Political Parties and Party System

Political parties are organized groups of individuals with common political goals and ideologies. A party system refers to the arrangement of political parties in a given country, which can be characterized as a one-party, two-party, multi-party, or non-partisan system.


In the realm of modern democracy, political parties stand as a cornerstone, serving as the bridge between governments and citizens. The study of political parties, often referred to as ‘Statistiology,’ delves into their roles, significance, and evolution in shaping the political landscape. Political Parties first organized in the U.S and Europe and later spread throughout the world. These organizations signify political modernization, encouraging the participation of a growing number of people in the political process. In this article, we will explore the essential aspects of political parties, their meanings, various definitions, determinants, functions, and theories, shedding light on their pivotal role in contemporary democratic societies.

Meaning of Political Parties

At its core, a political party is a voluntary association of individuals who share common aims and objectives, with the intention of gaining control of the governmental apparatus to advance their interests. These parties fulfill a crucial function known as Interest Aggregation, bringing together the diverse viewpoints and demands of citizens. Notably, political parties are a universal feature of political systems worldwide, irrespective of a nation’s democratic status.

Definitions of Political Parties by Different Scholars:

Political scholars and theorists have defined political parties in various ways, highlighting their multifaceted nature. Here are some notable definitions:

Sigmund Neumann: “Political Parties are the lifeline of modern politics.”

Max Weber: “A political party is a voluntary society of propaganda and agitation seeking to acquire power to realize objectives, aims, or personal advantages or both.”

Edmund Burke: “A political party is a body of men united for promoting their joint endeavors in the national interest upon some particular principles in which they all agree.”

Giovanni Sartori: “Any political group identified by an official label that presents at elections and is capable of placing, through elections, candidates for election to public office.”

Barker: He compares political parties to conduits that carry the process of social thought from society into the realm of government.

Duverger: “Groups organized for the purpose of achieving and exercising power within a political system.”

Joseph Schumpeter in his work ‘Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy’: “A party is a group whose members propose to act in concert in the competitive struggle for power. The first and foremost aim of each political party is to prevail over others in order to get into power or to stay in it.”

Determinants of Political System

The nature and structure of political parties are influenced by several determinants. These include:

Historical Factors: The emergence of political parties is intricately linked to historical processes, often requiring a certain level of urbanization and the development of mass communication.

Socio-Economic Factors: The values, attitudes, and political culture prevailing in a society, along with economic development and the existence of urban and rural communities, play a significant role in shaping the political party landscape.

Ideological Factors: Political parties may be characterized as rightist or leftist based on their ideological commitments, although not all parties have strong ideological leanings. For instance, the United States does not exhibit strong ideological commitments in its two major parties. Lord James Bryce has described the Democrats and Republicans in America ‘as two bottles of wine, liquor being the same but different labels’.

Functions of Political Parties

Political parties perform several crucial functions within a democratic system:

  • Unity, Simplification, and Stability: They bring coherence and stability to the political process.
  • Interest Aggregation: Political parties gather and represent the diverse interests and demands of the populace.
  • Bridging Government and Citizens: They act as intermediaries, facilitating communication between the government and the people.
  • Recruitment: Parties recruit individuals into the political arena, nurturing future leaders.
  • Setting Values and Goals: They frame the values and goals for society, shaping the political landscape.
  • Political Modernization: Parties contribute to the process of political modernization by adapting to changing societal norms.
  • Non-Political Activities: At times, parties engage in social welfare functions that extend beyond their traditional political roles.

Types of Political Parties

Different Types of Political Parties are:

Cadre Parties: Cadre parties are characterized by the dominance of an elite group of activists. They originated in 19th-century Europe and America, in regions where voting rights were limited to taxpayers and property owners, leaving the masses as mere observers.

Mass-Based Parties: Mass-based parties, on the other hand, boast hundreds, thousands, or even millions of followers and rely on appealing to the general population. An example of such a party is the German Social Democratic Party, which had over one million members by 1913. Otto Kirchheimer called mass parties as “catch all parties”.

Marxist Concept of Parties: From a Marxist perspective, political parties represent the aspirations of social classes, with a true democratic process only being represented by parties that advocate for the working class. Parties led by the bourgeoisie are seen as instruments to safeguard different class interests.

