Cartel Parties and Party Competition: Growth and Analysis

By Alexander P. Young
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Throughout the course of the second half of the 20th century, it is undeniable that the organizational structures and methods employed by political parties have changed: one hypothesized change, publicized by Katz and Mair, is the evolution of parties into so-called ‘cartel parties.’ Over the course of this essay, it is aimed that the implications of this new structure on patterns of party competition, through an analysis of historical developments in party structures and an exposition of ‘traditional’ patterns of party competition, be explored with a view to show that the evolution of the ‘cartel party’ has fundamentally altered the dynamics of party competition.

First of all, the task of defining a ‘cartel party’ relative to other party structures shall be undertaken. Katz and Mair argue for the inclusion of the cartel party in the list of political party models based on the misapprehension (in their view) that ‘parties are to be classified and understood on the basis of their relationship with civil society’: this misclassification has led to the tendency to see the mass-party model as a standard to judge parties by, and thereby has undervalued the relationship between party and state that has evolved over time.1 This focus on the mass-party model has also served to underpin tacit assumptions about the ‘meaning of and institutional prerequisites of’ democracy the ‘organizational prerequisites for electoral success.’2 The aforementioned implicit assumptions underpinning the mass-party focus essentially take the form of assuming that parties focus on mobilization of a social group that the party is representative of and the participation of this group in policy development in order to achieve electoral success. Having mobilized their electorate sufficiently in order to take office, the mass parties’ action in favor of their social group serves to undermine their own existence: with the ‘big battles’ won, cohesion within the parties declines as there is no necessity to band together to achieve wide-reaching, mass-agreeable reform.3

Following this, in order to ensure their survival, mass parties turn to the catch-all model: with increasing standards of living, the prior cleavages which had underpinned the formation and viability of mass parties began to erode. Accompanying this were increasingly mobility and the development of mass media: both of which reduced the ‘distinctiveness of experience of once well-defined social constituencies,’4 serving to further reduce the coherence of mass parties. Party membership ceases to be about social identity and becomes about policy agreement: ‘ideological and/or policy-distinctiveness’5 decreases between parties due to the ability to market directly to the median voter through new mass media. Along with this, parties become a greater part of the state and cease to directly be a direct link between civil society and the state: Katz-Mair describe it as a sort of public ‘brokering’6 by which parties aggregate and present the desires of the electorate to the state whilst acting as agents of the state in defending policy. Declining levels of party membership precipitated by increased use of capital-intensive campaign methods (eg, mass media usage rather than leafleting) and the rise of single-issue campaign groups (more appealing due to the more narrow range of interests of these groups, which may more often be of more total agreement with the views of the electorate) have led to the requirement of parties to find alternative sources of funding: in their role as ‘governors and law-makers’, turning to the State for such things seems a rationally simple step to make. Such measures have included state subventions to parties.7 As it is the parties themselves who determine how these subsidies are apportioned, it can be argued that the party has been subsumed by the state. It must be considered, however, that this reliance upon funds which are not directly in the party’s control (as an alternation of power may take place), a cartel between parties may be formed: all are interested in survival, and with the fact that great policy battles may not occur as they once did, electoral failure may make little difference to a party’s prospects, thus a cartel in which ‘parties share in resources and all survive’ may be formed.8

Having established what a cartel party is and why it may be, it is time to turn to consideration of traditional party competition. These traditional models generally take the form of rational choice theories and involve a ‘static’ analysis of each electoral cycle, independent of past choices or future implications.9 As this is flawed (Strom rightly states that no leader would be myopic enough to consider this in reality), my consideration of the effects of cartelisation on patterns of party competition will also include a model prescribed by Strom and one prescribed by Laver.

The three models of traditional, rational-choice take the forms of ‘vote-seeking’, ‘office-seeking’ and ‘policy-seeking’ behaviors.10 The vote-seeking criterion assumes that leaders will aim to maximize votes in order to control government; the office-seeking criterion assumes that leaders will seek to maximize the ‘private goods bestowed upon recipients of politically discretionary governmental and sub-governmental appointments’ – the control of elected office, often defined by government portfolios11; and the policy-seeking objective assumes that leaders will seek to maximize their effect on public policy. It seems a logical step to make that during the age of the mass party, most competition occurred along these lines: as the parties were created in order to enact change in favor of a certain social group, policy influence is more likely to be a motivating factor in competition than vote-chasing or the receipt of private goods for office appointments. Also, if parties were to collude, it would be with parties close to them ideologically12. However, in an age of cartel parties, the office-seeking objective appears to be the most prolific motivation: the parties collude against to ensure their survival in government – surely the epitome of office-seeking behavior. Clearly, in terms of shifts in traditional patterns of party competition, the cartel party structure has caused a large one here.

