Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, January 20, 2017

Optimal number of parties

What is the optimal number of parties for representative government? Should there be minimum thresholds? What should they be? Is party competition necessary for representative government?

Too many parties can spoil politics
TO ENTER parliament, a Dutch political party need only win enough votes for one seat. With no minimum threshold, there are lots of parties. Eleven succeeded in 2012, including two liberal parties, three Christian ones and one that cares about animal rights. In the next election, this March, polls suggest the total could rise to 13, with the addition of a pro-immigrant party and an anti-immigrant one…

As with the Netherlands, so with Europe. The ideologies that held together the big political groupings of the 20th century are fraying, and the internet has lowered the barriers to forming new groups. So parties are multiplying. Some see this as cause for celebration. A longer menu means that citizens can vote for parties that more closely match their beliefs. This is good in itself and also increases political engagement. Countries with proportional-representation systems, which tend to have more parties, have higher voter turnout than first-past-the-post countries like America and Britain.

Yet excessive fragmentation has drawbacks. As parties subdivide, countries become harder to govern. A coalition of small parties is not obviously more representative than one big-tent party. Big parties are also coalitions of interests and ideologies, but they are usually more disciplined than looser groups, and so more likely to get things done.

Having too many parties is often unwieldy. Coalitions become harder to form and often include strange bedfellows… [I]n Denmark the centre-right government needs the support of the Liberal Alliance, which wants to cut social spending, and the Danish People’s Party, which wants to raise it… Spain’s recent shift from two major parties to four produced a stand-off that left it without a government for most of last year. Its citizens had more choices when they voted, but then spent ten months under the rule of unelected caretakers—not a clear gain in democracy…

Far from increasing real choice, multiplying parties can allow politicians to hide the fact that what matters is patronage…

Sometimes, new policies need new parties to champion them. For all their flaws, the left-wing Podemos party in Spain and the populist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats represent voters whose voices were not being heard. But some politicians form new parties for selfish reasons. Candidates… hunger for the subsidies and free broadcasting time that many countries grant to each party…

Parties are middlemen between government and voters, organising a multiplicity of policies into a simpler menu of options. That menu can be too short (as in China). But it can also be so long and confusing that voters can’t tell what they are ordering—and probably won’t get it.

See also: Europeans are splitting their votes among ever more parties

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