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Socioeconomic development produces more fragmented party systems
Why do some countries have more parties than others? The question of why party system fragmentation (referring to the number of parties contesting elections and the distribution of votes across these parties) varies from country to country has received considerable attention in previous research. To be sure, we know that countries’ electoral systems play a major role in explaining observed fragmentation, but work remains to be done to explain variation between similar countries. While research has examined the effect of ethnic diversity on party system fragmentation, the impact of socioeconomic development has received little attention.
In a recent article published in Politics & Policy, I argue that party system fragmentation tends to increase with socioeconomic development. According to social cleavage theory, party system fragmentation is greater in countries with more cleavages (i.e. societal divisions around which political parties form). Two major social changes associated with socioeconomic development leading to the formation of two cleavages are relevant: urbanisation, which produced a cleavage between urban and rural voters, and industrialisation, in which the transition from agricultural to more modern occupations produced a class cleavage between the bourgeoisie and working-class employees. As each cleavage forms, political parties appeal to one side or the other of a cleavage. When the existing parties are unable to represent issues associated with a new cleavage (which often becomes the case as countries urbanise and/or industrialise), new parties form to represent voters on one side of the new cleavage.
Though countries outside the West have experienced different patterns of socioeconomic development, I argue that these social cleavage arguments should apply cross-nationally. Regardless the timing or sequence of development, the onset of urbanisation should result in urban-rural cleavages, while changes in employment from agricultural to more modern forms of labour should result in the appearance of class cleavages. With urbanisation and occupational changes leading to the formation of urban-rural and class cleavages, social cleavage theory predicts that party systems will become increasingly fragmented.
Development and Electoral Competition
To test this argument, I examined the relationship between socioeconomic development and party system fragmentation in elections held between 1946 and 2008 in countries around the world. To measure socioeconomic development, I use a variable known as the Index of Occupational Diversification. This variable is calculated as the average of the proportion living in urban areas and the proportion employed in non-agricultural jobs, rescaled so that the index ranges from 0 (rural, agricultural societies) to 1 (urban, industrialised societies).
To determine the robustness of the effect of socioeconomic development, I examined several measures of party system fragmentation. For the sake of simplicity, I present the relationship between socioeconomic development and a measure of the distribution of national-level vote shares across parties. Figure 1 presents the predicted relationship between this measure of party system fragmentation and socioeconomic development, controlling for several alternative hypotheses (e.g. properties of the electoral system).
Figure 1 shows that socioeconomic development is positively associated with party system fragmentation. Countries at the lowest levels of development have, on average—and net of the effects of other variables—low levels of party system fragmentation, with an average of effectively 2.95 parties. Party system fragmentation increases with socioeconomic development, such that at the highest levels of socioeconomic development, the average country has effectively 4.90 parties. In keeping with social cleavage theory, this suggests that party system fragmentation increases with urbanisation (reflecting the development of urban-rural cleavages) and economic modernisation (resulting in class cleavages).
To be sure, these results do not (and cannot by the nature of the analysis) tell us about which parties contest elections and receive significant vote shares. While urban-rural and class cleavages may be represented by parties mirroring those in Western Europe found on each side of these cleavages, the origins and ideology of the major parties in some countries may differ (e.g. the middle class in India has been represented not by liberal bourgeois parties but instead by the Hindu nationalist BJP). What is important about these results is they suggest that increases in socioeconomic development make it harder for urban-rural and class cleavages to be represented by one or two parties, which in turn leads to higher levels of party system fragmentation.
Implications for Developing Societies
These findings have important implications for developing societies. While previous research has noted—with concern—that many countries in the developing world have low levels of party system fragmentation(so low as to make elections virtually uncompetitive), the results from my research provide grounds for optimism. With continued socioeconomic development, countries’ party systems will continue to fragment, turning what are now uncompetitive elections into multiparty contests.
Additional reason for this optimism can be seen by looking at recent trends in urbanisation and occupational changes. Figure 2 presents the levels of urbanisation, as well as the share employed in non-agricultural jobs, both using World Bank data broken down by region. In countries around the world, urbanisation and economic development continue to advance. Though some countries have yet to urbanise or industrialise, the broader trends suggest others continue to experience the sort of socioeconomic development that my research suggests is associated with higher levels of party system fragmentation.
Such urbanisation and industrialisation suggests we will observe more fragmented party systems as countries continue to develop. With continued urbanisation, the emergence of urban-rural cleavages will lead to increased fragmentation as parties and voters divide along urban-rural lines. As industrialisation changes the structure of employment, the emergence of class cleavages will lead to further fragmentation as parties and voters divide along class lines. In countries where low levels of competition threaten democracy, socioeconomic development may produce more fragmented (and thus more competitive) party systems and elections.
Christopher D. Raymond is Lecturer in Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. Much of his research examines the impact of social cleavages, including socioeconomic development and ethnic diversity, on the development of party systems. Research on these subjects has appeared in Electoral Studies, Research & Politics, and Comparative European Politics.