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Parties

An overview of the subjects addressed by the basic courses:

Basic course 1 What is a party?
Basic course 2 What type of parties exist?
Basic course 3 What function do parties perform?
Basic course 4 What are the characteristics of a party system?
Basic course 5 What are the problems faced by party-political democracies?

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Basic course 1: What is a party?

Before we take a look at the different types of parties in basic course 2, consider the function of parties in modern-day democracies in basic course 3, address the different party systems in basic course 4 and reflect on the problems faced by party democracies in basic course 5, we first ask: What is a party? A brief definition of a party might read as follows:

A party is "a group of like-thinking citizens looking to realize their shared political ideas".
[Rainer-Olaf Schultze; taken and translated from: Pipers Wörterbuch zur Politik]

The definitions below are a little more detailed:

"Parties are free associations of like-thinking citizens making keynote suggestions for the solution of political problems and electing candidates for parliamentary and government office in order to implement their policies in the event of an election victory."

[
taken and translated from: Waldemar Besson/Gotthard Jasper, Das Leitbild der modernen Demokratie, Bonn BpB 1990]

"Parties are associations of citizens that continually or for a long period (...) set out to influence political opinion and that want to play a part in representing the people (...) if with regard to the totality of the actual circumstances, particularly with regard to the size and stability of their organization, the number of their members and their willingness to come forward in public, they offer adequate guarantee for the sincerity of their aims (...)"

[German Party Act 1967, § 2 Abs. 1]

The definitions above touch upon some of the important aspects characteristic of parties. Whether an organization decides to call itself a "party" is irrelevant. Neither is its ideology nor its policies relevant for determining whether an organization is actually a party or not. The following text provides a summary of the criteria to be met:

When does an organization become a party?

Criteria

bulletA party has to influence political opinion. Its aim is to influence the entire political landscape. Its efforts to participate in shaping political opinion are directed over the long-term and focused on large areas of politics. This means that political associations acting at a purely municipal level do not meet the test (...).
bulletA party must demonstrate its determination to participate regularly in the political representation of the people. To this end, a political party is different from associations, whose political responsibility covers certain areas only, and also from civil action groups, whose aim is to influence certain areas of policy but do not want to hold political office. This, however, does not mean that a political party has to achieve a parliamentary mandate (...).
bulletThe independence of an organization is important both with regard to its size and its durability. Neither organizations active only at the time of elections nor (...) groups using the party apparatus of another political union can be regarded as having party status.
bulletA party represents a union of citizens. The principle of individual membership is intended to prevent infiltration of a party by another association. The membership of a party should not exceed a certain limit in order that the sincerity of its aims and the chance of achieving them remain clear.
bulletAny political union that wants to be recognized as a party must come forward in public. Organizations that hide away from the public gaze and carry out their work in secret do not meet the conditions necessary to be regarded as a political party.

[taken and translated from: Uwe Backes/Eckhard Jesse; aus: Informationen zur politischen Bildung 207, Parteiendemokratie, BpB 1996]

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Encyclopedias also provide a number of short explanations about the history of political parties and party types, which we will be addressing in the next basic course:

Encyclopedia definition of: "Party"

[latin pars, "part, direction"], Party is generally used to describe an association of like-thinking people with regard to politics, social issues, economic policy and a general view of the world. They form a party to influence state politics. In this sense parties have existed, albeit as loose groupings, since the Ancient city-states in Greece and in republican Rome as well as during the political and religious movements of the 16th and 17th century.
The development of modern parties into firmly established bodies took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. This process was strongly influenced by the example set by political life in England, where, during the 18th century, the Tories and Whigs established themselves as relatively solid parties. They followed party policy when making comments in public and replaced the former system for governing the state (two-party system). The party groupings that formed during the American struggle for independence, the French Revolution and some time later during constitutional movements in Germany known as the "Vormärz" were more sharply outlined (...).
The aim of a political party or a group of similar parties is to form a majority in parliament (coalition parties, or single-party majority) and thereby gain dominance over state political policy; political opponents form the parliamentary opposition. This interplay between the parties is a fundamental condition of the modern constitutional state, particularly in parliamentary systems of government. Where a single party alone claims to embody the political will of the people (as a majority or minority) or regards itself as being the elite talk is of a one-party system (i.e. in a dictatorship).
(...) Although political parties belong to the most fundamental and influential elements of a constitutional state, they are not recognized in the constitutions of most nations, since members of parliament are regarded as representatives of the people and not of a particular party. Only in Germany and to a certain extent in the UK are political parties formally recognized by the constitution.

[Taken from: Bertelsmann Discovery Lexikon 1997]

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This online service on the subject of political education was developed by agora-wissen, the Stuttgart-based Gesellschaft für Wissensvermittlung über neue Medien und politische Bildung (GbR) (Partnership for the Exchange of Information Using New Media and Political Education). Please contact us with your questions or comments. Translation from German into English by twigg's Übersetzung deutsch-englisch.