As previously stated, however, these three models are incredibly simplistic and don’t do much to show the realities of political competitive behavior, especially in view of adaptation of parties in view of changing circumstances. Strom proposes a model for integrating these varying objectives of parties into a more cohesive model which takes account of each type of behavior and its respective influences which can determine the overall objective/combination of objectives that the party is to pursue in its competition.13 Strom characterizes party leaders as ‘entrepreneurs’14: as such, they would chase the personal benefits of office above all other goals if unconstrained. The organizations behind the leaders (the extra-parliamentary party) check the leader in providing information on the electorate and their preferences, mobilizing party support and implementing party policy in won offices.15 In order to save the costs of professionals, it may be desirable to enlist activists for the campaign effort: this, however, is fraught with difficulty for the entrepreneurial leader. In exchange for their free labour, it may be that activists would desire certain assurances on policy which could impinge on the votes instrumental to ascend to office. However, it may also be that they demand policy benefits for particularly hard labour, and this would detract from the leader’s own benefits of office.16 In order to solve these problems, it may be that intra-party democracy be increased, benefits of office being limited to party members or increased personal accountability to the party. . All of these measures will lead to a shift in competition to the policy-objective. Strom’s model then talks of public financing of parties: it is claimed that this increase in funding increases leader autonomy.17 This, it can be reasonably extrapolated, relates fairly well to cartelisation of parties: in a situation where multiple parties can collude to allocate public funds for themselves, the leaders have every interest to decide together in a manner which allocates funds in a way which gives them carte blanche with the direction of the party. This will lead to a capitalization of election efforts which will free the leader from policy-focussed competition by freeing him from the party membership’s efforts. The cartel party (from the mass-party structure) has in this manner shifted party competition from being on policy (due to vested interests of party activists in ideology of social group related to party) to being on office (as the leader is increasingly autonomous and chasing his own interests).

Laver too aims to provide a dynamic model of party competition, and it is another which stresses ‘rationalism’ of political competition, but eschews the ‘hyperrealism’ assumed by the traditional models in their assumptions of impossible ‘perfect knowledge’. He assumes that, as in traditional models, voters are intrinsically interested in policy and have ideal points in a real policy space,18 and that leaders only have an instrumental interest in policy, competing against each other with different policy packages. His model begins with a ‘scattering’ of a discrete set of party positions and supporter ideal points across the policy space. Due to their intrinsic interest in policy, voters will support the party with the position initially closest to their own. Party leaders will then adapt their policy positions according to one of the rules as follows: AGGREGATOR, HUNTER, PREDATOR or STICKER19. The AGGREGATOR rule tends to be followed by leaders who are limited in policy by the current support of the party. Party policy is ‘set at the mean position on each dimension of the ideal points of current party supporters. They continuously readapt this position as the party’s support profile changes’20. HUNTER tends to be followed by leaders in an ‘unconstrained’ setting: here, policy is decided upon on the basis of a ‘Pavlovian “win-stay, lose-shift algorithm’21 founded on the basis data such as opinion polls. PREDATOR adaptations involve analyzing data from the previous electoral cycle and then adapting policy to be closer to the largest party, unless, of course, the party involved was the largest party. In opposition to the HUNTER strategy, whose movements are random if movements in policy reduce support, the PREDATOR movements are purposive. The STICKER, as the name suggests, never changes policy.

In terms of the effects of party cartelisation on this model of party competition, if the Katz-Mair contention that all models are built around the supposition of the hegemony of mass-party parties, it’s apparent that the mass-party political parties were likely to start out as STICKERS: adhering to the ideology of their social group. Ideological STICKING appears to result in a party being stuck at a small size in contemporary democracies, as in Ireland with Labour.22 In line with the historical trend of decreased cohesion, the later mass parties would be likely to become AGGREGATORS, given the nature of there still being a core of supporters with ideological basis for their party choice. However, with the decrease in party membership, participation and genuine policy dispute that accompanies cartelisation, it’s likely that PREDATORial behavior would be adopted, with only small purposive measures taken to adapt policy. HUNTER behavior may be too hard hit in an election, especially as parties are likely to be close to the median voter in such a situation.

In conclusion, the cartelisation of political parties has undoubtedly changed the dynamics of party competition. Previous models of battles on the grounds of votes, office appointments and policy influence have been incredibly shifted to those of office appointments, and the more modern models reflect this shift also. In addition to this, the fact that the parties, when funded by the state, also set the rules of party funding, leads to an unhappy conclusion that they can rig the rules of the game to suit themselves and exclude any smaller parties from gaining momentum. This may in turn lead to dissatisfaction with the system and an increase in political extremism along the lines of the old mass parties, united along the cleavage of beneficiaries of the system and those not well treated by it.23 The extent to which this ‘undermines’ the models, however, is debatable: it seems to merely reflect a shift in goal focus. The more modern models can accommodate for this and so don’t appear to be completely undermined, merely reduced in the scope of their active variables. The method used in terms of the traditional models must be changed: the policy and vote seeking models are completely outmoded.


Gallagher, et al. (2001). Representative Government in Modern Europe. McGraw Hill.

Laver, Michael. (2005). ‘Policy and the Dynamics of Political Competition.’ American Political Science Review: 99 (2).

Kaare, Strom. (1990). A Behavioural Theory of Competitive Political Parties.’ American Journal of Political Science: 34

Richard Katz and Peter Mair. (1995). ‘Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party.' Party Politics: 1:1.

Russell Dalton and Martin Wattenberg. (2000). Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies.

1.) Richard Katz and Peter Mair (1995), ‘Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party’, Party Politics 1:1, p5

2.) Ibid, p6

3.) Ibid, p12

4.) Ibid, p12

5.) Ibid, p13

6.) Ibid, p13

7.) Ibid, p15

8.) Ibid, p16

9.) Kaare Strom (1990), ‘A Behavioural Theory of Competitive Political Parties’, American Journal of Political Science 34, p569

10.) Ibid, p566

11.) Ibid, p567

12.) Ibid, pp567-568

13.) Ibid, p572

14.) Ibid, p574

15.) Ibid, p575

16.) Ibid, p576

17.) Ibid, p579

18.) Laver, Michael (2005), ‘Policy and the Dynamics of Political Competition’, American Political Science Review 99(2), p266

19.) Ibid, p267

20.) Ibid, p267

21.) Ibid, p267

22.) Ibid, p277

23.) Gallagher et al (2001: McGraw Hill) Representative Government in Modern Europe, pp290-295

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