Party System Institutionalization and Democracy

Party System Institutionalization
Federal party diet (Bundesparteitag) 2015 of the German CDU, with Angela Merkel speaking.
Photo by Olaf Kosinsky from Wikipedia.

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Party System Institutionalization and Democracy

Political parties do not exist independently. They operate as a system or a network. Scott Mainwaring developed a term he calls party system institutionalization (PSI). A party system with high degrees of institutionalization encourages long-term party formation. On the other hand, weakly institutionalized party systems discourage the development of established political parties. Instead, politics becomes highly personalized. Political parties become vehicles for the election of a political leader. As a result, they rarely survive after the leader retires from politics. Weak PSI makes it difficult for voters to hold politicians accountable. Elites frequently change political parties so voters are unclear about their beliefs or track record.

Mainwaring argued weak PSI posed a threat to democracy. It encouraged the personalization of politics. Populist candidates thrive in countries where PSI is weak. For example, Hugo Chavez, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Rafael Correa all formed new political parties to win political office. The trend is not exclusive to Latin America either. Emmanuel Macron disrupted the French party system when he won the presidency with a party he founded, En Marche. It’s unlikely his party will survive beyond his presidency leaving the far right National Rally as the strongest political party in France. 

So, Mainwaring among others have warned about the dangers of weak PSI. However, a new book from V-Dem challenges this claim. Allen Hicken, Samuel Baltz, and Fabricio Vasselai “find no support for the claim that party system fragmentation decreases the level of democracy. Rather, our results suggest that the centralization of power is a greater threat to overall democratic stability.” Still, party fragmentation is not quite the same as party system institutionalization. Nonetheless, it’s something to consider as many party systems continue to break down or weaken around the world.

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