Communist Parties: Communist parties, inspired by Karl Marx and VI Lenin’s ideologies, aim to maintain strong connections with the working class. They follow the principle of democratic centralism, which allows democratic participation within the party, although decision-making remains highly centralized.

Neumann’s Ideological Classification: Sigmund Neumann reflects the marxist concept of parties and categorized political parties based on their ideologies, dividing them into two categories: democratic and authoritarian. Maurice Duverger’s classification includes elitist or traditional parties, mass parties, and intermediate parties.

Hitcher and Levine’s Classification: Hitcher and Levine’s classification identifies three types of political parties based on people’s personal views and socio-economic factors: pragmatic parties, doctrinal parties, and interest parties.

Political Parties in India

India operates under a multi-party system, classifying parties into three categories: national, state, or regional level parties. The Election Commission of India determines the status of each party and assigns a unique election symbol to registered parties.

National Party: For a party to be recognized as a national party, it must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Win a minimum of 2% of Lok Sabha seats in at least 3 different states.
  • Secure 6% of the vote and win at least 4 Lok Sabha seats in a general election.
  • Be recognized as a state-level party in 4 or more states.

State Party: To attain state party status, a party must meet at least one of the following qualifications:

  • Win a minimum of 3 seats or 3% of seats in a state legislative assembly.
  • Win one Lok Sabha seat for every 25 seats or fraction thereof allotted to that state.
  • Secure at least 6% of the total votes and win one Lok Sabha seat and two assembly seats in a particular election.
  • Special Consideration for State Party Status: In some cases, a party can still be designated as a state party even if it doesn’t win any Lok Sabha seats in a state, provided it manages to secure at least 8% of the total votes cast in that state.

Party System

A party system is a framework for assessing and evaluating political parties in democratic nations. It revolves around the commonalities among political parties, such as their ability to govern, garner widespread public backing, and manage electoral competition. The concept originated with European scholars James Bryce and Moisey Ostrogorsky, but it was Giovanni Sartori who is widely recognized as a leading authority in this field. Party systems are typically categorized based on the number of parties involved.

Different Theories of Party System:

Duverger’s Model

Maurice Duverger has given a simplistic classification of party systems in his work ‘Political Parties: their organization and activity in the modern state ’(1954). He studied the classification and evolution of political parties in western European countries

Duverger classified political parties as one, two and multi-party systems:

Single-Party System:

This classification involves parties that attempt to either assimilate the political opposition or, in extreme cases, suppress all opposing groups seen as counter-revolutionary. Single-party systems have been implemented successfully in countries like Italy and Germany. There are two sub-categories within this system: Totalitarian and Democratic.

These parties exhibit the following characteristics:

  • They consist of an elite core and a strong bond among members.
  • They maintain direct connections with both the government and the masses.
  • Their origins can be traced back to Marxist doctrines and the Soviet Union.

Bi-Party System:

This type of system emerges when only two robust parties are involved in the struggle for political power. A two-party system typically arises in countries with a simple majoritarian electoral system.

Notable examples of countries with this party system include the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

Multi-Party System:

This category encompasses situations in which no single party can secure a clear majority. Countries with proportional representation systems tend to have multi-party systems. Coalition governments may form under this system, and their political culture can be either stable or unstable. Duverger cites Switzerland, Holland, and Denmark as examples.

Additionally, Duverger also provides a structural analysis of political parties, identifying four types:

Branch Type (West European):

These are mass parties with open membership and a hierarchical structure. They are dominated by central leadership, serving as the highest policy-making body.

Examples include the German Social Democratic Party and the British Labour Party.

Cell Type (Communist):

This type is typically associated with communist parties. They are smaller and more tightly-knit than branch-type parties. These parties are characterized by secrecy and high discipline.

Caucus Type (American):

Also known as the “Committee Type,” these parties consist of a small group of leaders and elites. Their emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.

Militia Type (Fascist-Nazi):

These parties are structured in a manner similar to an army command. The organization is highly hierarchical. Examples include the Fascist Party of Mussolini and the Red Guards of the Communist Party of China.

