Meaning, Origin, Types, Examples and Functions of Political Parties

Meaning, Origin, Types, Examples and Functions of Political Parties

Meaning  and origins of political parties

Researchers and political philosophers have defined political parties in several ways. Edmund Burke defined a political party as “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some political principle in which they are agreed.”

In Joseph Schlesinger’s conceptualization, parties are political organizations, which actively and effectively engage in a competition for elective office.

According to Joseph LaPalombara (1974), a political party is “a formal organization whose self-conscious, primary purpose is to place and maintain in public office persons who will control alone or in coalition, the machinery of government”.

In the view of Joseph Schumpeter (1943) “The first and foremost aim of each political party is to prevail over the others in order to get into power or to say in it” Thus, Political parties, like interest groups are organizations seeking influence over government; they can be distinguished from interest groups on the basis of their primary political orientation.

Political parties developed along with the expansion of suffrage-the right to vote-and can be understood only in the context of elections.

In Nigeria for example, the first political party in the country was the National Democratic Party (NNDP) that was formed by Hebert Macaulay in 1922 to contest the Lagos Town Council election created when the elective principle was introduced under the Clifford Constitution.

A party seeks to control the entire government by electing its members to office thereby controlling the government personnel. Interest groups through campaign contributions and other forms of electoral assistance are also interested in getting politicians-especially those who are inclined in their policy direction elected.

But interest groups are not interested in directly sponsoring candidates for elections, and in between elections they usually accept government and its personnel as given and try to influence government policies through them. While interest groups are benefit seekers, political parties are office-seekers.

In an elaborate and expansive definition, Leslie Lipson (1964) defines a political party thus:

Whenever sufficient diversity of interests occurs among those who compose a society and the political system gives these interests an opportunity to combine, men will cluster into groupings, which may be more or less formal, and closely or loosely organized. They do this in order better to protect what they may possess and extend their influence to wider spheres.

In simple language, a political party is a group of persons bonded in policy and opinion in support of a general political cause, which essentially is the pursuit, and retention for as long as democratically feasible, of government and its offices. In other words, a political party is a group that seeks to elect candidates to public offices by supplying them with a label - a party identification - by which they are known to the electorate.

Therefore, a political party is composed of a group of people like any other groups or organizations, except that it is distinguished by its unique objective, which, in a democratic setting, is seeking control of government through nominating its candidates and presenting programs for endorsement via the electoral process in competition with other parties


Types of Party System

A party system is a network of relationships through which parties interact and influence the political process. The most popular way of distinguishing between different types of party system is the reference to the number of parties competing for power. 

The French political scientist, Maurice Durverger in his popular work Political Parties classified parties in to three types: 

1. The single or one party system. 

2. The two party systems. 

3. The multiple party systems.

4. Zero-Party option.

1. Single or one-party system

A one party is a system in which only one party is legal recognized in the country. Therefore, it is illegal for any organization to operate as a political party in such country. It is a common feature of communist and socialist countries like North Korea, Cuba etc.

In the immediate post independent period, one party was a feature of scores of African countries such as Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah where the Convention Peoples Party (CPP) held sway and Tanzania under Julius Nyerere where the Tanzanian African National Union (TANU) was the only officially recognized party. The position of the PDP as the party controlling the federal government in Nigeria does not make the country a one party state; it only represents a case of one party dominant regime. You should note the following as important characteristics of a one party state: no opposition party is legally recognized, there is usually only one ideology for the whole country, and it is the ideology of the party in government.

There is also either no private control of mass media or very stringent requirements before private individuals can be allowed to own or publish a newspaper or magazine, in addition to close censorship of their activities.

 Advantages of One- Party System

• One party prevents economic waste in the sense that elections are not held among numerous parties most of which are not viable or strong enough to win a single seat. The resources to provide logistics and security during elections are channel to other uses.

• One party also promotes unity since the only recognized party must of necessity cuts across ethnic or religious divides in a country it therefore has the advantage of promoting national unity.

• It ensures stability in the sense that there is no opposition party that may overheat the polity through acrimonious competitions for power during elections. Unhealthy rivalry for political power may evoke unpatriotic sentiments by bad losers.

• In a one-party system, decision-making process is prompt since the dilatory tactics of the opposition parties in government or filibustering of opposition members in parliament are avoided.

