Skip to main content Accessibility help

Electoral Systems and the Number of Parties in Postcommunist States

  • Robert G. Moser (a1)


Scholars studying electoral systems have consistently found that single-member plurality elections tend to constrain the number of parties operating in a polity to a much greater extent than multimember proportional representation systems. This article tests this hypothesis in the post-communist context by examining the effects of proportional representation and single-member district elections on the number of parties in five postcommunist states. It is shown that some postcommunist states, most notably Poland and Hungary, have followed the standard pattern of party consolidation over time in reaction to incentives of electoral systems, while others, most notably Russia and Ukraine, have not. The author argues that the different effects of electoral systems can be attributed to different levels of party institutionalization found in postcommunist states.

These findings have policy implications. Under conditions of extreme party underdevelopment, the electoral system that promotes the use of party labels—proportional representation—may be more effective than the plurality system in constraining the number of parties, provided a legal threshold is used. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom that plurality elections offer the greatest constraint on the number of parties.



Hide All

1 Lijphart, Arend, Electoral Systems and Party Systems: A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945–1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 151-52.

2 Duverger, Maurice, Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State (New York: Wiley, 1963); Rae, Douglas W., The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws, 2d ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971); Riker, William H., “Duverger's Law Revisited,” in Grofman, Bernard and Lijphart, Arend, eds., Electoral Laws and Their Political Consequences (New York: Agathon, 1986); Sartori, Giovanni, “The Influence of Electoral Systems: Faulty Laws or Faulty Method?” in Grofman, Bernard and Lijphart, Arend, eds., Electoral Laws and their Political Consequences (New York: Agathon, 1986); Taagepera, Rein and Shugart, Matthew S., Seats and Votes: The Effects and Determinants of Electoral Systems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Lijphart (fn. 1).

3 See, in particular, Lijphart, Arend, “Constitutional Choices for New Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Winter 1991).

4 Jasiewicz, Krzysztof, “From Solidarity to Fragmentation,” Journal of Democracy 3 (April 1992); Moser, Robert G., “The Impact of Parliamentary Electoral Systems in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs 13 no. 3 (1997); Bojcun, Marko, “The Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections in March-April 1994,” Europe-Asia Studies 47 no. 2 (1995).

5 See Sartori (fn. 2); and Cox, Gary W., Making Votes Count (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

6 Scott Mainwaring, “Rethinking Party Systems Theory in the Third Wave of Democratization: The Importance of Party System Institutionalization” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D. C., August 28—31,1997), p. 7. Mainwaring argues that party institutionalization is the key variable distinguishing party systems in established Western democracies and party systems in democratizing states, and he explains much of the variance in democratic performance within the broad class of democratizing states. According to his measures of institutionalization—which emphasize continuity of party organizations, control over candidate nominations, and the volatility of electoral support of parties—party systems in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are among the least institutionalized of the late democratizers. See also Huntington, Samuel, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 12.

7 Sartori, (fn. 2), 62.

8 Cox (fn. 5).

9 This is important because scholars have not identified many empirical cases that do not fulfill Cox's necessary conditions for strategic behavior. Cox's primary example of a country with a weakly institutionalized party system defying the expected effects of a plurality electoral system is Papua New Guinea. See Cox (fn. 5), 85. Sartori concentrated on the Indian example which produced a multiparty system in the electoral realm, but the expected high levels of disproportionality and a dominant party system after votes were translated into seats. See Sartori (fn. 2), 55–56.

10 Scott Mainwaring, “Brazilian Party Underdevelopment in Comparative Perspective,” Kellogg Institute Working Paper, no. 134 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1990).

11 Maurice Duverger, “Duverger's Law: Forty Years Later,” in Grofman and Lijphart (fn. 2), 70.

12 Ibid., 69.

13 Taagepera and Shugart (fn. 2); Lijphart (fn. 1).

14 Sartori (fn. 2), 54–55.

15 Ordeshook, Peter and Shvetsova, Olga, “Ethnic Heterogeneity, District Magnitude, and the Number of Parties,” American Journal of Political Science, 38 (1994); Cox (fn. 5), 203–21.

16 Rae (fn. 2), 95.

17 Cox (fn. 5), 79.

18 Ibid., 182–93.

19 See Sartori (fn. 2), 55–56.

20 White, Steven, Rose, Richard, and McAllister, Ian, How Russia Votes (New York: Chatham House, 1997), 135.

21 Lijphart (fn. 1), 39–46.

22 Matthew Shugart, “Building the Institutional Framework: Electoral Systems, Party Systems, and Presidents,” Working Paper, no. 2.26 (Berkeley: Center for German and European Studies, 1994), 10–15.