Duverger’s law – Hypothesis

According to the Duverger, a proportional representation system creates the electoral conditions necessary to foster party development, while a plurality system marginalized many small political parties, resulting in two Party System. The Deverger’s law asserts that plurality rule elections structured within single member districts tends to favor two party system

Sartori’s Paradigm

Giovanni Sartori, a prominent political scientist, provided a comprehensive taxonomy for understanding party systems. He challenged the traditional way of categorizing party systems based solely on the number of parties, proposing instead that a party system’s nature is determined by the number of parties with systematic relevance, or influence, in the political landscape. In his book “Parties and Party Systems” (1976), he classified party systems into two main types:

Competitive System: It includes the real participation and interaction of power and political parties. This type is further sub-divided into following classes: 

  1. Polarized Pluralism: which include a combination of bi and multi party system.
  • Simple Two-Party System: Characterized by two dominant parties competing with each other.
  • Moderate Pluralism: A system with several parties, but not excessively fragmented.
  • Extreme Pluralism: A highly fragmented system with numerous parties.
  1. Predominant Party System: In this system, one party dominates, often through its historical and institutional strength.
  1. Atomized Party System: This category is characterized by fragmented leadership, with a small group revolving around each leader.

Non-Competitive System: : In this system the contestants and the opponents are deprived of equal rights to participate in the political process. He further divided this system into:

  1. Single Party System: Sartori described this as a system in which only one party exists and is allowed to exist. It further breaks down into:
  • One Party Totalitarian: A single party that exercises complete control over the state and society.
  • Party Authoritarian: The dominant party maintains authority, but not to the extent of totalitarian control.
  • One Party Pragmatic: The single party coexists with some degree of pragmatism and openness.
  1. Hegemonic Party System: In this system, no other parties are allowed to exist. It further divides into:
  • Ideological Hegemonic Party: The dominant party enforces a strict ideological agenda.
  • Pragmatic Hegemonic Party: The dominant party rules pragmatically, without strict adherence to an ideology.

Robert Michels: the Iron Law of Oligarchy

Robert Michels, in his book “Political Parties,” introduced the concept of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” He examined the internal functioning of socialist parties in Germany to address claims made by Marxists that socialist parties operated on different principles. His conclusion was groundbreaking and somewhat disillusioning: there was no substantial difference in how these parties operated. All power, regardless of the ideology, tended to concentrate in the hands of a select elite. Michels argued that this concentration of power was an inevitable “Iron Law,” suggesting that elites would always hold sway within political parties, while the masses would have limited influence in shaping decisions. Irrespective of the ideology, all parties operate in a similar fashion.

Lenin’s Theory of the Communist Party

Vladimir Lenin, a central figure in the Russian Revolution, introduced a unique theory of the communist party in his pamphlet “What Is to Be Done?” Lenin’s perspective diverged from Karl Marx’s view on political parties. Marx had been skeptical of parties, as he believed they inherently created hierarchies that ran counter to the principle of equality.

Lenin, however, argued that workers were not inherently capable of developing revolutionary consciousness on their own. He believed that political parties, particularly communist parties, would serve as the “vanguard of revolution.” According to Lenin, communist parties differed from trade unions, which he considered as part of the bourgeoisie system. Instead, political parties, specifically communist ones, had the potential to bring the working class to power.

Lenin’s theory outlined several key points about communist parties:

  • They would operate as secret societies with the aim of overthrowing the state.
  • They would establish cells at the local level.
  • Their organizational structure would resemble a pyramid, broad at the base.
  • They would operate based on the principle of “Democratic Centralism”, meaning that decisions made at the top would align with what was determined at the base, following a bottom-up approach.

Joseph La Palombara and Myron Weiner’s Party Configuration

Joseph La Palombara and Myron Weiner’s party configuration theory is a political science framework that explores the role of political parties in developing countries. It focuses on two key dimensions: the level of inclusivity and the extent of centralization in party systems. Classification of Party system:

Joseph La Palombara and Myron Weiner’s Party Configuration model can be understood in the context of the types of political systems and party structures:

The choice of electoral system can influence how political parties operate within a country. For example, a proportional representation system might encourage the emergence of multiple smaller parties, while a first-past-the-post system might favor larger, catch-all parties.

Competitive System: In a competitive system, political parties play a vital role in representing diverse interests and offering voters real choices. This aligns with the model’s notion of issue-based parties striving for public support.

