Dominant-party systems are similar to one-party systems, however, a dominant-party system is competitive in the sense that a number of parties compete for power in regular and popular elections, but is dominated by a single major party which has prolonged periods in power. This apparently neat definition, however, runs into problems, notably, in relation to determining how ‘prolonged’ a governing period must be for a party to be considered ‘dominant’.
Japan is usually cited as the classic example of a dominant-party system. Until its defeat in 2009, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been in power almost continuously for 54 years, only having been in opposition for a brief 11-month period between 1993 and 1994. LDP dominance had been underpinned by the Japanese ‘economic miracle’. It also reflected the powerful appeal of the party’s neo-Confucian principles of duty and obligation in the still-traditional Japanese countryside, and the strong links that the party had forged with business elites. However, economic stagnation and internal divisions have meant that the LDP has lost members and supporters to a number of newly-formed, smaller parties, its decline being underlined in 2009 when the Democratic Party of Japan became the first opposition party since 1945 to win a parliamentary majority. The Congress Party in India enjoyed an unbroken spell of 30 years in power commencing with the achievement of independence in 1947. Until 1989 it had endured only three years in opposition, following Indira Gandhi’s 1975–77 state of emergency.
The African National Congress (ANC) has similarly been the dominant party in South Africa since the ending of apartheid in 1993, its position being based on its pre-eminent role in the long struggle against white rule. The best European examples of a dominant-party system are Sweden, where the Social Democratic Labour Party (SAP) held power for 65 of the previous 74 year until its defeat in 2006; and Italy, where the Christian Democratic Party (DC) dominated every one of the country’s 52 post-World War II governments until the party’s effective collapse amidst mounting allegations of corruption in 1992–94.
The most prominent feature of a dominant-party system is the tendency for the political focus to shift from competition between parties to factional conflict within the dominant party itself. The DC in Italy, for example, functioned as little more than a coalition of privileged groups and interests in Italian society, the party acting as a broker to these various factions. The most powerful of these groups were the Catholic Church (which exercised influence through organizations such as Catholic Action), the farming community and industrial interests. Each of these was able to cultivate voting loyalty and exert influence on DC’s members in the Italian parliament. Factions were also an integral institution in the Japanese political process. Within the LDP, which, until its defeat in 2009, had enjoyed 54 years of virtually unbroken rule, a per ennial struggle for power took place, as various subgroups coalesced around rising or powerful individuals. Such factionalism was maintained at the local level by the ability of faction leaders to provide political favours for their followers, and at the parliamentary level through the allocation of senior government and party offices. Although the resulting infighting may have been seen as a means of guaranteeing argument and debate in a system in which small parties were usually marginalized, in Japan factionalism tended to revolve more around personal differences than policy or ideological disagreement. One example of this was the conflict between the Fukuda and Tanaka factions during the 1970s and 1980s, which continued long after the two principals had left the scene. Whereas other competitive party systems have their supporters, or at least apologists, few are prepared to come to the defence of the dominant-party system. Apart from a tendency towards stability and predictability, dominantpartyism is usually seen as a regrettable and unhealthy phenomenon. In the first place, it tends to erode the important constitutional distinction between the state and the party in power. When governments cease to come and go, an insidious process of politicization takes place through which state officials and institutions adjust to the ideological and political priorities of the dominant party. Second, an extended period in power can engender complacency, arrogance and even corruption in the dominant party. The course of Italian and Japanese politics has, for example, regularly been interrupted by scandals, usually involving allegations of financial corruption. Third, a dominant-party system is characterized by weak and ineffective opposition. Criticism and protest can more easily be ignored if they stem from parties that are no longer regarded as genuine rivals for power. Finally, the existence of a ‘permanent’ party of government may corrode the democratic spirit by encouraging the electorate to fear change and to stick with the ‘natural’ party of government .