It would perhaps be an interesting starting-point to commence a discussion of this nature to posit that political parties are an essential feature of any government (whether aspiring to be democratic or not). The case for giving political parties permanent constitutional status is based on the recognition of the basic importance it is of in politics, and governmental systems.
In pluralistic societies, so multi-cultural, and multi-lingual in nature as most African societies, some of which have sought or are seeking to establish, import or impose wholly, or in part, foreign systems of government quite unknown to their original setting into societies with different social factors, traditional and cultural values, and other socio-economic back grounds; the relevance of party systems cannot be over over-emphasised. These factors have led to the questions been raised – Can parliamentary democracy work successfully without the requisite social and economic conditions?
Dislike of Government policies and personnel, which at times may be well founded, and at other times may be completely unfounded, is as age long and as wide spread as the institution of Government itself; and in all but the most primitive and depraved political systems, people from time to time, co-ordinate their activities in hopes of changing the men who rule them or the rules they are expected to obey. It is the same for advanced as well as emerging democracies. It is (or rather ought to be) a journey towards continuous improvement and development, if a good society is the ultimate objective of the people and the leadership of the state.
We may for the purposes of this discussion, take this conscious attempt at coordinating activities as ‘Organisation’ put in the simplest form as the threshold of opposition in Party Systems. ‘Organisation’ has been said to be, the necessary prerequisite of political effectiveness. As Organisations whose life-spans exceed those of individuals, political parties have the continuing function of collecting relevant group and individual demands and opinions and of channeling them towards Government with a view to ensuring that the peoples’ wishes and demands are taken into account in the formulation of policies.
We can therefore say that political parties make a considerable contribution to social cohesion. It was William Foltz who wrote:
Actions below this threshold of opposition in party systems – excepting only the drastic act of a solitary assassin – can have political effect only if it is exploited by a group able to co-ordinate or organise action towards some goal, however vague.
This discussion shall centre on the party systems, namely the One-Party, the Two-Party, and the Multi-Party systems of Government, and their respective inherent nature and problems. I have, in attempting to discuss this topic, adopted a multi-pronged approach to the question, by a breakdown of the issues involved therein by posing the following questions:
- What are party systems and democracy in that context?
- Are one party systems of government undemocratic by nature?
- What are those elements that make them so?
- How democratic are the two party, and multi-party systems of government?
- On a scale, do the demerits (if any) of the one-party system arising from its nature, outweigh those of the two party and multi-party systems, or vice-versa?
This discussion, by its very nature, may not permit the addressing of the issues set out above in the order in which they appear, since the issues involved would necessarily over-lap one another. However, I shall try as much as possible to take them in some coherent order.
Party Systems and Democracy
A ‘Party’ has been defined as ‘a body of members united in promoting by their joint endeavour, the national interest upon some particular principle which they are all agreed upon’. If we allow this to be a working definition for purposes of this discussion, then we would not be putting it incorrectly by describing a one-party system of government as a system of government where there is only one such ‘… body of members united in promoting by their joint endeavour, the national interest ….’ that constitutes the government of that society. A two-party system would therefore be a system of government where there are two different such bodies of members that constitute the government of the state in question; and a multi-party system, one with more than two different such bodies of members that constitute the government of the state in question.
It follows that, by implication, and upon a distillation of the key phrases in Burke’s definition that where there are two or more parties (as the case may be), there would necessarily be –
- Two or more bodies of ‘members united’
- Probably but not certainly, two or more different conceptions of what the national interest is.
- Probably, but not certainly, two or more different principle to which members of each group are all agreed upon.
It is therefore obvious that the number of political parties in a system of government would no doubt affect the political make up of that Government, which may in turn affect its democratic nature and stability. As rightly observed by Duverger and Neumann, there is a close relationship between the number of parties in a system, and the democratic stability of that system. We may then ask – what is ‘democracy’ in this context?
‘Democracy’ could be described as a system of governance , and government of a people (society/state) by the representatives of the people which representatives are duly elected or selected by the people through some process that ensures adequate, and proper representation, for the common good of the people of that state/society. We must add that this includes the recognition of the rule of law by the governed and those governing. This functional description is so as to enable us make easy reference to how democratic or not a system is, whilst discussing the topic.
The One Party System of Government
Opposition groups vary in complexity, action and intent – from the state house clique or the party faction interested perhaps in the appointment of its members to key positions of government or merely better standards of service for its members, to the revolutionary rebels, to the established legally and constitutionally protected opposition enjoying full rights of access to some legitimate means for achieving its ends.
Our immediate focus is the analysis of the resultant system which develops when this legal opposition by way of another political system is ruled out by the de jure or de facto reservation of political rights to only one political party which is in control of government – the one-party system.
