Although political parties were nonexistent in the original Direct Democracies, all modern governments have at least one. In fact, it a multi-party system seems to be a prerequisite for all governments:-
“International financial pressure has also reduced the number of single-party systems in developing nations. Funding agencies such as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (also known as the World Bank) often insist upon a competitive party system as a precondition for granting loans or aid to these countries.”
There was one known exception to the party system in 1996 – Uganda:-
Museveni’s government held national elections again in 1996, but prohibited political party activity and all candidates competed on a nonparty basis. A national referendum to decide between a multiparty and a nonparty form of government was scheduled for 2000.
As political parties are present in almost every country of the world, and are actively promoted by international financial pressure, one could be led to the conclusion that they are really vital to the functioning of a representative democracy or any other form of government. But is this actually the case, and how is it justified?
In a multiparty system, political parties concentrate allegiance towards a subset of the country’s population rather than the population as a whole. The effect of this is to divide the country’s electoral power into factions, which can be expected to weaken governmental process, for when coupled with the requirement to follow the party line, truly representative decisions can no longer be attained. Via this allegiance, potential power is delegated to the elite at the top of the party’s hierarchical structure. This potential power can only become actual power if the party is in government
There is a weakness in the system if the electorate is not required to vote. Low voter turnout, leading to low poll counts, enables active minorities to gain an advantage. The active minorities are the party supporters, who attempt to mobilise known party sympathisers to register their vote in any election. The objective is to return as many representatives of their party as possible to the governing assembly, for the party with the majority is the one that is able to transform their potential power into actual power.
There is a further weakness in the system if no party is able to achieve an absolute majority in the assembly. For a government to be created at all, it is then necessary for alliances, or coalitions, to be formed by two or more parties to ensure that they have a combined majority in the assembly. This can lead to a minor party, which represents only a small percentage of the population, having a disproportionately high influence on government decisions.
Methods of voting are known to influence party formation, with proportional representation favouring the formation of a larger number of consequently smaller parties, as in Italy. Where there is a history of multiple parties, the transfer of allegiance from one to another becomes more common, and where majorities are low can lead to the collapse of a government. In theory, if one person were able to take advantage of such a situation, they would be able to hold the complete government to ransom. Where smaller numbers of larger parties is the norm, such as in the UK and the US, transfer of party allegiance is almost unheard of, and is certainly regarded as taboo.
Parties exert control over their elected representatives. Party loyalty is demanded, and members are expected to vote in the assembly in accordance with party policy. Note that where party policy diverges from the wishes of the area from which a representative has been elected, the representative has a bitter choice:-
– Vote in accordance with his mandate, risk being disciplined by his party, but maintain democracy, or
– Follow the party line, ignore democracy, and risk the wrath of the voters that elected him.
The only time that the party system approaches a democratic process is when a “free vote” or “conscience vote” is allowed in the assembly. At such a time, representatives may vote in accordance with their mandate, for the result of the vote is in no way critical to the government’s policies. These, however, are few, and when they will be allowed is decided essentially by one man – the leader of the governing party. This is in fact a complete denial of the democratic process.
Party discipline is exerted by means of a “Whip” system, or it’s equivalent. The ultimate punishment is expulsion from the party, and consequent loss of financial support during a general election. Most votes in the assembly are accorded a priority level of from “One-line” to the maximum “Three-line Whip”, according to how important the outcome of the vote is to the governing party. For an insight into the workings of the whip system, go to “The Whip”
In many countries, selection of candidates for election is performed by the political parties themselves. (An exception to this is the US, where the Presidential Primary elections enable the voting public to have a direct voice in the selection process.) Candidates will be chosen on the basis of party requirements, which are:-
a) to keep themselves in existence, and increase their influence
b) to get into power (form the government) as often as possible
c) maintain or increase their funding.
The party is therefore interested primarily in those that will unswervingly remain loyal. Unfortunately, this excludes altruists and philanthropists, for their loyalty is elsewhere. In this manner, the parties are able to exclude the very people that are required for a democratic system to function properly.
In cases of national emergency, such as a difficult wartime environment, it is common practice to form a coalition government. The principle idea behind this is to gain the support of a wider section of the electorate, but could also be construed as sharing the blame should anything go drastically wrong. In this case, the governing party would not be at a disadvantage in an election when the situation returned to normal.
As a result of an emergency situation, the quality of government suddenly improves to a semblance of a democracy. As soon as the emergency is over, however, it reverts again to it’s previous state.