• There is also absence of political vendetta against political opponents. Good as one-party system appears to be, one of its greatest drawbacks is that it may develop into a dictatorship.

Disadvantages of One-Parity System

Individual rights are usually trampled upon. This is common in most one-party system whether in developed or developing societies. The human rights abuse under Joseph Stalin era in the former Soviet Union, the 1989 massacre at the Tiananmen Square in China and the Kwame Nkrumah’s Preventive Detention Act are vivid examples. The implication of this is that the principle of rule of law and provisions of the constitution on fundamental human rights may not be followed or guaranteed.

The constitution may be silent on the need for periodic elections, and where such provisions are made, elections are only held to confirm the same party in power, or a mere ritual for public relation exercise.

2. Two party systems

A two party system operates in a country where only two parties have reasonable chances of winning elections, forming or controlling the government. This does not however suggest that only two parties exist in a country.

But among the multitude of parties that participate in the electoral process only two of them are strong enough to win elections.

In the United States and Great Britain, where two party systems operates, the two parties, the Democratic and Republican Parties in the former, and the Conservative and the Labor Parties in the latter, are products of historical evolution.

The Nigerian example when President Babangida decreed into existence the Social Democratic Party and the Republican Convention during the Nigeria’s ill-fated Third Republic was a clear aberration.

In U.S.A. and Britain, the two parties have been alternating, sometimes in succession, in forming the governments in their countries.

In Britain, for example, during the World War II era, the Conservative Party was the ruling party, but Winston Churchill’s gallantry, as a wartime political leader did not stop the British voters from voting in Clement Atlee in 1945. This led to the saying “The electors cheered Churchill but voted against him.” But in the United States the American rewarded the Commander of the Allied Forces during the same war, Dwight Eisenhower of the Republican Party with victory in spite of the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt took U S to the war, and Harry Truman also of the Democratic Party won the war, which stamped American leadership of the world.

The greatest advantage of two party systems is that it promotes political stability by providing for the possibility of alternative governments. There is also room and opportunity for choice of candidates and parties’ manifestos.

It is democratic because it accommodates democratic principle and allows the operation of rule of law. Regular alternation or change of government is possible because there is the provision for periodic elections. This gives the electorates the power to change a government that is not responsive or accountable.

Two party-systems also provides for stronger opposition, which makes for a better government since the ruling party is always cautious of the policies it is pursuing. The opposition is therefore seen as a corrective party government; since it watches over and offer criticisms of the ruling party.

This promotes stability unlike in a multi-party system where multiplicity of parties encourages proliferation of, sometimes conflicting, ideas, and formation of coalition governments. From the experience of both matured and developing societies such coalition arrangements usually an alliance of strange bedfellows, more often than not, produce weak and unstable governments.

The following are the disadvantages of a two party system. There is the danger that the two party systems may divide the country into two opposing factions.

This can polarize a country along religious and ethnic divides, and may thereby negatively affect or endanger national unity. It may also lead to one party state if one of two parties retains power for a disproportionately long period; this may tempt the other parties to dissolve into the ruling party.

3. Multi -party system 

A multi -party system exists in a country where there are several parties, and there is the possibility that each of them has reasonable chance of winning seats in the legislature.

This model is suitable in a country where there is multiplicity of, sometimes minority, interests in which case each of these parties will represent such interests.

Germany offers a good example of a multi-party system where the parties in the country represent diverse interests such as religion, gender and environmental.

Nigeria is also a good example of a multi-party system with parties such as the Action Congress (AC), All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), and Labor Party (LP) etc struggling to wrestle power at the center from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that has been in power at the federal level since 1999.

Multi- party system can also be defined as a system with more than two political parties is contesting for political power in a country. All the parties are duly registered and recognized by law.

Nigeria in the Second Republic with six political parties: NPN UPN NPP GNPP PRP and NAP Babarinsa (2003), and Fourth Republic with about fifty parties is a multi- party state. Other countries in the same group include France, Italy and Germany. In a multi-party system a coalition government may be formed among political parties with reasonable number of seats in parliament.

 Advantage of Multi-Party Systems

·        The greatest advantage of multi-party systems is that individuals can easily make free choice of parties and program.

·        There is also absence of dictatorship, due to multiplicity of parties that are always ready to put the leadership of the ruling party on its toes.