According to De Smith, constitutional democracy is practiced country where at the very minimum, the government is genuinely accountable to an entity or organ distinct from itself, where elections are freely held on a wide franchise at frequent intervals, where the political groups are free to organise in opposition to the government in office and where there are effective legal guarantees of fundamental civil liberties enforced by an independent, and politically neutral judiciary; and not practised in a place where any of these are lacking. Thus constitutional democracy presupposes a “pluralistic view of political society, the legitimacy of organised dissent and external restraints on the power of the majority”.
A one party system, in the first place, has been said to be a negation of the party in the “real and old sense” of the word because it claims. It is a system which professes to be, in each case, the focus and power-house of the general pulsation of a whole self-conscious society. It centralises in itself all voluntary social activities in the society.
It may be that a one-party system has its good sides. For instance, one of the arguments in favour of a one-party system advanced by Julius Nyerere is that members of the National Assembly will be able to criticise openly without being disciplined for given comfort to the opposition. That argument does not appear to be convincing in that hardly are their African states that fully concedes the legitimacy of organised dissent (i.e. opposition) and allows it the right to solicit for support, and to offer itself to the people as the alternative government.
Even where there exists a minority, the growing pattern of movement, according to De Smith, has been “… from majority rule to stronger one-party rule”.
However, upon consideration, it would appear that a one party system is by its nature a suppression of parliament and the general system of parliamentary democracy in that it conducted its discussions on government policies upon its own ranks. In a true democracy, there should be safeguards for abuse of powers by the party in control (the majority.) These safeguards are:
- The Supremacy of the Constitution – a written constitution, the more important provisions of which cannot be alterable except by a special procedure requiring more than a bare legislative majority vote, and the courts empowered to pronounce a process null and void if it is not in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
- The legal and constitutional recognition and protection of an opposition.
- The creation of politically neutral zones, such as an independent and secure Judiciary, Police, Public Service, Electoral Commission, the office of the Attorney General etc.
- The prohibition of discriminatory legislation and policies
- The guarantee of adequate representation of even the minorities, by the creation of perhaps a second chamber of legislature.
- The entrenchment of Fundamental Human Rights in the Constitution
- The safeguard of Traditional Rulers against derogation at the hands of the ruling majority. etc.
On a test of the democratic nature of one-party system of government using the above requirements of a truly democratic state, we would consider as an example, Ghana, which had run a one party system of government under Dr. Nkrumah. The Colonial Government had handed over government with a fairly democratic Constitution which provided inter alia for a responsible Cabinet Government, a unicameral legislature elected by universal suffrage, and the usual safeguards for judicial and official independence. Within a few weeks of hand over, the Ghanaian Constitution was amended (with the approval of the new assemblies) to dispense with all the special majorities and procedures required for the amendment of the Constitution. Thereafter, the regional assemblies were abolished. The functions of the regional houses of chiefs were attenuated, and the recognition of chiefs brought under government control. The Judicial Service Commission was abolished. The Ghanaian Attorney General was obliged to comply with the Prime Minister’s directions with respect to prosecutions for offences against the state; and the functions of the Public Service Commission were also curtailed.
The clamp down on the opposition was backed up by a number of statutory measures. Preventive detention of persons could be ordered at any time, and no provisions were made for the review of individual cases by any independent tribunal or court. Heavy penalties could be imposed for spreading ‘false reports’ that were ‘likely to injure’’ the Governments reputation.
There were legislative and executive interferences with judicial process.
Ghana, in 1960 enacted by some strange process, a Republican Constitution having as its pillars, the Leader, the State, and the Party [the C.P.P. though not mentioned therein] The Parliament’s legislative powers were limited to power to amend certain parts of the Constitution, the President exercised the rest. He may dissolve the Parliament whenever it pleases him so to do. In short, the President dominated the Constitution. At a time it was declared by the Attorney General, to be treason for party officials and civil servants to willfully deviate from the party line. We could go on, and on but for limitations of space, and time, the above clearly showing how Ghana Dr. Nkrumah’s Government grew from majority rule to a strong one-party state; and the inherently undemocratic nature of a one-party system of government.
Another example is the Tanganyika case, which entered upon independence as a de facto one-party state. There was no opposition ab initio. This example shares a few of the attributes of the former though not to as high a degree as the former. That the one-party system of government, though with its good points, is undemocratic by nature is manifest in the resultant system as shown above.
Two-Party, and Multi-Party Systems
Unlike the one-party system of government, the two-party, and the multi-party systems of government accord legal and constitutional recognition and protection to the organised dissent called ‘the opposition’.” In Britain, after an election, the minority party forms the opposition, which has the clearly defined task of finding faults with the policies of the governing party; and have even been dignified with the title “Her Majesty’s Opposition”.
In a homogenous society, a two-party system of government is most adequate, in that the people are represented perhaps adequately, and there is room for opposition which competing factor makes the government to aspire to satisfy, objectively the needs of the people, and give little or no justification for criticisms from the opposing party. It has in places, where well applied turned out good results. However, it could have its problems, in that it limits the choice of the people to the two parties in government in that the underlying principles agreed upon by members of the party perhaps pursuant to a manifesto or constitution may well be different from that of many in the society. More relevant to our discussion is the suitability of a two-party system in a plural society such as Nigeria.
