Topic eight

Lectures 15 & 16

November 6-8                                   Political Structure.


We study political structure to show:

1. The link between different institutions such as electoral systems, party systems and government structures;

2. Address the issue of >adversary politics= and to compare Anglo-American and continental democracies in terms of this.

3. Raise the issue of consensus politics and the conditions for this.

4. Bring out the contradictions between competitive politics and democratic stability and government durability.


The structure and performance of democracies, including the developed democracies, are related to political structure. This, in turn, is determined by social structure, ideological patterns and the distribution of political parties and their support. This all affects the degree of adversarial as against consensual politics reflected in executive and legislative politics. Some kinds of political structures are said to be more adversarial or consensual than others. The main distinction made is between Anglo-American and Continental political systems.


Political Structures.

Anglo-American countries are those influenced by British values and institutions. They are the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The politics of industrial societies has evolved in a different way in those countries compared to that of continental European systems.

Anglo-American countries have a dominant pattern as English-speaking, Protestant countries, with secular, two-party dominant systems, plurality elections, relatively homogenous cultures, strong traditions of individualism and relatively moderate, consensual political ideologies where extreme fascist or communist ideologies have not been successful.


Continental systems have varied European languages, a strong Catholic tradition in some, secular as well as religious political parties, multi-party systems, elections by proportional representation, more heterogenous cultures, a tradition of more communitarian social relations, and political parties separated by more extreme political ideologies where fascist and communist ideologies have been strong.

These differences have certain consequences for the style of politics in these two sets of countries. We can look at these in terms of political culture and political institutions.

Political culture.

Culture, religion and democracy.

Seymour Martin Lipset had concluded in Political Man (1960) that democracy was more stable and enduring in wealthier, Protestant countries, while Catholic and poorer countries were less democratic or less stable. Interestingly, the French-speaking, mostly Catholic population of Quebec has been said to be less democratic compared to the rest of the English-speaking, Protestant Canada. Canada=s former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau had said, AFrench Canadians are Catholics; and Catholic societies have not always been ardent supporters of democracy. They are authoritarian in spiritual matters...and they are often disinclined to seek solutions in temporal matters through the mere counting of heads@. He means that the Catholic tradition=s reliance on dogma and the powerful role of the Roman Catholic church in spiritual and secular matters has created a state of mind where truth is established by faith in and obedience to leaders more than by democratic means. This state of mind affects the political culture.

This has been one of the explanations why Catholic Latin America has had more of an authoritarian political tradition and why its presidential systems, modeled on the US system, have not been stable or as democratic. This contrasts with the English-speaking Protestant Caribbean and within the Caribbean, one can see similar differences with the non-English-speaking, Catholic countries. Catholic countries have had a stronger centralising tradition of authority both in the church and the state. Indeed, countries such as Spain and Portugal have had strong Catholic traditions and have been two of the developed countries with the weakest democratic records. Others, such as Italy, France and Germany have also suffered democratic breakdowns and tend to be more centralised societies.

Culture, religion and parties.

An important difference between Anglo-American and continental countries is the existence of  religious parties in the latter in the form of Christian democratic parties which are usually Catholic parties. In the former, parties are formed on the basis of secular ideological or programmatic lines, usually on a simple left-centre-right dimension. In these countries, the Catholic church was not a strong part of the establishment  and the separation of church and state proceeded without developing into religio-political conflicts.

Europe on the other hand was historically dominated by the Holy Roman Empire. As the era of modern mass politics began, Catholic activists from about 1870, formed their own parties to seek independence from the Church and to establish their own parties to address social issues in politics which had a religious bearing. On the one hand, they sought to establish religious and family values against attacks by liberals. For instance, an issue was whether the state should or should not subsidise religious education. On the other, these parties sought to unite Catholics of all classes against the class politics of socialists and anti-religious politics of communists. Today, their agenda is largely secular but combine religious Catholic social issues.

However, while most Christian democratic parties are Catholic, not all are. Some are Calvinist that were formed in reaction to the Catholic parties. The most important Christian democratic party is the Christian Democratic Union in Germany which has regularly alternated in government and draws support from Catholics and Protestants. But important ones also exist in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy (and Quebec).

The essential point is that in continental European systems, religion plays a stronger role in conditioning the political culture and in influencing the political parties and political agenda.

