Even though George Washington decried political parties, envisioning the United States running just fine without any of them, parties had already begun to form as Washington left office. As political parties often form around charismatic leaders or a common idea or cause, it isn’t surprising that two parties quickly formed around the ideals of Thomas Jefferson on the one hand, and the beliefs of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams on the other. Once a party begins, it needs some recognizable name and/or symbol to make identification easier. This has led to such symbols as donkeys, elephants and eagles, and such names as Democrats, Whigs, GOP, Greens, PRI, PAN, and ungainly mouthfuls like “Workers World Party” and “We The People, American People’s Party.” (You can see a longer listing of presidential hopefuls at Politics1. My favorite longshot candidates are running on the Socialist Workers Party ticket; even if they somehow got the necessary votes to become President and Vice-President, they could not legally hold office. Roger Calero is not an American citizen, and Arrin Hawkins is younger than the Constitutionally mandated age of 35 years. Talk about a double duh for them.)
Since political parties are inevitable (and sometimes hysterically funny), just how many do we really need? Let’s look at several examples of party systems as they currently exist. In a parliamentary system, as found in most of Europe, it is easy for a small political party to gain a few seats. It is therefore extremely difficult for a single party to gather enough seats in parliament to have a majority and thus gain control of government. To attain this majority, a larger party will sometimes extend offers to smaller parties and form a coalition. You can see this in Israel as the Likud and Avoda parties form alliances with smaller religious and radical parties. Another example is nicely summarized here:
The classic historical example of this sort of multiparty system is France’s Fourth Republic (1946 – 58). In the various elections no party ever came close to obtaining a majority in the National Assembly. Therefore, governments were always the result of coalitions of many parties. These governments would last only so long as they avoided important and contentious issues. When such issues arose (as eventually they must), they would tear the coalition apart and force the resignation of the government. The net result was a government that was incapable of addressing itself to the most pressing problems facing the society. In 1958 the French, under Charles de Gaulle, ratified the Fifth Republic, which provided for a cross between a presidential and a parliamentary system and gave the president a specified term of office and extensive powers.
So if you are of the opinion “that government is best which governs least,” the parliamentary system is for you. As long as no single party gains enough control and coalitions are necessary, the government will be paralyzed, unable to make sweeping changes. Of course, such a country is also paralyzed when it comes to important problems that demand immediate action, such as war. Parliamentary coalitions, in addition to being slow to affect change, also award more influence to the smaller parties than their numbers would ordinarily allow. Since these small parties are necessary to form a coalition majority, they often engage in coalition blackmail, effectively threatening to pick up the political ball and go home; this tactic reduces the coalition below the majority numbers needed. And there seems to be no end of these parties. Check out Italy’s kajillion political parties, for example.
It is possible to go to the other extreme and have only one controlling political party. This is normally the case in repressive governments like China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In these countries, the act of voting is meaningless. Do you suppose Brezhnev or Saddam would have stepped down if the vote had ever gone against them? Fat chance of that!
But it is possible for a real democracy to have one controlling party. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, was led by just such a political party for almost 70 years. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) controlled federal and local offices in its centralized, authoritarian party. While other political parties existed, they did not have anywhere near the numbers that PRI had. In an attempt to deter some of the re-election concerns which plague and distract American presidents at the end of their first terms, Mexico has decreed that its president may only be elected to a single six-year term. Unfortunately, this law has had unintended consequences; namely, since there is no way they can be re-elected, Mexican presidents have rarely concerned themselves with public accountability during their term of office. The PRI party bosses would select the next PRI president, who would inevitably be elected. (This political tradition only changed in 1999, when PRI held its first-ever presidential primary.) Since Mexico was controlled by a single party, corruption ran rampant. My Mexican friends complained that each president, at the end of his term, would loot the national treasury and flee to another country. Since he knew he would be followed by another PRI president and protected by PRI people in every level of government, he never feared being brought to justice for his actions.
The PRI stranglehold on political control started to fail in the 1980s, as the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, or PAN) won its first state governorship. This was considered about as meaningful to Mexican politics as the Minnesota governorship of Jesse Ventura was to the USA, but it did indicate changes to come. In 1988, PRI managed to retain control of the presidency thanks to widely-claimed “voting irregularities” (read: voter fraud), but a year later it lost six state governorships. In 1997, PRI lost majority control of the lower house of the legislature, and the mayorship of Mexico City also slipped out of PRI control. Finally, in July 2000, the Alianza por Cambio (Alliance for Change) was successful in electing PAN candidate Vicente Fox Quesada to the presidency. This broke a cycle of PRI presidents unchallenged since 1929.
Thus far I have examined foreign governments, both those run by multiple parties and those controlled by a single party. In my next article I will discuss the American two-party system, its history and its benefits to society.