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Types of Party Systems: Two-Party, Multi-Party and Dominant

Adam Bilinski, Jason Nowaczyk
  • Author
    Adam Bilinski

    Adam Bilinski has taught Political Science courses at various colleges since 2008. In 2015 he graduated with a PhD in Political Science from the University of Florida. He has Applying the QM Rubric (APPQMR) certificate on teaching online. His research interest include immigrant integration and democratization.

  • Instructor
    Jason Nowaczyk

    Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

Compare a multi-party system to a two-party system and see examples. Explore the advantages and disadvantages of a two-party system and a multi-party system. Updated: 10/15/2021

Two-Party System vs Multi-Party System

In a democratic country, political parties are organizations whose goal is to achieve and maintain political power through winning free and fair elections. Political power refers in this case to control over key executive offices in the country (a president or a prime minister). Depending on the number of parties which have a realistic chance of achieving power, one can distinguish between two-party system, multiple-party system, and dominant-party system.

Countries do not directly ''choose'' a party system; the type of party system depends primarily on the type of electoral system and the number of politically relevant social divisions in a society.

This lesson discusses party systems in democracies, which are countries ensuring relatively equal playing fields for all parties and allowing opposition parties to win power through free and fair elections. This leaves aside countries with only one legal party (e.g. China), no legal parties (e.g. Saudi Arabia), or those where one party consistently win elections due to electoral manipulations (e.g. Russia).

There are key differences between the party systems and each party system brings different consequences for the country's political system. Each party system has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Two-Party System Definition

What is a two-party system? A two-party system is a system in which only two parties or two coalitions of parties have a realistic chance of winning political power. It does not mean that there are no other legal active political parties; it just means that the top executive office in a country (a president or prime minister) is nearly always controlled by either of the two main political parties.

Multi-Party System Definition

What is a multi party system? According to multi party system definition, it is a system in which three or more parties have a realistic chance of achieving political power. In a presidential system, it means that the president is supported by a coalition of multiple parties, or that the control of the presidency often changes among multiple parties. In a parliamentary system, it means that there is a coalition of two or more parties winning the majority of legislative seats and appointing the prime minister (while other important political parties remain temporarily in the opposition).

Dominant-Party System Definition

Dominant-party systems are rare. In such a system, only one party has a realistic chance of achieving political power. Such a party nearly always controls the top executive office in the country (president or prime minister). One should emphasize that in a democratic dominant party system, elections are free and fair. Other parties exist, can campaign freely, and have access to the media, but one party remains the most popular and nearly constantly wins free and fair elections. Such systems should be distinguished from authoritarian systems where one party constantly wins elections due to unfair conditions or outright fraud (featuring such countries as Russia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela or Singapore).

Two-Party vs. Multi-Party Systems

If you own a smartphone, you no doubt realize how many brands and models now exist. However, this wasn't always the case. Historically, when smartphones were first invented, there were only two major models. While the original two models are still the dominant brands on the market, the influx of other competitors with similar products has made buying a smartphone a daunting task.

In general, having all that choice is a good thing, but after a while, all the models start to blur together and it becomes too much to distinguish between all of them. This comparison is very similar to the two-party political system of the United States and the multi-party systems of countries such as India, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

The two-party system is a deeply rooted feature of the American government. In most two-party elections, the contest is between two candidates of two major political parties. In the United States, they are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Multi-party systems, on the other hand, are set up to allow multiple political parties to have the opportunity to gain control of the government separately or in coalition.

Multi-party systems have many variants, and some end up looking more like the United States' two-party system where only one or two parties really have all the power. The more prevalent form of a multi-party system is one that relies on proportional representation, where the legislative seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the percentage of votes they win in elections. Nevertheless, both the two-party and multi-party systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

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Two-Party System, Multi-Party System, and Dominant-Party Systems Examples

Democracies around the world function can be classified depending on whether they are close to a two-party, multi-party, or dominant party system. Occasionally but rarely, a party system might change. For example, India used to be a dominant party system before 1976, but now it is a two-party system.

