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Open Access Publications from the University of California



This paper assesses the relationship between the nature of political parties and varieties of democracy. It is argued that the changing role of parties can be attributed to an ideational transformation by which parties have gradually come to be seen as necessary and desirable institutions for democracy, and that this has contributed to a changing conception of parties from voluntary private associations towards the political party as a ‘public utility’, i.e. the party as an essential public good for democracy. Recent cases of democratization, where parties were attributed a markedly privileged position within the democratic institutional framework, provide the most unequivocal testimony of such a conception of the relationship between parties and democracy. At the same time, however, fundamental disagreements persist about the meaning of democracy and the actual role of political parties within it. Regrettably, however, the literatures on parties and democratic theory have developed to a large degree in mutual isolation. This paper provides a preliminary attempt to move beyond the consensus which exists on the surface that modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties by considering varieties of party and different conceptions of democracy.

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