23 Lijphart (fn. 1), 78.

24 Putnam, Robert, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Lijphart (fn. 1).

25 Lijphart (fn. 1), 78.

26 Fisher, Steven, “The Wasted Vote Thesis,” Comparative Politics 5 no. 2 (1974); Jesse, Eckhard, “Split-voting in the Federal Republic of Germany: An Analysis of the Federal Elections from 1953 to 1987',” Electoral Studies 7 no. 2 (1988); Bawn, Kathleen, “The Logic of Institutional Preferences: German Electoral as a Social Choice Outcome,” American Journal of Political Science 37 no. 4 (1993); Cox (fn. 5), 82–83; Barnes, Samuel H., Grace, Frank, Pollack, James K., and Sperlich, Peter W., “The German Party System and the 1961 Federal Election,” American Political Science Review 56 (December 1962).

27 In the case of the 1992 Lithuanian elections, district-level data was not available for the single-member district tier. Therefore, only the PR tier of the 1992 Lithuanian election was included in the study.

28 Six major parties have remained dominant in Hungarian politics since the end of communist rule. While the party system in Poland has been more fluid, Tworzecki has argued that the political system is actually more consolidated around a small number of political tendencies. Tworzecki, Hubert, Parties and Politics in Post-1989 Poland (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996). The recent consolidation of reformist forces into the AWS would tend to support this assessment.

29 This characteristic is perhaps best captured by the unusually high level of split-ticket voting in Russia. In 1993, 70 percent of voters planned to split their votes in the PR and plurality tiers, voting for different parties or for a party and an independent candidate in the two halves of the election. Only 19 percent planned to vote a straight party ticket. White, Rose, and McAllister (fn. 20), 139–40.

30 Kitschelt provides an index of the chances of program-based party formation for postcommunist states, which corresponds to the classification of the level of party institutionalization of the cases in this study. Using Kitschelt's scale Hungary and Poland have the highest scores at 5.5 and 5.0 respectively. The Baltic states are marginally lower at 3.5 to 5.0. Russia, Ukraine, and other Soviet republics have a much lower score of 0.5. Kitschelt, Herbert, “Formation of Party Cleavages in Postcommunist Democracies,” Party Politics 1 no. 4 (1995), 457. Moreover, Evans and Whitefield argue for a similar classification of postcommunist states' potential for the development of stable party systems, with east central Europe (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) possessing the greatest potential for stable party development followed by the Baltic states with Russia, Ukraine, and other Soviet successor states having much lower chances for the establishment of stable party systems. Evans, Geoffrey and Whitefield, Stephen, “Identifying the Bases of Party Competition in Eastern Europe,” British Journal of Political Science 23 no. 4 (1993).

31 Only tiers in which a vote is cast are analyzed here. Therefore, compensatory seats in Hungary and Poland calculated on the basis of previous votes are not included.

32 The effective number of parties index is calculated by squaring the proportion of the vote or seat shares of each party, adding these together, then dividing 1 by this total:

33 See Lijphart (fn. 1), 67–72; andTaagepera and Shugart (fn. 2), 77–81,104–5.

34 Lijphart (fn. 1), 96,160–61.

35 Cox (fn. 5), 309–11.

36 Lijphart (fn. 1), 96.

37 Taagepera and Shugart (fn. 2), 123; Lijphart (fn. 1), 97; Cox (fn. 5), 173–78.

38 Tworzecki (fn. 28), 194.

39 This is particularly true in Russia where surveys regularly report that 40 percent of respondents answer “don't know” to questions about whom they will vote for in the next election, more than twice the percentage supporting the most popular political party. Rose, White, and McAllister (fn. 20), 141.

