Just two days ago, another Western-hemisphere democracy took to the polls to elect a president. In case you missed it, Nicaragua re-elected Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Party (FSLN) to a third consecutive term.
Today is our turn. As Americans across the country head to the polling stations, there are only two choices for the next president of the United States: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. But hey, at least there are two! Since I arrived in Nicaragua earlier this year, Ortega’s victory in the elections had basically been assumed.
First, let’s look at the US. Why is it dominated by two political parties? For one thing, the electoral system in the United States severely limits the likelihood of the rise of a viable, electorally-competitive third party candidate. The US has a winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system in which runner-ups do not get representation. In contrast, a proportional representation system includes coalition-building among a plurality of political parties as we see in Germany, Ireland or Mexico, where a multiplicity of political parties is tenable and prevalent.
It can be tempting to oversimplify our understanding of how a democracy works and overlook the complexities and even varieties among democracies. While it’s not the only factor, the system matters. And not all systems are created alike. That’s why multiple political parties can compete in some democracies, but not in others. In the US, third party candidates can make the ballot every four years, but unless that party replaces or usurps the Democratic or Republican party, it won’t have a significant chance at the White House.
But while some are bemoaning the impossible odds of third party candidates and others are lamenting a choice between two unlikeable candidates, let’s all at least take a moment to appreciate the fact that there are still TWO legitimate political parties in the US.
So back to Nicaragua. In the lead-up to the election, I never encountered a single person who doubted Ortega’s chances of winning this year. This is despite the fact that his reelection required a rewritten Constitution that removed the two-term restriction on running for president and that he named his wife as his running mate (I promise this is not a House of Cards episode).
Ortega did not face a single viable competitor in the election after suppressing opposition parties over the summer. I will let others analyze the reasons for his assured victory, but let me simply lament the lack of electoral competition and the problems it brings. Transitions in power between political parties are vitally important in a healthy democracy for a number of reasons. Let’s take a look at three in particular.
First of all, without transitions in power between parties, there is less defense against imbalanced policies and legislation. Typically when a party in power produces controversial legislation, the opposing party can revise or repeal it in subsequent years when they assume control. As we know, a swing in an election between political parties is often treated as a “mandate” to enact exactly this kind of change. Even just the threat of a future repeal or the need for sufficient votes can lead legislators to seek bipartisan support through more moderate legislation. In contrast, there’s no need to “reach across the aisle” when there is no one on the other side.
The danger of a dominant party democracy goes beyond imbalanced legislation. A second issue with a lack of political change is the risk of higher levels of political corruption. Take South Africa, for example. Since the fall of Apartheid in the 1990’s, the African National Congress (ANC) has won every Presidential election. Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, spent $20 million in public money on his private residence, which included an amphitheater and swimming pool. In 2009, he had nearly 800 (!!!) charges of corruption dropped by the national prosecutor. Protests occasionally rise up to demand Zuma steps down, but the ANC continues to hold support of an overall majority of the country, and competing parties are left to celebrate even the minor victory of seeing ANC support dip below 60%. Without checks on power, members of a comfortable ruling political party have more leeway and less accountability: the perfect cocktail for corruption.
A third disadvantage of a dominant party political environment is a lack of political discourse. While plenty of airtime and print has been dedicated to the personal character of Clinton and Trump in the US election, there has still been a lot of lively debate about important political issues, ranging from healthcare to immigration to foreign policy. In contrast, there was not a single presidential debate in Nicaragua. Flashy billboards and generic slogans were sufficient for Ortega to support his candidacy in the run-up to election day. Where is the discourse over the social and economic problems the country is facing and the best approaches to combat them?
These are just three of the many pitfalls in a country where a dominant party remains in uncontested control. How are citizens meant to respond? If there isn’t a realistic possibility for desired political change, this dominant-party system becomes a form of repression against popular sovereignty. The very legitimacy of the democracy comes into question. Despite all the drama in the US elections this year, we haven’t gone so far as to question the legitimacy of our democracy.
Transitions of political power remain common within our two-party system. While a Clinton victory today would ensure at least a three-term reign for the Democratic party, this would be the first such streak since the Reagan-Bush Republican years ended in 1992. Individual political parties used to dominate the White House for long stretches at a time, but since 1968 the US has experienced a higher degree of electoral competition and turnover, accompanied by peaceful transitions of power. That is a good thing.
Yes, there are severe problems that arise when there are no alternations in political power: imbalanced legislation, less accountability for political corruption, and less political discourse. As bleak as this election season has looked in the US, let’s be thankful for at least this one fact: we still have two major political parties. And two parties are better than one.