The concept of the ‘party cartel’ first devised by Katz and Mair in their seminal 1995 article Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party has been one of the most influential pieces of work in the field of party politics. The novelty of this concept is built on the argument that there has been an evolutionary change in the relationship between parties, state and civil society, which in effect has created a party cartel. Accordingly, in Western democracies, as of recent times, there has been a greater tendency for a closer symbiosis between the three. Whereas traditionally, parties acted as brokers between civil society and the state, the emerging symbiosis between the three has created a cartel party in which there is a collusion between major parties for state resources. As a result, the party has become part of the state, and political competition is reduced to competition for state resources rather than alternative policies. Robert Dahl has called this an ‘irrational consensus’ due to the displacement of socioeconomic questions by technocratic concerns.
The party cartel concept has raised a number of important questions pertaining to the relationship between party politics and democracy. Questions ranging from the legitimacy of parties as a result this evolutionary change to the legitimacy of political decisions and the legitimacy of the democratic system itself. Recent research has indirectly addressed this phenomena by showing how dissenting Eurosceptic voices in Europe add a sense of legitimacy to the European project by diverging from the mainstream party cartel. The concept, however, raises even more interesting questions when applied to young transitioning democracies.
The common assumption in the democracy promotion literature is that the European integration of young democracies leads to the consolidation of democracy for the new members. This argument, however, is being questioned by recent literature by specifically asking whether under certain conditions European integration is likely to diminish the consolidation or the qualities of democracy. Among those questions is also the question of whether the process of European integration helps foment a party cartel in young democracies. If so, what is the implication of this for the consolidation of democracy?
When looking at the democratization of Central and Eastern Europe and their experience with pre and post-EU accession, certain patterns seem apparent. Firstly, those democracies with the most fragmented party systems prior to accession (such as Estonia, Slovenia, Poland) today stand as the most democratic in the region. While those with the least fragmented systems (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria) today stand as the least democratic. Additionally, the former group of cases entered the pre-accession period with highly Eurosceptic views while the latter group with less Eurosceptic or even Euroenthusiastic views. The empirical division provided above can of course be debated, but there does appear to be a correlation between Eurosceptic views and party system fragmentation prior to accession with post-accession democratic performance.
It is interesting in that regard to raise the question of whether policy convergence as affected by pre-accession demands which required candidate states to adopt the acquis prior to accession does help foment a party cartel. Systematic testing of this question is indeed needed in order to ascertain whether this negative consequence of EU accession does take place, but this is certainly something worth exploring as we began to question some of the unintended effects of membership on new democracies.
Dr. Eltion Meka is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of New York Tirana, Albania.