cabinets that will be stable and effective policy-makers - Lowell (1896): 'two parties, and two parties only... in order that the parliamentary form of government should permanently produce good results'.

  • Two-party systems are simpler to govern with less fractiousness and greater harmony by disencouraging radical third parties.
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  • A system in which multiple political parties run for election, and are all able to gain control of government office, either separately or in a coalition.

  • Multiparty systems are more common in parliamentary rather than presidential systems, and are more common in countries that use proportional representation.

  • Germany is an example of a nation that has used the multiparty system effectively with no single party possessing a parliamentary majority by itself.
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  • Restricting choice to two parties limits the number of ideas on every issue and reduces each voter's choice;

  • Allows each citizen to vote for the party that best fits their beliefs and represents their ideology;

  • Are important in nations with several lines of political conflict as large number of parties are needed to express these:-
    • Religious differences, e.g. in India between Hindus and Muslims;
    • Linguistic differences, e.g. in Belgium between Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities;
    • Rural-urban divide, e.g. in Australia with the Australian National Party protecting rural and farming communities;
    • Foreign policy, e.g. in the UK with UKIP;
    • Postmateralism, e.g. with the rise of green parties internationally.
    • Lijphart found a strong relationship between the number of parties and the number of political issues, e.g. Switzerland possess several conflicts - rural/urban, religious and linguistic - and has five parties.

  • If any one party in a two-party system becomes weak, a dominant party may develop.
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  • 'Winning' in the sense that the party or parties in the cabinet control the majority of the parliamentary seats, but minimal in the sense that the cabinet does not include any party that is not necessary to reach a majority.

  • Example: government of the 26th Irish Dail - a coalition was formed between Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats - 83 seats are needed for a majority, Fail had 77 and the Progressives had 6, together the coalition reached 83 seats.
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  • Contain more parties than are necessary for majority support in the legislature.

  • Example: Thai election of 2011 - the Pheu Thai won a majority in the lower house, but the party leader decided formed a coalition with four other parties in order to boost the government's parliamentary majority.
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  • A minority cabinets are cabinets formed by one or several parties that jointly do not control a majority of seats in the legislature.

  • Example: 2006 Canadian federal election resulted in a Conservative Party minority government led by Stephen Harper.
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  • Not necessarily true that parties want to enter the cabinet at all times; they may believe that not carrying out governmental responsibility is electorally advantageous, so will form minority cabinets (Strom 1990).

  • Riker (1962) acknowledges that larger than winning cabinets may be formed as insurance against defections if there is uncertainity about how loyal one or more of the coalition parties are.

  • Parties' policy preferences may exert strong pressures to enlarge the size and range of coalitions - each party naturally prefers to form a coalition that will follow policies close to its own.

  • Policy considerations may lead to oversized coalitions if the main objective is to work together to defend the country against external or internal threats, e.g.  in Britain with Churchill's war time cabinet.

  • Oversized cabinets may be encouraged by particular institutional divisions, such as linguistic balance as is the case in Belgium.

  • Oversized cabinets may be necessary for constitutional amendments - the two-thirds majority rule in Belgium was the main reason behind many of its oversized cabinets during the process of constitutional reform prior to 1993.
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  • Interest groups are relatively large in size and relatively small in number.

  • They are coordinated into national peak organisations.

  • Regular consultation by the leaders of these organisations both with each other and with government representatives in order to arrive at agreements that are binding on all three partners (tripartite pacts).

  • Encourages an ideology of social partnership and disencourages 'a winner-takes-all mentality' (Katzenstein 1985).

  • Example: Sweden (index for pluralism is 0.35 - indicating strong corporatism).
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  • A multiplicity of small interest groups.
  • The absence or weakness of peak organisations.

  • Little or no tripartite consultation.

  • The absence of tripartite pacts.

  • Example: the United States of America (index of 3.02 - indicates strong pluralism).
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  • Winner-take-all method.

  • Canadidate supported by the largest number of votes wins, and all other voters are unrepresented.

  • The party gaining a nationwide majority will tend to be overrepresented in terms of parliamentary seats.

  • Example: plurality rule in Britain (or first-past-the-post): candidate who receives the most votes, whether a majority of plurality, is elected. 