Culture, ethnicity and parties.

Anglo-American societies are more homogenous. However, there is the separatist ethnic movement of Quebec in Canada and in the UK,  Scottish and Welsh nationalism are increasing and there is demand for an independent Northern Ireland. But within the US, Britain, New Zealand and Australia there is no political party that purely represents an ethnic group. Political parties are divided more by ideology and issues and voters choose between parties on these bases as well as leadership, competence, and performance in government.

This case is different in continental Europe. These societies are more heterogenous and politically fragmented. Voting is influenced by class, religion and ethnicity. This is because, as a continent, migration of ethnic groups has taken place over hundreds of years and European wars have shifted the historical and contemporary boundaries of nation-states within which groups live.

Belgium is an extreme case of a country where there is a concentration of people who speak different languages in separate regions of the country. There are separate ethnic parties for the French-speaking Belgians in the south and the Dutch-speaking Belgians in the north. In Switzerland, there are different parties for the French-speaking Swiss in the west and the German-speaking Swiss in the north and east. In Spain, the Basque region has its own political movement which has long sought independence and has actually spawned a terrorist party to pursue this. Other regional ethnic groups have forced Spain to construct a new constitution to grant more autonomy in a federal-like system to these regions. In northern Italy there is also a party seeking autonomy or separation from the south. In other countries such as France and Austria there are ethnic minorities that live outside the border of their countries seeking geographical reunification with the main society.

In continental countries, therefore, ethnic regionalism is a much greater force in politics than in Anglo-American systems. Almond and Verba had referred to continental systems has having a fragmented political culture with distinct political sub-cultures because of their ethnic-based social structures. This creates socio-political cleavages which make the continental systems more unstable.

However, this unstable social structure does not necessarily lead to democratic breakdowns. According to Lijphart this is because some continental countries have evolved a different type of democracy which he calls consociational democracy. In such countries as Belgium, Switzerland and Austria where social and cultural cleavages have been particularly pronounced mechanisms have been developed to ensure that all the major ethnic groups are represented in government and given enough autonomy to manage their regional affairs. For instance, in the Swiss system, the four major parties are represented in the cabinet. Or in Austria, outside of the cabinet a grand coalition committee of the major parties make the crucial decisions.

Consociational democracies do not operate on the majority principle of classical liberal democracy because when one group is in the majority it might use its power to dominate the rival minority or minorities. It relies instead on a willingness by political elites to accommodate the cultural interests of all segments through cooperation. Bear in mind that these cleavages are not only ethnic and regional but also religious. Therefore, coalitions of parties often include religious, liberal and socialist parties.

Political institutions.

Anglo-American systems are more homogenous and therefore can more easily rely on two main parties to aggregate society=s social differences under them. A British or American party is supported by a cross-section of all classes, regions, religions and races. For this reason they use plurality or first-past-the-post electoral systems which produce two main parties under which all of these interests can be represented by single-party governments that represent the majority. For instance, the US is the purest case of a two-party democracy.

Continental systems are more heterogenous with a diversity of distinct cultural groups whose political loyalties are sometimes defined by their cultural identities. They therefore use PR elections that produce multi-party systems and often produce coalition governments. The greater number of parties can represent the greater heterogeneity of society. Twelve of the 15 EU countries use PR system. All of these countries have more than two parties in parliament. In some extreme case, 13 parties gained seats to Italy=s parliament in 1994 and 10 in Japan in 1993. At least 10 of the EU members now have coalition governments rather than single-party governments.

PR allows multiple parties separated by ideology, religion, ethnicity, nationalism and regionalism to form. This includes small parties and extreme parties. What this means is that parliaments are more politically diverse and fragmented. This makes the nature of parliamentary politics and of partisanship different and more complex. A parliament on the continent can have communist parties, green parties, religious parties, centre parties, social democrats, neo-liberal, conservative and extreme right parties. Among them, they search for those that can agree on enough issues to form governing coalitions. Sometimes these coalitions are strange. In Italy, the ruling coalition is made up of socialists, greens, centrists, and the main Catholic Christian democratic party with the communist party supporting legislation to give it a majority.

But because of the divergence between the parties, these coalitions tend to be fragile. Governments then are less durable. When coalitions break up, new elections have to be called. Elections therefore are more frequent. Italy is an extreme case where general elections have averaged one per year over the last fifty years or some fifty elections in the last fifty years.