There are two main factors affecting the type of a country's party system. One is the electoral system type. Countries electing their legislative representatives via a majoritarian system, like the United States, are very likely to have a two-party system. Under such an electoral system, only one representative is elected per district and in most circumstances, only candidates representing the two largest parties are likely to get elected. As supporters of smaller parties notice that their candidates never get elected, to avoid wasting votes they switch to the two largest parties. In the end, hardly anyone votes for smaller parties.

The main alternative electoral system is proportional representation. This system required creation of multi-member districts. The main idea behind proportional representation is that the party's seat share in the legislature is proportional to the vote share a party gets. Hence, a party getting 40% of the vote will obtain about 40% of the seats, a party with 10% of the vote will obtain about 10% of the seats, and so on. Under this system, votes for small parties are not ''wasted'' and such parties obtain representation in the legislature reflecting their popularity, which encourages people to support small parties to the same extent as bigger parties. This leads to continuing presence of small parties.

Proportional representation allows for formation of multi-party systems. Yet, although they predominate, such systems do not always emerge in the countries using this system. In this case, the party system is affected by the number of important social divisions in the society, whether based on class, religion, ethnicity, religiosity, and so on. If a country has only one or two important divisions, then dominant or two-party system might emerge. If there are more divisions, one can expect a multi-party system.

Countries with proportional representation electoral systems. They are likely to develop multi-party systems.

Countries with proportional representation

Two-Party System Example

Here are some two-party system examples with the names of the two major parties. All of them use a majoritarian electoral system, which gives boost to the two largest parties and strongly favors creation of a two-party system. Third parties exist but find it hard to obtain representation due to the problem of wasted votes. The exception are small parties with regionally concentrated support, which achieve a degree of success in some countries (e.g. Bloc Quebecois in Canada).

  • United States (Republican and Democrat)
  • United Kingdom (Conservative and Labor)
  • Canada (Liberal and Conservative)
  • India (Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress, each with regional allies)
  • Nigeria (All Progressive Congress and Peoples Democratic Party)

All the countries listed above are former British colonies. Two-party systems are quite common there because of the British legacy of majoritarian electoral systems. Many people in the United States complain about the two-party system in America and would like to see more relevant political parties, but to accomplish this it would be necessary to reform the electoral system.

Composition of Canadian legislature since 2019 with each party represented by a different color. Canada has a two-party system

Composition of Canadian legislature

Multi-Party System Example

Most democracies with the proportional representation electoral system have a multi-party system. Nearly all countries in Latin America and Europe (major exception being Britain) have a multi-party system. Some examples include Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. A few other countries with this system include Indonesia, Iraq, Taiwan, or New Zealand.

An example of a country with a multi-party system is Germany. This country uses a form of proportional representation system, which distributes legislative seats to parties proportionally to their vote share. Due to the principle of proportionality, the parties' vote share closely corresponds to their seat share. For example, Social Democrats obtained 26% of the vote and 28% of the seats.

The main parties in Germany are:

Advantages of a Two-Party System

I'm sure you can agree that having choice is a good thing. Furthermore, having to only choose between two things is simple and, for most, less stressful, like just having to pick between chocolate or vanilla ice cream.

The same can be said about the United States' two-party system. Voters can most often expect to choose between either a Democratic or Republican candidate. Furthermore, it is thought that two parties tend to be more stable because the system encourages more moderate views that appeal to wide selections of the electorate.

Keep in mind the number one goal of a political party is to get elected and control the government, and the more people that vote for you the better chance you have at that happening. This encourages having a moderate viewpoint that appeals to a wide number of people. Some even argue that stability in a two-party system comes in the form of having a more efficient government because there is a smaller likelihood that there will be disagreement and fracture. In other words, it's easier to get two people to agree on something than a whole group of people.

Disadvantages of a Two-Party System

Sometimes, though, we want more than two choices. Sometimes choosing between chocolate ice cream and vanilla is not enough. Sometimes we have a craving for strawberry instead.

