In Germany the SPD occupy a centre-left position, the Greens and the CDU occupy centre-right, while the FDP sit to the right again. Given that the Greens and the CDU would be unlikely to ever go into government together, given their radically differing social platforms, the functional limitations of the system are easily exposed. Similarly, in France, the left-right divide is clear to see. The centre-left, centred on the French Socialist Party, competes with a centre-right grouping led by the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire).
In both countries, despite stiff electoral competition, a consensus exists for the maintenance of some measure of welfare state and though the Socialists in France are Europe’s most left-wing leading party, the scale in both countries is merely comparative. As we will see when investigating non-European systems, the same objective standards do not apply. Even within a European context, the left-right political cleavage isn’t necessarily a significant factor in party support. In the Republic of Ireland, concepts of right and left have a far lower effect on party identification. The two main parties, Fianna Fi??
il and Fine Gael are mainly populist parties, occupying similar but variable positions on the political spectrum. The Irish political system is characterised by a very weak political left, the weakest in Europe, as the Irish Labour Party rarely commands more than 10% of the vote share. The ruling parties have traditionally been large government parties, exemplified by the substantial number of semi-state companies in the private market. Recently, the parties have taken a shift to the right, while the Fianna Fi?? il-Progressive Democrats coalition has helped give the larger party a pro-small business, pro-market image.
As there exists a strong consensus on base issues, the left-right spectrum is really quite redundant in the Irish context, useful only in distinguishing the major parties from splinter parties. The US has a different story but (broadly) similar results. The nature of the institutional and electoral system in America is that two parties are clearly dominant throughout the country. Nigel Bowles asserts that “the American party system, except for that in Malta, [is] the purest two-party system in the world. ” He further states that “both Republicans and Democrats are parties of exceptional ideological breadth compared to European parties.
” The reasons for this are plenty, but the most important for the purpose of this essay is the fact two parties are so dominant. Unlike in France, for instance, where a tradition has always existed of extreme politics, the US political system has always maintained a culture of consensus. There’s less scope for polarisation; radical factions are less likely to draw party politics from the centre, as the anti-democratic, anti-capitalist communists and fascists in France have managed to do in the past. Voting behaviour is also more candidate-oriented than party-oriented.
All this adds up to quite a conservative (as opposed to radical) political culture, in which parties find more to identify with each other than to differ. Japan, on the other hand, lies somewhere between the Irish case and the American. From 1955 to 1993, Japan was governed by without interruption by the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party, a highly factional but nonetheless popular party. The left had reorganised well after post-World War Two politics resumed, but due to a lack of cohesiveness and the huge economic success of the LDP years, they were never able to mount a serious challenge.
That changed in the early 90s as the LDP became unable to form single majority governments and was forced first into coalition-building and then into opposition as the first Socialist prime minister (from the Japanese Socialist Party) came to power in 1994. It seemed then that the country was geared for a transition to a standard bi-polar political system but in 1998 the JSP reformed as the Social Democratic Party and saw a huge fall-off in support.
The new liberal party, the Democratic Party, and the Japanese Communist Party made gains at their expense. The new centrist/centre-right axis is the dominant force in Japanese politics today. The right-left spectrum is useful here, however, as there are radical parties (the Communists) that can command significant electoral support meaning a wide ideological range is represented by parties, rather than the pre-1993 system which saw one party encompass wide-ranging ideologies.