Parliamentarism and Presidentialism.

Parliaments predominate in both Anglo-American and continental systems. However, we must note two differences. One is that parliaments in continental systems are more likely to be multi-party parliaments and fragmented among diverse parties.

Second, continental systems have a more diverse range of government structures. They range from parliamentary structures to semi-presidential. Anglo-American systems are mostly parliamentary and there is one presidential system.

Continental systems are semi-presidential in France, Finland, Austria, Iceland, Portugal. In these countries there is both a president who is head of the executive and a prime minister who is head of the legislature. Both also share leadership of the executive and legislature. The distinctive features of this arrangement are that: the president is elected in national elections rather than being appointed, he possesses policy making powers and not just ceremonial ones, and there is a prime minister who depends on the support of a majority in parliament to keep his government in power. The president stands for the overall unity of the country and the prime minister manages the diversity of parties in parliaments.

In France and Finland the president has more powers than the prime minister. In Austria and Iceland, the prime minister has more powers than the president. In Portugal the powers of the president and the prime minister are more balanced.

The role of the presidency in continental systems is important because of the fragmented cultures and social structures which reflect themselves in fragmented multi-party parliaments. In this situation, there is a need for a presidential figure who can represent national unity and cohesion not just as a figurehead but as an executive with real policy making powers. At the same time, there is the need for a prime minister who can manage the conflicting positions of parties in parliament and seek out majorities to support the passage of legislation. France is a good example of a country that was beset by unstable parliamentary governments until constitutional changes between 1958 and 1962 created a presidency to represent national unity resulting in a more stable form of government since. 

 Adversarial politics and Anglo-American systems.

The adversarial politics thesis was developed in Britain with important contributions from Samuel Finer. The proponents of this thesis argued that the electoral system was at the heart of British political problems, specifically the problems of managing the economy.

Adversarial politics is a style of politics associated with democracy or more particularly, party competition, electoralism and governance in democracies. It is important to discuss because it raises concerns about how democracy and competition can be bad for society and economy.

Adversarialism becomes a feature of democratic politics when competition becomes harmful conflict over the prize of government  between political parties in a struggle for power where politics is seen as a contest between political adversaries leading to manipulation, divisiveness and even violence to the detriment of the economy, faith in the political process and the unity of society.

The problem takes the following forms:

1. Because of regular, competitive elections two (or more) parties see themselves as major adversaries since they have to oppose each other in regular electoral contests where the prize is great, that of the power to control government, especially where in a majoritarian system, >the winner takes all=, and in doing so a political game of deception and manipulation of voters takes place, false promises are made, unrealistic expectations arise in the minds of voters, and an overload of expectations of government results. These demand loads of unrealistic expectations then force governments into tax and spending policies that might harm the economy. While elections are good for democracy, the nature of the competition has harmful effects upon society. 

False expectations are a function of electoral competition and political demagoguery. The temptation to encourage false expectations become overwhelming to politicians. Governing and opposition parties join in an auction-like game, ever bidding upward for the favour of voters by offering greater, if unrealistic rewards.

After the elections, a governing problem then emerges. Governments cannot satisfy the expectations they create and in the attempts to do so engage in high spending budgets that might be inflationary and cause budget deficits; or high tax policies that might lead to economic recessions. Even then, when governments cannot satisfy expectations, a legitimacy problem occurs as governments are perceived to have deceived the voters who lose trust and confidence in them. Then, an authority problem might arise when governments cannot maintain law and order in the face of social expressions of dissatisfaction and frustration caused by the unrealized expectations.

2. Where there is >frequently-alternating-single-party-governments=, there is a problem of policy discontinuities and reversals as one party changes what another has done, further causing damage to the prospects of long term policy consistency in social and economic management. Abrupt policy reversals are more likely when there is significant ideological difference between the alternating parties and when this alternation is regular. When parties alternate in government regularly long term initiatives become threatened. When governments face the prospect of serving only one term, there is excessive preoccupation with short term plans, hastily conceived initiatives and election budgets aimed at quick fixes.

