Dominant party systems and development programming


Review recent literature on dominant party political systems in developing countries, drawing lessons for development programming and the risks and challenges with such systems of political governance. Where available, include information on encouraging core state institutional reforms, enhancing accountability, and dealing with private sector development.


There is a lack of applied thinking or rigorous empirical investigation into how donors and the international community can work with dominant party systems to promote more responsive state-society relations, or other forms of development progress. Frequently cited examples of existing research are not based on recent, systematic comparative research and focus mainly on established democracies. The risks that dominant party systems pose, such as corroding lines of accountability, are illustrated primarily through narrative case studies. Some recent work on political settlements includes recommendations for how development programming should be adapted to fit with dominant party systems. This is at an early, primarily conceptual, stage and more in-depth empirical support is required.

A dominant party system refers to a category of parties or political organisations that have successively secured election victories and whose defeat is unlikely for the foreseeable future. Examples include: the right-wing Guomindang in Taiwan; the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa; the Social Democrats in Sweden; the Liberal Democrats in Japan; the Christian Democrats in Italy; and the Indian National Congress in India.

Key messages include the following:

  • There is empirical evidence to suggest that the exploitation of state resources is of central importance to dominant parties maintaining power.
  • Recent work on political settlements analysis suggests that adopting a piecemeal approach to reform, rather than trying to initiate sweeping top-down changes, can enable progress on development objectives.
  • While dominant party systems create political stability and can consolidate democratic institutions, they can also blur state-party lines, inhibit the development of effective opposition, accumulate power and disrupt lines of accountability.
  • One-party dominance has been identified as a common characteristic of a number of African countries that have recently experienced strong economic growth.
  • The presence of an autonomous meritocratic bureaucracy, alongside strong corporatist relations, seems to be an important determinant of economic performance in dominant party states.


Suggested citation

Laws, E. (2016). Dominant party systems and development programming (GSDRC K4D Report Number 4). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.