That it is difficult to achieve and maintain stable democratic government in a plural society is a well established proposition in political science with history reaching back to Aristotle’s adage that ‘… a state aims at being , as far as it can be, a society composed of equals, and peers’. In plural societies, like most African states, with free elections, the sale of social cleavages tend to be translated into party systems cleavages; the political parties are likely to be the organised political manifestations of the segments/regions. The presence of such segmented/regional parties in plural societies is favourable to stable democracy.
The very idea of giving more than one choice to a people with different cultural and other social factors is in itself an idealistic step towards democracy. This is because the segmented or numerous parties can act as the political representatives of their segments, and they provide a good method of selecting segmental leaders who will participate in grand coalitions.
Given both the probability, and the desirability of segmented parties, it follows that multi-partism with relatively few parties is optimal for a plural society. This proposition challenges the traditional saying that two-party systems are preferable to multi-party systems. The fact may be that in plural societies, multi-party system presents the most favourable condition for stable democracy. However, a few qualifications must be added to this apparent convergence. The argument in favour of multi-partism is limited to plural societies only.
Secondly, multi-partism is favourable only on condition that all the parties are minority parties. Further it is helpful if they are not too unequal in size. In homogenous societies, the two-party system would be more suitable than multi-partism, and has considerable advantages in terms of the quality of democracy.
The problems with the two systems can be seen from the converse of the above points. First Nigeria being a plural society, it may appear at first instance that proposed two-party system may have its good point in that it can e argued that it has brought the nation out of its previous situation of politics of regionalism.
Upon second considerations, the two-party system may not give the required opportunity for adequate representation in a plural society such as ours. Sometimes, when there is only one legally and constitutionally recognised opposition, the competition becomes crippling to a point where nearly every proposed policy is opposed for some reason.
However, much as the multi-party system is preferred in a plural society, it could, and very often has lead to extreme segmentation due to ethnic, tribal and regional cleavages, thus producing segmented leaders whom, history has proven unable to come together to ‘participate in a grand coalition.’ The previous republics in Nigeria best illustrate this point. There would hardly be any strong opposition, with every other party struggling to form a coalition with the governing party. Where the state funds political parties, it is obvious that it involves more cost to the tax payer where more parties are funded.
One question which may be asked is do military regimes constitute one party systems of government. If by our definition the members of the armed forces together with their civilian appointees constitute a party, that is to say, Burke’s ‘body of members united in promoting their joint endeavour, the national interest upon some particular principle which they are all agreed’ then the Military Government can be said to, in its own way, be a system of government based on a one-party. It is however difficult to see how they are ‘united by their joint endeavour’, how they are agreed on ‘some particular principle’ in furtherance of the national interest.
However, it surely does have all the other attributes of a one-party system of government – a non constitutionally democratic, government judging by the criteria as set out by De Smith and shown above, thus making it inherently undemocratic by nature.
Social homogeneity and political consensus are regarded as prerequisites for, or factors strongly conducive to stable democracy. Conversely, the deep social divisions and political differences that exist within plural societies ought to be taken into consideration in deciding what system of government a state is to adopt. These factors are primarily responsible for instability, and break down in democracies, as can been seen in most African states today.
On a scale of preference, it would difficult to determine in vacuum which system is best or better than the other. This is because each system has characteristic features that make then suitable in one society whilst being unsuitable in another, and vice-versa. If the scale were in a homogenous society, as between the two-party, and the multi-party systems, it would appear that the two-party system despite its demerits would be more suitable. However if the scale were in a plural society such as Nigeria, and most other African societies, it would then appear that the multi-party system despite its attendant problems would be the most preferable.
Finally, irrespective of the place the problems of the one-party system of government, especially at the end of the twentieth [20th] century when most countries are undergoing a democratisation process, would appear to far outweigh those of the two-party or multi-party systems of government.
The society ought to, after a careful consideration of these social factors, and from the lessons of the past, determine which system is best suited for its socio-political needs, as against arriving at a particular system of government by accident of, for instance, ‘majority rule growing into stronger single-party rule’.
Oxial W. N, Politics: Compromise and Conflict in a Liberal Democracy p.41
Epstein Leon, Political Parties in Western Democracies p.143
Edmund Burke, quoted in ‘Politics: Compromise and Conflict in a Liberal Democracy’ p.41
Duverger quoted in ‘Reflections in Government’ by Barker E. p.288
De Smith, New Commonwealth Constitutions, Chapters 5 & 6
Reflections in Government by Barker E. p.285
De Smith, New Commonwealth Constitutions Chapters 5 & 6
De Smith, Ghana’s Preventive Detention Act, 1961, op. cit
The Times, April 8, 1963 p.9, De Smith Op. cit
Politics: Compromise and Conflict in a Liberal Democracy, p.41
Aristotle, quoted in Politics: Compromise and Conflict in a Liberal Democracy p.41
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