Yet, modern governments, operating in contemporary conditions, need a longer time to govern because government is larger, its tasks are more complex and technical and therefore more difficult for ministers to master. Governments need more time to familiarize themselves with their policy environment - personnel, norms, pre-existing local and international laws and obligations - to establish priorities and procedures, access and study information, understand clients, learn from experience and correct mistakes, and generally to >learn the ropes=.

Certain modern tasks require long-term planning and detailed and careful study because projects are on a larger scale, for larger groups of people, requiring greater funding and more complex and coordinated planning. This is true for restructuring an economy, generating major infrastructural development, or employing phased industrial development.

Yet, ideologies and party programmes aside, just the upheavals that occur when governments change - in personnel, the suddenness of changes, the abrupt break in regimes, the dramatic symbolism of change, the changes in rhetoric and style, the time require to get acclimatized to new responsibilities - all create discontinuities, disturbances, delays and shocks that destabilize the society.

Referring to the British situation, one scholar said, AThe frequent alternation of ideologically extreme governments is at the heart of Britain=s economic, social, political problems@. Another reasoned that, AGovernments fall so frequently because they are unable to solve the problems they face, but these problems are exacerbated by the upheavals that follow from frequent changes in government.@

Long-term planning suffers because governments either do not have the time to devote to longer-term objectives; policy reversals create a lack of consistency, uncertainty about philosophy, direction, strategy and policy; the stop-go character of policies create the perception of an erratic and unpredictable environment; abrupt changes in administration causes long delays in policy implementation.

Samuel Finer points to the negative consequences for development because of the >first-past-the-post= or plurality, single-member district system of elections. The party that wins the majority of constituency seats is the single party that forms the government. This favours large parties with a wide dispersion of geographical support against smaller parties that have more geographically concentrated or diffused dispersion of support. This tends to make minor parties ineffective and produces two-party systems.

The result is that where two parties monopolize the system they might represent alternatives but not solutions. Where they represent extreme ideological positions, there is no third middle option. It tends, therefore, to produce two alternatives rather than three or more.

And, because the >winner-takes-all=, the winning party  tends to have a disproportionate amount of power compared to its popular base. Its power to make decisions and to undertake radical changes is often not supported by the level of its support. The more radical its policies, the more opposition it is likely to face. This disrupts fundamental change and creates a conservative bias in the system.


The adversarial politics thesis points to the contradictions between democracy and politics.

1. Democracy stresses regular elections and electoral competition between two or more parties. Politics is about partisan struggle for power which takes priority over everything else. Adversarialism politics results because this competition leads to deceiving and manipulating voters which is not the purpose of democracy.

2. Democracy stresses that government should represent the will of the people. Politics places greater emphasis on government retaining power. In order to do this, governments create high expectations on the part of the people that they cannot fulfill but nonetheless attract votes. Their programmes then fail to meet expectations or are designed mainly to win support because at the end of the day winning is everything. Again, this defeats the purpose of democracy.

3. Democracy expects that government will be accountable to the people and this will force government to do what is best for the country. It will result in good government. But politics interferes in the process to the extent that the government intervenes in the economy to fulfill political objectives such as job creation, tax increases or reductions, welfare provisions or cuts, in order to appease supporters. This destabilises the economy because policies are more determined by political objectives than economic ones.

5. Democracy expects that voters should have a choice between parties and have the opportunity to replace one party with another. However, regular replacement leads to alternating party governments and sudden changes in policy as new governments try to emphasize their difference with previous ones. Five year electoral cycles do not give new governments the chance to acclimatize themselves with their tasks in order to do them properly.

Advocates of the adversarial thesis emphasize that the problem relates to some democratic systems more than others. It is more of a problem for parliamentary-majoritarian systems. These are characterized by first-past-the-post electoral systems that produce two large parties and where one forms the government and the other forms the opposition.

This has been common in plurality type elections in Jamaica and the UK. What results is a disproportion between seats and votes. One party is over-represented in terms of seats relative to its popular votes and other parties are conversely under-represented in those same terms. This is the main criticism of the plurality system.

However, on the other side of the coin, this is the main defense of the system. Because plurality biases the number of seats in favour of the party with the largest plurality of votes it produces a majority of seats to that party allowing one party to win outright. This creates single-party governments and because single-party governments therefore do not have to depend on coalition partners to make up a majority of seats to govern, they cannot be brought down when coalition partners decide to defect from the partnership. Single-party governments are therefore more stable and durable.