  • Hegemonic System: The model may be relevant in countries with a dominant party system, where a single party or political elite exercises significant control over government and politics, often emphasizing patronage over policy.
  • Turnover System: In a country where power alternates regularly between parties, the Party Configuration model’s focus on clientelism and personalistic politics can still be applicable, even if the parties themselves change periodically.

Non-Competitive: This aligns with the model’s concern about parties that prioritize patronage over policy and are less concerned with genuine political competition.

  • One Party Authoritarian: In this context, the model could be used to describe the dominance of a single party in an authoritarian regime, often relying on clientelism and personalistic leadership.
  • One Party Pluralistic: Even within a dominant party, there may be some internal competition and diversity, reflecting the model’s ideas about personalistic factions and clientelist networks.
  • One Party Totalitarian: A “one-party totalitarian” system is characterized by a single ruling party that holds absolute control over all aspects of government and society, suppressing all opposition and dissent. It typically features a highly centralized and repressive regime.

These political system and party structure types provide a framework for understanding the dynamics of political parties in different contexts, which La Palombara and Weiner’s Party Configuration model seeks to explain.

Almond’s Aggregative Classification of Party System

Gabriel Almond approached the classification of party systems by applying the concept of the “input” function of aggregative systems. He categorized political parties based on their roles within the political process, specifically focusing on the following dimensions:

Electoral System


  • Authoritative Dominant: Parties that operate in a competitive environment, but where one party consistently dominates.
  • Non-Authoritative: Competitive parties in a balanced political landscape where no single party holds a dominant position.
  • Competitive Two-Party: Systems with a two-party structure where both parties compete fiercely.
  • Competitive Multi-Party: Systems with multiple parties vying for power.


  • Secular Pragmatic Bargaining: Parties that engage in pragmatic politics, with a focus on secular concerns.
  • Ideological or Absolute Value-Oriented: Parties with strong ideological commitments or a focus on absolute values.
  • Particularistic or Traditional: Parties that are rooted in traditional or particularistic concerns.

Comparison between Western and Non-Western Party Systems

The functioning of political parties is influenced by a variety of systemic factors, including social, cultural, and economic elements. Here’s a comparison between Western and non-Western (post-colonial) party systems:

Features of Western Party Systems:

  • Mature Democracies: Western countries with well-established democracies have institutionalized political systems, leading to democratic political parties.
  • Internal Democracy: Western political parties often exhibit internal democratic practices in selecting leaders and candidates.
  • Transparency and Accountability: The working of these parties is typically transparent, and they are financially accountable.
  • Ideological Basis: Many Western political parties are built on clear ideological lines.

Features of Non-Western (Post-Colonial) Party Systems:

  • Paradoxical Features: Non-Western party systems often display a paradoxical mix of modern, bureaucratic organization and traditional functioning.
  • Complexity: Politics in these countries tends to be more complex and multi-dimensional.
  • Secular Ideologies: Political parties in non-Western systems may not adhere to secular ideologies.
  • Lack of Intra-Party Democracy: These parties often lack internal democratic processes.
  • Dynastic Control: They are frequently controlled by political dynasties.
  • Personality-Centric: Non-Western parties often revolve around charismatic personalities.
  • Lack of Transparency and Accountability: These parties may lack the transparency and financial accountability seen in Western democracies.

Theory of ‘Partyless Democracy’

The theory of “Partyless Democracy” has its roots in the political philosophies of notable figures such as George Washington, James Madison, Mahatma Gandhi, M.N. Roy, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, and Jayaprakash Narayan. However, it is considered a utopian idea. Partyless democracy envisions a political system where the influence of political parties is minimal, and decision-making is more focused on individuals and their collective wisdom. This concept challenges the conventional notion of political parties as essential components of democratic governance. While it may be an appealing idea in theory, practical application is fraught with challenges, making it a largely idealistic vision in the world of real politics.


Political parties and party systems are fundamental elements of democratic governance. They provide a platform for political representation, competition, and decision-making. The strength and effectiveness of party systems can impact political stability and accountability. While they can bridge the gap between citizens and government, issues like polarization and corruption can erode their function. In today’s globalized, tech-driven world, these systems continue to adapt to new challenges. It is crucial for citizens and policymakers to engage with and study political parties and party systems to ensure their responsiveness, inclusivity, and accountability in the pursuit of the common good.

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