Political Parties: Old Concepts and New Challenges

By Richard Gunther; José Ramón Montero et al. | Go to book overview

4 Electoral and Party Competition: Analytical Dimensions and Empirical Problems

Stefano Bartolini

The use of the term 'competition' in the titles of papers, the discussion of the concept itself, and its measurement have grown in the political science literature since the Second World War. The terms 'electoral' and 'party competition' are utilized either as loose references to the entire cycle of electoral, parliamentary, and governmental politics, to particular election campaigns, party platforms and statements, or—in the context of the formal modelling of party strategies and voting choices—within the narrow limits of assumptions about actors' motives, preferences, and information. As a result of the varied and extensive use of this term, the concept remains vague and ambiguous.

The most fundamental source of this lack of precision and consistency in most uses of this term is that too much is borrowed from the economic theory of competition. For several reasons, this borrowing is excessive if not unwarranted. First, the assumed fundamental analogy, similarity, or resemblance between economic and political competition is erroneous. Competition in politics is altered by the degree of collusion that is inherent in the achievement of the exclusive good of public authority, and this difference is not one of degree. Moreover, like economists, political scientists tend to view competition as a uni-dimensional phenomenon—as a single property of which there can be 'more' or 'less', and whose upper limit is a model of 'perfect' competition.

As I will argue in this chapter, the conditions of competition in politics are manifold; they do not co-vary; and their maximization does not point to or reach 'perfection'. This is particularly true when we assess the conditions that need to be met in order for competition to produce, as an unintended by-product, 'social value'. As we shall see, the parallel maximization of these conditions is impossible. This calls into question analytical approaches that fundamentally assume that 'competition' is a one-dimensional concept, and that use techniques which make far too many simplifying assumptions about the real world of politics.

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