  • Alternative vote: used in Australia - voters asked to indicate their first preference, second preference and so on.  If a candidate receives an absolute majority of first preferences, he/she is elected.
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  • Proportional representation represents both majorities and minorities.

  • No party is underrepresented or overrepresented.

  • Translates votes into seats proportionally.

  • Example: list PR system: voters cast ballots for parties and seats are allocated in proportion to the number of votes they have recieved.

  • Mixed member proportional: each voter has two votes, one for a district candidate and one for a party list (used in Germany).

  • Single transferable vote: voters vote for individual candidates instead of party lists.
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  • District magnitude refers to the number of representatives elected from a district to the legislative body.

  • District magnitude has a strong influence in plurality-majority systems and PR systems.
  • In majority-plurality systems it allows for disproportionality and advantages for large parties, e.g. if an election contest is between party A and B, and A is stronger in a particular area and this area is a three-member district, party A is likely to win all three seats.
  • In PR systems, it results in greater proportionality and favours small parties, e.g. a party representing a 10 percent minority is unlikely to win in a five-member district but will be successful in a ten-member district.
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  • Seats are in proportion to the share of the vote so parliaments tend to be a microcosm of society, representing a range of interests and ethnic backgrounds, so policy outcomes are likely to benefit a great number of people.

  • Beneficial in countries suffering from long-running ethnic or religious conflict, e.g. Northern Ireland.  PR forces a power-sharing agreement where parties have to overcome traditional divides and work together.
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  • Plurality-majority systems encourage effective, stable policy-makers.  Coalitions made up of multiple parties, as is often the case with PR systems, result in a stalemate government in formation unable to agree on policy.

  • Majoritarian systems result in government accountability - in coalitions formed of mutiple parties it is often unclear who will take responsibility.  Coalitions often result in certain parties not being able to live up to their parties' manifestos, e.g. as in the case of the Liberal-Conservative Coalition in 2010, albeit formed from a plurality system.
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  • Primary characteristics of federalism:
    • Guaranteed division of power between central and regional governments.
    • Each level of government has some activities on which it makes final decisions (Riker 1975).
    • The powers assigned to each level of government may be large or small (Elazar 1997).
  • Second characteristics or 'yardsticks' of federalism:
    • A bicameral legislature with a strong federal chamber to represent regions.
    • A written constitution that is difficult to amend.
    • A supreme court or constitutional court that protects the constitution through its power of judicial review.
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  • Primary characteristics:
    • All power is centralised in the hands of the central government.
    • There is no province or provincial governments.
    • Central government runs without any external pressure.
    • Uniformity of laws as laws are made only by a single central government for the whole state.
  • Secondary characteristics:
    • An unwritten, flexible constitution.
    • Weak or no judicial review.
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  • Flexible constitutions = changed by regular majorities.

  • Rigid constitutions = required supermajorities in order to be amended.
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  • Constitutional Rigidity is considered a necessary condition for modern constitutionalism.

  • Democracies use an array of devices to give their constitutions different degrees of rigidity:
    • Special legislative majorities;
    • Approval by both houses of bicameral legislatures;
    • Approval by ordinary or special majorities of state or provincial legislatures;
    • Approval by referendum;
    • Approval by supermajorities in a referendum.

  • Some constitutions stipulate different methods of amendment for different provisions (Madex 2008)
  • Three categories of rigidity can be distinguished:
    • Approval by two-thirds majorities;
    • Approval by less than a two-thirds majority;
    • Approval by more than a two-thirds majority.
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  • Judicial review is the process by which courts declare legislative or executive action unlawful if such actions are deemed to be in breach of the constitution.

  • Its strength is determined by the presence or absence of judicial review and by the level of activism displayed by the courts.

  • For example, the German Federal Constitution Court is considered to be one of the most powerful and influential courts in the world:
    • Workload of 5,000 cases is heavy in comparison to other constitutional courts.
    • It has handed down rulings on tax policy, abortion, European intregation, the deployment of German troops abroad and asylum policy.
    • The court is also renowned for banning anti-constitutional parties.
  • Courts with weak judicial review are those which can invalidate rules but have been reluctant to do so. 
    • Swedish Constitution formally limits judicial review to cases where the unconstitutionality of a law is 'manifest'.
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