Pristine Purity: New Political Parties in Canada

Article excerpt

Introduction (1)

Success sells better than failure; hence new parties receive very little attention from political scientists as long as they remain marginal and fail to win seats in Parliament. Yet in the margins of the party system, they may maintain the pristine purity of political principles and ideas better than parties in Parliament, let alone parties in power. This is one reason why one might want to study new parties. However, there are other, perhaps more compelling reasons.

As traditional parties fragment in the era of "postmodern" politics, new parties have the potential to play a more significant role, in opposition or even in government. If established parties fail to integrate discontented groups--alternative or immigrant subcultures, for example--new parties may mobilize and socialize these groups. In trying to articulate latent interests and ideologies, new parties will show us the range of available political options in a system and throw fresh light on its political culture. Even if the new parties do not win power, their ideas may be borrowed by parties in government once those ideas have been tested in public debate and have gained some popular support. Finally, studying new parties can help us to understand the formation process and subsequent evolution of parties in general, and their relation to society. Too often, political scientists have neglected marginal political parties. Recently, Stephen Hanson and Jeffrey Kopstein pointed out that "seemingly marginal politicians and groups can quickly catalyze powerful institutional changes once the global environment changes," the most extreme examples being Lenin's Bolsheviks and Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party. (2)

This article will concentrate on the period after 1972, when registration of parties became standard practice in Canada, required for reimbursement under the Election Expenses Act. Between 1972 and 2006, 48 new parties were registered by Elections Canada. (3) Quite a few never tried their luck in federal elections--the Nude Garden Party being a striking example. Out of the 20 new parties that did, only two succeeded in winning any seats. Why did the others fail? And why did they try, anyway? Before providing an answer to these questions, I will put forward a tentative framework for the analysis of new parties--inspired by the work of pioneers in this area such as the American political scientists Stephen Fisher and Thomas Rochon and the Canadian Maurice Pinard. (4)

A Framework for Analysis

New parties do not emerge in a vacuum. Their founders may see themselves as autonomous actors with original ideas, but they are, of course, the product of a political system with its particular traditions and values, socioeconomic interests, and cleavages. As soon as a new party appears on the scene, it will be assigned a position in the system. Intellectuals, interest groups, and politicians from other parties will venture an opinion about it: (rarely) approving, (often) criticizing, or ridiculing the newcomer. In extreme cases, the new party may even be banned or repressed by the authorities. At any rate, the established parties and the media will contribute to the "political opportunity structure" that conditions, to a large extent, the development of the new party.

The notion of the "political opportunity structure," invented to explain social movements but later applied to (new) political parties, contains at least four different aspects: (5)

1. It refers to the electoral system and the wider institutional context: a federal or unitary state, a presidential or parliamentary regime, but also rules of party registration, party financing, and other formal requirements. As the American political scientists Arend Lijphart and Matthew Shugart have demonstrated, a single-member plurality system or "first-past-the-post" electoral system (as exists in Canada) offers few political opportunities to new parties, unless those parties cater to particular regional interests. …