‘Dominant party’ systems hold elections open to all parties and give their citizens political rights, but the dominant party continuously win the vote often by a wide gap ahead of a consistently weak opposition. Can we regard these systems as democracies? Are they flawed democracies or just a guise for authoritarianism? This is an important question given the proliferation of dominant party systems in several countries of the former Soviet Union and the developing world.
How we define democracy will influence how we will classify political systems in this conceptually grey area. Definitions that describe democracy simply as a process that involves the exercise of civil and political rights would classify many dominant party systems as democracies or, in some measure, hybrid or semi-democracies, depending on the extent of the flaws affecting the participation process. On the opposite side, Robert Dahl’s conception of democracy as ‘polyarchy’ holds that a system with an open structure of participation but a low degree of political contestability is a distinct regime category, namely an ‘inclusive hegemony’. The article argues that polyarchy is conceptually superior to procedural approaches to democracy and must guide our approach to dominant party systems. This argument offers a defence of a pluralist conception of democracy in which power and authority are distributed among a plurality of associations and organizations relatively autonomous from one another and from the government. The article explains why pluralism offers a more pragmatic account of how societies can approximate two basic conditions for democracy: relative political empowerment for citizens and defence from domination.
To recognize why inter-party contestability is a constitutive property of democracy – not just one possible outcome of the electoral process – we must fully develop an argument why one-group domination, even if it comes as the result of electoral choice, negates the notion of democratic government. We must equally acknowledge that changes in the economic structure can alter the balance between society and the state and among groups, leading to one-group dominance. Democracy is a precarious state of affairs. It depends not only on elections, political rights and formal constitutional processes, but equally on the distribution of resources both horizontally, among groups, and vertically, between the state and society.
The article can be read as a warning that democracy can be threatened, undermined, eroded or even made a ‘facade’ even when it retains its formal institutional form. This is a mixed message about the prospects of democracy in view of concentrated resources and the centralization of economic relations.