·        Fundamental human rights of the citizens are also better guaranteed and protected by the government, which also make for wider representation of peoples of different interests and opinion in the decision making process.

 Disadvantage of Multi-Party Systems

They include the following:

·        Too many political programs are offered to the voters, which may confuse them and make electoral choice difficult to make.

·        It is also very expensive to manage because of the huge costs involved in party organization, voters’ mobilization and campaigns as well as the conduct of the elections.

·        It is also possible that if these parties are formed on ethnic and sectional lines they will operate in such a manner as to jeopardize national interest.

·        Multi-party system may also make the formation of a new government very difficult. This is because a coalition government that assumes office after a multi-party electoral contest lacks a common policy or platform before coming into power.

·     It therefore forces on those parties in a coalition arrangement a lot of unhealthy compromises, horse-trading, concessions during which vital principles are abandoned, and ideological positions discarded for the sake of political patronage in a situation where merits are sacrificed on the altar of partisan gains that the system suffers.

·        It may encourage bribery and corruption within the legislative arm due to the number of members from different parties to be lobbied before government programs and important legislation are passed in the parliament.

·        The net effect of the combinations of this is to lower the quality of public policies and standard of public life.

·        Most coalition governments that normally arise from multi party systems are often weak and unstable.

 4.  Zero-Party option 

In very rare occasions, there are talks about a Zero or non-party system. This is one of the options that Gen. Muritala Muhammed (1939), gave to the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) in Nigeria in 1975 when he charged the 50 ‘wise men’ not to hesitate, during the course of their deliberation they found the means by which government can be formed without political parties, to recommend that alternative. The CDC members, however, did not found the Zero party option attractive as it dismissed it, in the following words, among others: “To accept a no-party system and yet accept some form of representative government would amount to accepting a syndicalist or corporatists political system. Were this even practicable, under modern conditions, it would not unlikely lead ultimately to a fascist system of government” (Graf, 1979).

Notwithstanding, in 1987, former President Babangida found it expedient to adopt the novel idea in the elections to the local government held during the year. However, it was not long before he discarded the idea and embraced that of party politics, in spite of its imperfections. One need to point out that it due to the problems associated with party politics that have made political leaders and politicians to, at one time or the other toy with novel idea of Zero party. Beyond this, we do not consider a Zero party system a conventional model in an ideal democratic system. What is acceptable in some matured democracies like the United States is idea of independent candidates. This idea also found favor with the Muhammed Uwais panel on electoral reforms in Nigeria. 

One may also add that the difference between the Zero party option and Independent candidacy is more of semantics than of substance.


Functions of Political Parties

Worldwide political parties have been accepted as indispensable in a democratic political system. It is therefore important that we discuss their functions:

1. Popular Participation: Political parties promote popular political participation, make effective political choices in elections possible and facilitate the flow of public business in the legislature. Parties always state their positions on issues thereby arousing public sentiments and involvements. They also make candidates standing for elections on their tickets to identify with their platforms, and as result holding them accountable for their actions and inactions in government. (Baradat, 2000)

2.  Representation: Political parties provide opportunities for representation. This refers to the capacity of parties to respond to and articulate the view of both members and the voters. In the language of system theory, political parties are major “inputting” devices that ensure that policies pursued by the government reflect the wishes of larger society. Since every society is composed of individuals and groups, not all of whom can participate directly in politics, political parties therefore provide these people, in varying combinations, avenue to participate indirectly in government. As the Italian Political Scientist, Giovanni Sartori has stated; parties are the central intermediate and intermediary structures between society and government”

3.  Elite Formation and Leadership Recruitment: Parties of all kinds are responsible for providing democratic states with their political leaders. In most cases, parties provides a training ground for politicians, 159 equipping them with skills, knowledge and experience, which may be found useful in governance and goal formulation. Parties have traditionally been one of the means through which societies set collective goals. They play this role, because, in the process of seeking power, they help in formulating government policies and programs through their election manifestoes, campaigns, public debates, conferences, conventions, with a view to attracting popular support. The goal of a political party is to gain control of the government to enable it implement its electoral promises.

In a democracy political parties desire to gain and keep control of the government through the electoral process. It is therefore a misuse of the term to say political parties seek to capture power. That terminology crept into the Nigerian political lexicon due to the many years of military rule that has foisted a siege mentality on the psyche of Nigerian citizens.