40 Computed from data in Kenneth Benoit, “Votes and Seats: The Hungarian Electoral Law and the 1994 Parliamentary Elections,” in Gabor Toka, ed., The 1990 Election to the Hungarian National Assembly: Analyses, Documents and Data. (Berlin: Edition Sigma, forthcoming). Dataset, online at

41 The effective number of parliamentary parties is based on estimates of partisan affiliation in the Ukrainian parliament for 338 of 450 deputies who were successfully elected after the first run-off election in April 1994. Bojcun (fn. 5), 239. Only 338 of the 450 district elections were declared valid after the first run-off because the other districts failed to fulfill the required criteria of both 50 percent participation and 50 percent support for the winning candidate. The rest of the seats were filled in special make-up elections held until 1996. Given the fluid and unstable nature of partisan affiliation in Ukraine this figure should be considered only an estimate of party fractionahzation. In the Russian case, the effective number of parliamentary parties is based on membership in parliamentary factions, which renders a more accurate reflection of party fractionalization in the legislature.

42 Sartori (fn. 2), 62.

43 Bojcun (fn. 4), 233.

44 This figure is based on data from the International Foundation for Election Systems (iFES), which listed both the mode of nomination for a candidate (party, voter group, workers collective) and the party affiliation of the candidate. The latter was used to estimate the percent of vote going to independents. See IFES, online, http://ifes. ipri. kiev. ua.

45 Figures on the vote for independents and their success in gaining seats are based on the following sources: IFES (fn. 44); Bojcun (fn. 4). Russia: Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, Report on Eurasia, December 8, 1993; Central Electoral Commission of the Russian Federation, “Rezul'taty golosovaniya na vyborakh v Gosudarstvennuyu Dumu po odnomandatnym izbiratel'nym okrugam,” (Results of voting on elections to the State Duma in single-member voting districts) (Unpublished report, Central Election Commission, Moscow, 1994); “Dannye protokolov No. 1 okruzhnykh izbi-ratel'nykh komissii o rezultatakh vyborov deputatov Gosudarstvennoy Dumy Federal'nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoy Federatsii vtorogo sozyva po odnomandatnym izbiratel'nym okrugam” (Data of protocol no. 1 of district electoral commissions on the results of elections of deputies of the second State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation by single-mandate electoral district), Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 17, 1996; “Dannye protokolov No. 2 ob itogakh golosovaniya po federal'nomu izbiratel'nomu okrugu” (Data of protocol no. 2 on results of vote for federal electoral okrug), Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 24, 1996. Hungary: Benoit (fn. 40). Lithuania: Lithuanian Seim, “Lietuvos Respub-likos Seimo rinkimo '96,” dataset, online at http://rc.Irs.It/rinkimai/seim96.

46 In March 1998 Ukraine held parliamentary elections under a new mixed electoral system similar to Russia's, which was not included in this study for lack of data. The results show a continued prevalence of independent candidates in single-member district elections in Ukraine. Of the 225 deputies elected in plurality elections, 114 (51 percent) were independents.

47 Mainwaring uses the proliferation of strong independent candidates as one characteristic of his index of party institutionalization. Mainwaring (fn. 6).

48 Cox (fn. 5), 123.

49 Ibid., 159.

50 Eleven countries experiencing initial democratic elections in the 1980s adopted plurality systems but all were very small states, mostly Caribbean islands. Such cases do not provide the most suitable comparison with large postcommunist states. Nevertheless, these new democracies did not experience the same high level of party proliferation exhibited by the postcommunist states in the study. The average effective number of electoral parties for this group of new democracies is 2.26, which is much lower than the average produced in Russia's two plurality elections. For data regarding these cases see Cox (fn. 5), 309–11.

51 Jesse (fn. 26), 112.

52 Calculations of effective number of parties were based on data in Barnes et al. (fn. 26), 906.

53 Lijphart (fn. 1), 161.

54 Calculations for the 1996 and 1998 Indian parliamentary elections were based on seat distributions provided by the India Votes '98 website, http://www. indiavotes. com. One crucial difference between the Indian and Russian cases is that the Indian case tended to produce two- or three-candidate races at the district level. The multiparty system at the national level was produced by the fact that the two major candidates in each district did not belong to the same two major parties from district to district. This was not the case in Russia, which saw an average of seven significant candidates compete in single-member districts. For district-level analysis of the number of candidates in Indian elections see Chhibber, Pradeep and Kollman, Ken W., “Party Aggregation and the Number of Parties in India and the United States,” American Political Science Review 92 (1998), 332.

55 Cox (fn. 5), 85.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D. C., August 28–31, 1997. would like to thank Joel Ostrow, Frank Thames, and four anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I would also like to acknowledge research support provided by the University of Texas at Austin and an IREX Short-term Travel Grant used for fieldwork in Russia.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Electoral Systems and the Number of Parties in Postcommunist States

  • Robert G. Moser (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.