A political party is a political organization subscribing to a certain ideology or formed around very special issues with the aim to participate in power, usually by participating in elections.
Origins of Political Parties
Political parties as we know them did not begin to develop until the late 1600s. The ancient Greeks, who were pioneers in developing democracy, had no organized political parties in the modern sense. The senate of the ancient Romans had two groups that represented people with different interests — the Patricians and the Plebeians. The Patricians represented noble families. The Plebeians represented the wealthy merchants and the middle class. Although these two groups often mingled, at times they voted as factions, or parties, on particular issues that were important to the groups they represented.
For many centuries after the fall of Rome (A.D. 476), the people of Europe had little voice in politics. Thus there were no true political parties - only factions that supported one noble family or another. Political parties developed as representative assemblies gained power.
Caribbean political parties first emerged in the Latin Caribbean. However, those parties were weak and governments were often run by militaries and personal dictators rather than by parties. Parties existed more in name than in substance. Effective mass political parties first emerged in the Anglo-Caribbean towards the second half of the twentieth century, mainly in the period between 1938 and 1960. Their formation generally followed the achievement of universal adult suffrage. The right to vote and the formation of parties were closely associated. Once the right to vote was won parties were formed for people to vote for.
Role of Political Parties in a Democracy
To preserve and protect individual rights and freedoms, a democratic people must work together to shape the government of their choosing. And the principal way of doing that is through political parties. Political parties serve six key functions in a political system. They (1) select candidates, (2) formulate public policies, (3) educate and mobilise voters, (4) facilitate governance and political stability, (5) recruit leaders, and (6) monitor the opposing party when it's in power.
1. Select Candidates. Political parties nominate candidates for political office. They narrow the field from a multitude of wannabes to a manageable few credible candidates. This simplifies the voters' role and brings a certain order to what could be a chaotic electoral process.
2. Formulate Public Policies. Each political party fights the election to achieve its objectives incorporated in their political manifesto. Soon after the election the majority party forming the government seeks to formulate its policies of administration on the basis of promises made in the election manifesto. These policies are made keeping in mind the interest of general public. The most important objective behind most policies remains the betterment of general condition. Other than this, they make policies on national security, internal law and order, etc. Besides, each party has its own ideology. It is assured that the majority party gets the mandate of the electorate to implement its own political programme.
3. Educate and Mobilise Voters. Political parties inform and energise their members. They help in the growth of the level of political consciousness of common citizens, who otherwise have no time to peruse and study issues of the state. They send out brochures, run media campaigns, knock on doors, and call voters on the phone. Individual candidates can do the same thing, but parties maintain elaborate networks of state and local offices that can be immediately pressed into the service of a candidate once the party nomination is secured. This provides the common people with an opportunity to analyze the pros and cons of various important issues. This process leads to organize and formulate public opinion on important issues. In addition, parties have fundraising apparatuses in place that simplify their candidates' ability to finance their campaigns.
4. Facilitate Governance and Political Stability. Parties also bring order to the process of policymaking. As party members, individual politicians have a ready-made group of allies that will usually cooperate with their efforts to pass and implement legislation. At the national level, this means that a rookie Congressperson arrives with a network of allies that will support his efforts and that he must support in turn. In addition, party alliances close the gap between the legislative and executive branches. While separated by the Constitution, the existence of political parties narrows the distance between the branches and helps them work together.
5. Recurit leaders. The essential function of any party is to recruit men of integrity, letters, action, leadership to its fold as members and prepare them for election in future. Because it is these members of party who propagate the party ideologies, discuss the burning issues and hold meetings and press conferences to mobilize public support. It is these leaders again who contest in the election and form government if elected to power. Such leaders being drawn from public life are expected to understand expectations of the common people and formulate public policies accordingly. Parties always get popularity and recognition though their leaders only.
6. Monitor the Opposing Party in Power. Parties also serve as critical watchdogs for the public. The adversarial relationship between the major parties ensures that the party out of power will keep a close eye on its opponent and notify the public of any wrongdoing or policy misstep. The concept of the loyal opposition is central to any democracy. It means that all sides in political debate – however deep their differences – share the fundamental democratic values of freedom of speech and faith, and equal protection under law. Parties that lose elections step into the role of opposition – confident that the political system will continue to protect their right to organize and speak out. In time, their party will have a chance to campaign again for its ideas, and the votes of the people.
Political parties are therefore indispensable for the working of modern democratic governments. In the absence of organized political parties one just cannot think of the working of representative government.
Caribbean Party Systems: Two-Party & Multi-Party Systems
The entire group of parties in a country forms the political party system. The party system reflects the pattern of relationships between individual parties in relation to each other. Party systems can be classified by different criteria. Most frequently it is the number of parties that are fighting for power that serves as the criteria for the description of a party system. In this way, one can differentiate one, two and multi-party systems.
One-party system. Cuba is the lone example of a one party system in the region. Only the Cuban Communist Party is legally recognised and only it has formed the governments of Cuba. Other parties exist but they are illegal.
Two-party systems. The Anglo-Caribbean has two-party systems. This does not mean that only two parties exist in these countries, only that only two tend to have a realistic chance of winning elections and usually governments alternate between two parties. The reason is thatFirst-to-the-post (FTP) election systems allocate seats on the basis of constituencies won, not votes received. Parties have to be large enough to win entire constituencies and at least a half of all constituencies to form the government. This discourages small parties and promotes systems where supporters mainly concentrate their support around two parties.
Multi-party systems. Some countries have proportional representational election systems and multi-party systems, that is, three or more political parties. Proportional Repreentation (PR) systems awards seats in the legislature according to the number of votes a party receives. Small parties can therefore win seats, even if a few, and many tend to get elected to legislatures.
Caribbean Political Parties
You can find a comprehensive list of political parties in the Caribbean in our Knowlegde Centre.