4.  Interest Articulation and Aggregation: In the process of developing collective goals, parties also help to articulate (express) and aggregate (combine) the various interests found in society. Parties, indeed, often develop as vehicle through which business; labor, religious, ethnic or other groups advance or defend their various interests. The fact that national parties invariably articulate the demands of a multitude of group forces them to aggregate these interests by drawing them together into a coherent whole, thereby balancing competing interests against each other.

5. Socialization and Mobilization: Through internal debates and discussions, as well as electoral campaigns and competitions, parties engage in political education and socialization. The issues they raise and articulate as well as the attitudes that are generated around them become part of the larger political culture of a country.

6: Organization of Government: It is often argued that complex modern societies would be ungovernable without political parties. Parties help in the formation of government. This is why we refer to the parliamentary system in Britain as party government because the policies and programs of the British government at any point in time are wholly based on the manifesto of the party that is power in the country. Parties give government a degree of stability and coherence especially if the members of the government are drawn from a single party. Parties also facilitate cooperation between the two major branches of government, the legislature and executive.

7.  Avenue for Criticisms of Government policies: In the competitive environment of politics, political parties also serve as vital sources of opposition and criticisms, both inside and outside government. By broadening the space for political debates, they help in educating the electorates and ensure that government policies are more thoroughly scrutinized.


Organization and Structure of Party Systems

Party organization is the internal arrangement by which parties are structured in such a way that it is better able to fulfill its mission. It is possible that we may have one or few parties that know their limitations, and may not pretend to cover the whole country; but most parties prefer to have presence in every part of a country.

The advantage of this is that the more widespread the party support base is, the better the prospects of it winning an election, if the right conditions are in place.

Indeed, in Nigeria since 1979, until the liberalization of conditions for the operations of political parties under the Obasanjo’s civilian administration, political parties were required to have membership and offices in at least two thirds of the states in the federation, before they could qualify for registration.

In most countries, parties are organized in such a way that they have branches at every tier or level of government: National, State and Local levels. In addition, taken a cue from the United States, Nigeria since the Babangida’s transition program, has promoted the grassroots politics by making the ward level the centerpiece of political activities through to the national level of party organization.

The ward level is so important today that a presidential aspirant may have his national ambition truncated, no matter how popular he may be elsewhere, if he is unable to be selected as a delegate from his own ward. This is why most aspirants for political offices are always interested in having their men constituting the majority in the party executives at all levels.

Beyond the party’s official executive organs, there are other levels of party organization. These include the Central Working Committee (CWC), Board of Trustees (BOT), the Elders’ Council, the Parliamentary or Legislative Caucus, the Party’s Governors’ Forum, the Women and Youth Wing. Experience has shown that in most states, including advanced democracies, only aspirants who can get the nod from these unofficial levels can hope to become a party’s candidate or flag-bearers during general elections.

In Nigeria, for example, given the electoral dominance that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has enjoyed in the last ten years, the competition within the party has always been the keenest in the country. This is because of the plausible assumption by most aspirants that whoever becomes the party’s candidate is almost certain of winning the elections in most states, including the presidency.

In recent times, the Governors Forum, or more appropriately, PDP Governors’ Forum has proved to be the most decisive platform of taking crucial decisions, for the party, and indeed, for the nation as shown in the elevation of Jonathan Goodluck as Nigeria’s Acting President. The implication of the new found powers of these unofficial organs of political parties is that party’s primaries and conventions have been turn into a mere ritual only to decorate those that have been anointed by the dominant groups within the party.

Political parties remain the only agency for obtaining and maintaining political power. As such, they must gain popular support, provide political leadership and respond to society’s interests. Parties organize (or aggregate and articulate) public opinions and popular demand and communicate these to the decision making centers of government. Parties are therefore indispensable in a democratic political system. But the effectiveness of the party system will depend on the level of political culture in a country. In the advanced countries of the world such as the United States and Britain, the peoples have made a success of party systems. But in the developing climes such as Nigeria, party politics seem to have been fostering the cleavages and divisions within the society; hence the clamor by the citizens out of exasperation, especially in trouble periods, for the no party option, or even the extreme option of military intervention.


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