Second, because it is biased against the smallest parties that win fewer or no seats compared to their popular support, voters choose not to Awaste@ their votes on those parties and invest their votes in one of the two large parties that are more likely to win. Bear in mind that because a party must win a majority of seats across the geographical length and breath of a country this forces parties to be large and have widely distributed support. This again, discourages the success or discriminates against small parties that have support concentrated in a few constituencies. The result is that the plurality system encourages a two-party system. This is why in Jamaica, Britain, the US, the systems are two-party dominant or pure two-party systems.

In essence then, the plurality system produces two-party (dominant) systems and single-party governments.

Lijphart explains that, AThe proponents of the plurality rule argue that its great advantage is that it produces firm discriminating against small parties, encourages a two-party system which in turn makes stable one-party government possible@. (Blais, p.240, IPSR, 1991).

Scholars who have studies these issues have found that:

1. Plurality systems produce one-party legislative majorities and single-party governments much more often than PR systems.

2. Single-party governments produced by plurality systems are more durable, that is, they last longer than multi-party coalition governments produced by PR systems.

3. Single-party governments produced by plurality systems are more stable because they are cohesive and united since the members belong to one and the same party; they are more decisive because decisions depend on a group of men who, however they might disagree, do so within the bounds of their own party whereas disagreements are more extreme when different parties must make a decision as in coalition governments; and are more responsible because that single-party is easily identified with the policies of the government whereas coalition partners will blame each other.

4. Plurality systems that produce single-party governments provide more meaningful elections. Voters make a clear choice between one party or the other. When many parties are elected into a coalition, the choice is not clear and when a new round of elections has to be called, often the same parties are re-elected, only in different strengths among the coalition partners.

Their solution is political reform. They suggest that these electoral systems be replaced by PR systems. In PR systems more parties enter the legislature and often, because no one party wins an overall majority, two or more parties are forced to form a coalition. When coalition governments exists, it means:

1. There is no one winner and one or more losers. More parties win in the form of being in governing coalitions and so the adversarial relations between them is reduced.

2. There is more power sharing and partnership. Coalition partners have to compromise and incorporate their programmes into policies. Policies therefore represent a wider set of interests.

3. Elections often return the same coalitions, although sometimes in different combinations. This promises greater policy continuity since the same coalition remains in government. Abrupt changes to policy and policy discontinuities are less likely or less dramatic.

The essential problem then is the kind of politics that an electoral system generates. PR systems are more consensual while plurality systems are more adversarial.

The problem with PR systems is that they produce certain negative effects which are mainly opposite to the of the plurality system.

1. PR systems encourage more small and extremist parties to form so that parties of the extreme left and extreme right win seats to parliament. European parliamentary politics has more regionalist, religious and racist parties of the extreme than Anglo-American countries.

2. PR systems allow small extremist parties to become members of governing coalitions and give such parties more power in proportion to their popular support since they can make or break governments by joining or withdrawing from a coalition government. For years, the conservative Christian Democratic Party has been a small coalition partner of the in Germany.

3. PR systems force very different parties to work together without any assurance that they will or can. Parties of the left and right have sometimes fond themselves in unnatural partnership and rather than resolving their differences, they bring their adversarialism to parliament or to the executive itself.

Adversarialism and democracy.

In both the Anglo-American and continental systems, there is adversarial politics. It only takes the different forms of political competition. In the Anglo-American systems, it takes the form of competition between two national parties, a single ruling party and an opposition, competitive campaign spending and political promises, sudden changes of government and disruption of administration and policy, and the impact of adversarial competition on economic and social order.

In continental systems, adversarial politics lies in the fragmented social structure and is mirrored by PR into a fragmented parliamentary system where governments rely on unstable and quarreling coalition partners and fall frequently when some coalition members have the option of defecting - a form of political blackmail.

The solution proposed by Samuel Finer is for first-past-the- post countries (Anglo-American) to adopt PR systems (of continental countries). But continental countries, as Lijphart points out, have fragmented social and political structures. His solution is for an elite-based democracy where elites recognize the dangers of political fragmentation and adversarialism, and consciously decide the use a formula by which representatives from different ethnic groups share power. This is what he calls consociational democracy. This, however, does not overcome the problem intrinsic to party competition amongst extremist parties whose elites will hardly come to a consensus.



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