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  • South Africa’s emerging dominant-party regime
  • Hermann Giliomee (bio)

South Africa’s transition from racial authoritarianism toward inclusive democracy during the first half of the 1990s was managed by two dominant parties. These were the National Party (NP), which had first won power in 1948 and had become the dominant party under apartheid in the mid-1960s, and the African National Congress (ANC), the main movement in the black struggle for freedom. The first nonracial elections, held in April 1994, gave the ANC 62 percent of the vote and set the stage for a Government of National Unity (GNU) that was to rule for five years under an interim constitution. In 1996, however, the NP left the GNU and went into a stance of normal parliamentary opposition, leaving the ANC atop a dominant-party regime that figures to endure through the elections scheduled for 1999, 2004, and beyond.

The dominant-party system has long figured in classifications of party systems and forms of democratic rule. A recent study focusing on industrialized countries suggested three criteria for identifying a dominant-party system: electoral dominance for a prolonged and uninterrupted period, dominance in the formation of governments, and dominance in determining the public agenda. 1 In countries such as Japan, Italy, Israel, and Sweden, a long period of dominant-party rule proved compatible with free electoral competition and the protection of civil liberties. Among developing countries, however, only India has so far succeeded in combining a long period of dominant party rule with liberal democracy.

In the developing world over the past 25 years, three dominant parties besides the ANC have attracted particular attention as they attempted either to intensify their hold on society or to introduce greater [End Page 128] democratization. These are the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico, the United Malays’ National Organization (UMNO) in Malaysia, and the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan. Most often, a dominant party’s embrace of democracy can be described as awkward at best. While not massively repressive or wholly unaccountable, such a party usually displays less willingness to disperse power, more readiness to question the very legitimacy of opposition, and a stronger tendency to abuse state patronage than does a ruling party in a system where the reins of government change hands periodically. It is the fear of losing elections, more than institutional or legal safeguards like the separation of powers or bills of rights, that keeps officials honest and causes them to act in some rough way as agents of the electorate.

Dominant-party regimes in developing countries usually fall short on several key measures of liberal democracy. Such regimes often feature relatively unconstrained executives, minorities that find it hard to advocate their own interests effectively, opposition groups that the government brands as less than fully loyal, less effective protection of rights, more corruption, and—by definition—little or no prospect of any election-induced turnover in government. 2

In the industrializing world as in the industrialized world, dominant parties are rare. The ANC and its counterparts in Malaysia, Mexico, and Taiwan all sprang from a background of revolution (or mass migration in the case of Taiwan), decolonization, and liberation. All of them quickly ran up against the constraints of the prevailing capitalist system and class structure. In a move that helped them survive, they all staked a strong claim to represent the new nation (or its dominant racial or ethnic group) before the founding election was held. From this strategic position, each could claim to be the sole credible agent of the nation.

From such a point, there are two possible roads to liberal democracy and a competitive party system. The first has been taken by Taiwan, which experienced the rise of a middle class as the by-product of broad-based social and economic development occurring in the absence of any strong corporatist structures. The other is represented by Mexico, where the dominant-party system was born out of bargaining between business and organized labor under an economy based on import substitution. In recent years, the global economy has put enormous strain on the corporatist consensus that underlies the PRI’s power, and the party may well lose its position...

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pp. 128-142
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