Lipset and Rokkan argued that Western European party systems had enjoyed relative stability since competitive electoral politics was incepted. However, modern scholars claim that party systems that were established after 1978 have been characterized by a lot of volatility, and stability is almost absent.
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Lipset and Rokkan (1976) had argued that party systems have an element of persistence, stability and appear to be frozen subsystems of the polity and many other scholars have adopted the same argument, however, in this paper, I challenge this view by showing that some aspects of party systems like fragmentation, ideological polarization, and instability of the vote have immensely affected the stability of the party systems especially in western Europe.
To start with, party systems are important aspects of functional democracies, and they are almost indispensable to any democracy because they serve as avenues of expression of the needs of the people (Coppedge, 1994). They are also instruments through which people are represented and also a means of communication between the state and the electorate.
Parties also maintain the stability of democracies by shaping citizen participation and inhibiting turmoil and violence. During the 1960s, there was a widely held belief that the western European party systems were stable structures, though there were some few exceptions that reflected the patterns of the past.
Lipset and Rokkan are two political scientists who have written about the stability of the party systems in Western Europe, but their argument cannot apply universally because it can only be true at a particular period. Recent European history has produced interesting realities that tend to oppose the theoretical view postulated by the two scientists and their students (Duverger, 1994).
To start with, the number of the political parties in competition with each other has risen considerably over the last few years, and the distribution of the electoral strength has affected the stability of the party systems because the relationship between the parties and the voters has been altered and this has affected the identity of political parties.
Secondly, there are unconventional party behaviors that have also been undermining the party systems in Western Europe. One of these unconventional behaviors that have destabilized the party systems in Western Europe is the mass defection of voters from the mainstream older parties to emergent parties that have newer structures.
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These are some of the clearest developments that indicate the volatility of the party systems in Western Europe. Though the traditional cleavage in party structures may still be visible in some countries, the exceptions that Rokkan and Lipset pointed out at are not as few as they used to be, because they have become the face of party systems in western Europe (Coppedge, 1994).
These exceptions are widely evident in contemporary western European political party system setup, meaning that the party system has moved from stability to volatility.
These movements from stability to volatility cannot be termed as a mere fluctuation or a temporary deviation because they fit into a historical pattern that has seen a divergence rather than a convergence to uniformity.
This pattern is so visible that it is possible to talk about certain periods of stability and change that are country-specific, meaning that the political reality in Europe challenges the notion held by Lipset and Rokkan.
I disagree with this notion because a wave of electoral volatility that swept across most of the Western European democracies, especially in the 60s sixties and seventies created transformations that saw the collapse of the traditional party system structure that had a lot of stability.
Modern scholars who dispute the postulation put forward by Rokkan and Lipset argue that electoral volatility is an indicator of the decline of the traditional cleavage that the two scientists used in their claim that, western European party systems have enjoyed relative stability since competitive electoral politics was incepted.
However, Lipset and Rokkan’s approach to party systems holds in East Asia. Over the past 20 years, many East Asian countries have embraced democracy, and one aspect of the new democracy in East Asia is the management of political change through institutional innovations rather than the party systems.
This approach has promoted centrist and stable politics, devoid of many small political parties, and the political landscape in the regions is marked by few, large parties, creating a stable party system (Conaghan, 1988).
One of the factors that have encouraged party systems stability in East Asia is the electoral system that most countries practice. There has been a convergence of electoral systems in the East Asian countries despite the divergence in the political systems and the mixed-member electoral systems models that most East Asian countries adopted during the past decade have replaced plurality (Mair, 1990).
Most people that these electoral models would compromise democracy by upholding patronage and personality politics, but these electoral models shied away from a situation where some party members would run against each other because this is the situation that often leads to volatility that compromises the stability of the party systems.
The models, therefore, created an environment that favored stable party allegiances and programmatic strategies that ensured that volatility was kept at bay. The models also reduced unconventional political behaviors like mass defections of the party members and the electorate, vote-buying, pock barrel politics, and electoral corruption, which undermine the stability of the party systems (Gibson, 1996).
The notion of party stability may hold in the East Asian region, but a comparative study of the party systems in Latin America, this notion encounters some challenges. To start with, most Latin American party systems are so dynamic that change in terms that are not very precise (Gillespie, 1991).
The party systems in Latin America are highly pragmatic, and they adopt a personal and clientele approach that shies away from the unity of party systems. Unlike Western Europe, where the stability has been washed away by the modern electoral trend, party systems in Latin America have never been stable (DiTella, 1996).
They have been volatile, uncohesive and this has really weakened the party systems in most of the Latin American democracies. However, to be objective in this analysis, it is important to recognize differences in countries because the volatility of the party systems is not uniform across the Caribbean. One of the factors that have affected the stability of party systems in Latin America is competition between political parties (Blanksten, 1990).
Unlike East Asia, where the political landscape has few political parties, the number of political parties in most Latin American countries is way above the global average, meaning that the party structure in the region is highly fragmented.
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This fragmentation creates an avenue for personality politics that encourages unconventional political behavior like vote-buying, defections, and political corruption (Mair, 1990). These are some of the factors that have undermined party system stability in Latin America.
In conclusion, it is important to note that apart from east Asia, party systems in most other parts of the democratic world do not enjoy the stability theorized by Rokkan and Lipset.
Blanksten, George. 1990. The Politics of the Developing Areas. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Conaghan, Catherine. 1988. Restructuring Domination. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Coppedge, Michael. 1994. Strong Parties and Lame Ducks. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
DiTella, Torcuato. 1965.Obstacles to Change in Latin America. London: Oxford University Press.
Duverger, Maurice. 1994. Political Parties. New York: Methuen and Wiley.
Gibson, Edward. 1996. Class and Conservative Parties. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gillespie, Charles. 1991. Negotiating Democracy. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge University Press.
Mair, Peter.1990. Identity, Competition, and Electoral Availability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.