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The Multiparty System: History

Ancient Democracy

Political groups in ancient Greek democracy, and in the Roman Republic, were typically headed by leaders whose wealth, oratorical skills, or achievements could sway the citizens. The factions often formed around two main societal interests—the wealthy aristocracy and the common property holders. These groups held different views of democracy in much the same way political parties do today. The most famous Athenian politician, Pericles, won enduring majorities of the citizens' assembly in part through his extension of political participation to the lower classes and his adept management of Athens' foreign policy.

Athens is sometimes considered the first example of direct democracy. All citizens would assemble regularly or as needed to decide various questions facing the polis, or city-state. The Athenian Assembly elected certain categories of public servants, and many other temporary officeholders were chosen by lot from among those who volunteered, but all major decisions were made by the citizenry as a whole. The voting body of citizens, it must be noted, included only adult males of Athenian descent, leaving out resident aliens (metics), women, and slaves.

Unlike Athens, Rome was governed through layers of representative institutions and officials. There were a number of assemblies organized by class and wealth, the most important of which were the Senate and the Council of the Plebs. Senators belonged to the elite landowning class, known as patricians, while the plebeians made up the rest of the citizenry, including landowners, merchants, and farmers. At first, only patricians could hold public office, but the plebeians gradually sought more power within the state, choosing officials known as tribunes to protect their rights. In the first century BC, driven in part by its class struggles, the Roman Republic succumbed to rule by a series of generals, one of whom was Julius Caesar. His heir, Octavian, later known as Augustus, became the first of the Roman emperors, founding a dynasty and turning the state into an autocracy.

History of British Political Parties

The first modern political parties in Great Britain had their roots in the succession crisis of 1678–81. Traditionalists known as Tories favored the defense of hereditary succession within the House of Stuart. Another faction, which came to be known as the Whigs, favored the exclusion of King Charles II's brother, James, from the monarchy because he had pronounced himself a Roman Catholic, threatening England's status as a Protestant state. Although James II assumed the throne, he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in favor of his daughter, Mary, and her Dutch Protestant husband, William of Orange. The Whigs, who had generally represented the upper middle class, merged with newly enfranchised middle-class groups to form the Liberal Party in the second quarter of the 19th century. The Liberals supported free trade, the eradication of slavery, and political reform. The more aristocratic Tories, or Conservatives, defended the interests of large landowners and the official Church of England, and opposed expansions of the franchise.

As the Liberal Party dwindled in the 20th century, the Conservatives increasingly championed business interests in its place. The Labour Party formed in the early 1900s, drawing strength from the trade union movement. It was the country's first explicitly working-class party and advocated a gradual transition to socialism. Over time it came to dominate the left side of the political spectrum, while the Conservatives represented the right. The greatly weakened Liberals merged with a centrist faction of the Labour Party to form the Liberal Democrats in the 1980s. Today the Liberal Democrats remain a significant third party in Parliament, but they have never won a place in government. Regional legislatures were established in Wales and Scotland in 1997, and nationalist parties have since arisen in each, adding to the country's political diversity.

History of Parties in the United States

In the United States, the first parties were the Federalists, who favored a strong national government and commercial interests, and the Democratic Republican Party, which supported state autonomy (Anti-Federalism) and farming interests. The Federalists held the presidency under George Washington and his successor, John Adams, but in 1800 Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams, ushering in 40 years of Democratic Republican dominance. The name was changed to the Democratic Party in 1828 under Andrew Jackson, who was nominated to seek reelection as president in 1832 at the party's first ever national convention. A Whig Party formed in 1834, succeeding the defunct Federalists in opposition to Jackson's Democrats, but it broke apart by the early 1850s, largely over the issue of slavery. The Republican Party emerged in 1854 as the antislavery party. Since then, the Republicans and Democrats have been the two main parties vying for power, with typically short-lived third parties and independents occasionally affecting national and local policies (the Progressive Party and the Socialists, for example). Although the Republicans were long associated with the Northern victory in the Civil War and the Democrats were linked to the South, the two parties' ideologies have overlapped and shifted considerably over time, in part because they have had to remain broad and complex enough to garner support across the country.

In the 20th century, the Republican Party, which opposed the left-leaning New Deal government programs of Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930s, generally championed business interests and free markets. As Democratic presidents pressed forward with major civil rights reforms amid other societal changes in the 1960s, the Republicans also began to adopt conservative stances on social issues. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party defended the legacy of the New Deal, came to represent the interests of labor unions, and took more liberal or progressive positions on civil rights and social questions. In foreign policy, the parties have at times formed a united front on major issues, traded roles as philosophical internationalists and isolationists, or opted to support or critique a president's handling of specific foreign crises on a practical basis.