Unfortunately, in a two-party system, that third choice is very rarely a viable option. Thus, one of the disadvantages of a two-party system is the lack of choice. While choosing between ice creams may be fairly insignificant in the greater scheme of life, choosing people who will make some very big decisions on laws that will affect you is much more important. Therefore, many people would like to have more choice than just two major parties.

Some also argue that significant change in some areas of society is hindered because the majority view always overrules the voices of the minority. This can also lead to voter apathy because a person may see their differing view as not mattering if they always feel outnumbered. Fewer choices can also lead to polarization within the government. We said earlier that having only two parties created a smaller likelihood that there would be disagreement and fracture within a government simply because the probability of disagreement between two people is less likely than disagreement between many people.

But this also means that two-party systems can be quite polarizing. Often, inter-party compromise doesn't happen once a majority party takes control of a government. Instead, we see a rise in partisanship, or bias in favor of a particular party. Any time a new party takes majority control, they tend to reverse the policies of the previous government when voted into power, and this does not benefit the state in the long run.

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Video Transcript

Two-Party vs. Multi-Party Systems

If you own a smartphone, you no doubt realize how many brands and models now exist. However, this wasn't always the case. Historically, when smartphones were first invented, there were only two major models. While the original two models are still the dominant brands on the market, the influx of other competitors with similar products has made buying a smartphone a daunting task.

In general, having all that choice is a good thing, but after a while, all the models start to blur together and it becomes too much to distinguish between all of them. This comparison is very similar to the two-party political system of the United States and the multi-party systems of countries such as India, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

The two-party system is a deeply rooted feature of the American government. In most two-party elections, the contest is between two candidates of two major political parties. In the United States, they are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Multi-party systems, on the other hand, are set up to allow multiple political parties to have the opportunity to gain control of the government separately or in coalition.

Multi-party systems have many variants, and some end up looking more like the United States' two-party system where only one or two parties really have all the power. The more prevalent form of a multi-party system is one that relies on proportional representation, where the legislative seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the percentage of votes they win in elections. Nevertheless, both the two-party and multi-party systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of a Two-Party System

I'm sure you can agree that having choice is a good thing. Furthermore, having to only choose between two things is simple and, for most, less stressful, like just having to pick between chocolate or vanilla ice cream.

The same can be said about the United States' two-party system. Voters can most often expect to choose between either a Democratic or Republican candidate. Furthermore, it is thought that two parties tend to be more stable because the system encourages more moderate views that appeal to wide selections of the electorate.

Keep in mind the number one goal of a political party is to get elected and control the government, and the more people that vote for you the better chance you have at that happening. This encourages having a moderate viewpoint that appeals to a wide number of people. Some even argue that stability in a two-party system comes in the form of having a more efficient government because there is a smaller likelihood that there will be disagreement and fracture. In other words, it's easier to get two people to agree on something than a whole group of people.

Disadvantages of a Two-Party System

Sometimes, though, we want more than two choices. Sometimes choosing between chocolate ice cream and vanilla is not enough. Sometimes we have a craving for strawberry instead.

Unfortunately, in a two-party system, that third choice is very rarely a viable option. Thus, one of the disadvantages of a two-party system is the lack of choice. While choosing between ice creams may be fairly insignificant in the greater scheme of life, choosing people who will make some very big decisions on laws that will affect you is much more important. Therefore, many people would like to have more choice than just two major parties.

Some also argue that significant change in some areas of society is hindered because the majority view always overrules the voices of the minority. This can also lead to voter apathy because a person may see their differing view as not mattering if they always feel outnumbered. Fewer choices can also lead to polarization within the government. We said earlier that having only two parties created a smaller likelihood that there would be disagreement and fracture within a government simply because the probability of disagreement between two people is less likely than disagreement between many people.

But this also means that two-party systems can be quite polarizing. Often, inter-party compromise doesn't happen once a majority party takes control of a government. Instead, we see a rise in partisanship, or bias in favor of a particular party. Any time a new party takes majority control, they tend to reverse the policies of the previous government when voted into power, and this does not benefit the state in the long run.

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