European Political Parties

As in Great Britain, political parties in continental Europe can be roughly grouped into conservative, liberal, and socialist camps. At the end of the 19th century, Christian democratic parties also emerged, competing with socialist groups through a combination of progressive socioeconomic ideas and traditional Christian morality. Socialist factions generally developed into today's more moderate social democratic parties, and were among the first to draw true mass support from grassroots party organizations and trade unions. Conservative and liberal parties often merged, while some Christian democratic parties took on a strong pro-business orientation. Many other groups also competed within parliamentary systems, including rural, regional, and ethnic parties and Christian social parties that split from Christian democrats as the latter became more pro-business. Starting in the 1970s, green parties were formed in many countries, although they achieved little electoral success outside Northern Europe. In Germany, the Greens participated in a coalition government with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005. New chauvinist and nationalist parties arose in the 1980s and 1990s, arguing for restrictions on immigration and curtailment of civil rights. The leader of France's extreme right-wing National Front Party reached the runoff of the 2002 presidential election, and Joerg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party joined a coalition government in 2000.



Flag of the Bharatiya Janata Party

Political Parties Around the World

In other parts of the world where democracy has emerged, political parties have developed in ways similar to those in the United States and Europe, evolved from anticolonial independence movements, or formed to represent new or existing religious, ethnic, and interest groups. In India, for example, the two major parties are the secular, left-leaning Indian National Congress, which formed in the 19th century to advocate reform and then independence from British rule, and the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party, founded in the 20th century to support Hindu nationalism. In Malaysia, nearly all parties are ethnically based, while in South Africa, the African National Congress has transformed itself from the leading anti-apartheid organization into the dominant party in the legislature, governing in coalition with Communist and trade union allies. Many parties in the countries of the former Soviet bloc have their roots either in former Communist parties or the groups that arose to end Communist rule. Although democracy is limited in most of the Middle East, parties have emerged to advocate Arab nationalist, conservative monarchist, or Islamist ideologies, or to represent ethnic or religious minorities.

In other parts of the world where democracy has emerged, political parties have developed in ways similar to those in the United States and Europe, evolved from anticolonial independence movements, or formed to represent new or existing religious, ethnic, and interest groups.

Some Islamist parties have evolved into or out of militant movements that advocate the use of violence to achieve their political and ideological goals. A number of analysts have compared these movements to the Fascist and Communist groups that emerged in the early 20th century, since they also took the form of political parties despite their willingness to abandon democratic processes. Fascist movements, touting a form of extreme, militaristic nationalism, gained power in Germany, Spain, and Italy, among other countries. Communist movements, unlike more moderate leftist groups such as the social democrats, advocated revolutionary violence to carry out a complete social transformation. In Russia, a Communist faction known as the Bolsheviks seized power by force in November 1917 and established one of the most brutal dictatorships in history. The Soviet Union then sought to organize new or existing Communist parties as its loyal agents in other countries. Communist parties in the Soviet bloc were discredited following the collapse of Communist rule in 1989–91, but some successfully transformed into social democratic parties. In other parts of the world, small Communist parties continue to operate within democratic states, and a handful of Communist dictatorships remain as well.

Conclusion

The existence of multiple political parties that can compete in fair elections is essential to democracy and distinguishes it from other political systems. The type, size, and viewpoint of the parties may differ markedly. They generally fall along the traditional political spectrum, with the “Right” representing a conservative or capitalist orientation and the “Left” representing different shades of socialism, but parties often stand for complex interests or nonideological constituencies that defy such simple categorization. While parties are a vital part of democracy, not all parties are democratic. Within authoritarian states, ruling parties serve merely as instruments of control; genuine opposition parties offer a political alternative to society and advocate change by peaceful means.

The multiparty system offers a number of benefits to a democracy. Parties bring people with common interests together and provide a forum for the discussion of key issues and public policies. By joining and voting for a political party, people can express their support for its explicit policy platform, rather than simply endorsing an individual personality. They can also peacefully express opposition to the policies of a rival party. This system gives elected leaders a popular mandate to implement their program and holds them accountable if they stray from what the voters approved or if their initiatives fail in practice. The regular rotation of power among parties also helps to prevent entrenched corruption and cronyism, forcing politicians to rely on the strength of their ideas and performance instead of the crude ability to deliver state patronage and favors. Furthermore, the knowledge that they could soon be in the opposition keeps ruling parties from abusing the rights of their opponents.