In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Party Systems in East and Southeast Asia

  • Introduction
  • Comparative Overviews
  • Party Systems and the State
  • Party Systems and Political Regimes
  • Party Systems and Governance

Political Science Political Party Systems in East and Southeast Asia
Olli Hellmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0313


This article reviews academic work on party systems—defined as the patterns of interactions between political parties—in East and Southeast Asia (hereafter “East Asia”). Before drawing a “map” of the relevant literature, it is important to acknowledge the political and cultural diversity of the region. Not only is East Asia characterized by a multiplicity of political systems, ranging from totalitarian regimes to consolidated democracies, but scholars are, in addition, faced with linguistic heterogeneity, which creates incentives to specialize in individual countries rather than theoretical themes. This diversity is clearly reflected in the study of party systems. First, party systems differ significantly between democratic and nondemocratic political systems. What is particularly striking is that parties in the democracies of East Asia are generally only weakly institutionalized. In contrast, regime parties in the region’s autocratic political systems tend to command effective and extensive organizations—a diagnosis that does not just apply to the surviving communist regimes, but also to the region’s “electoral authoritarian” regimes. Second, much of the scholarship on party systems in East Asia takes the form of single-country case studies. While rich in empirical detail, these studies rarely engage in theoretical debates on party systems and thus they do not attract much of a readership beyond regional studies experts. This annotated bibliography aims to address this issue. By organizing academic work on East Asian party systems into a theory-guided framework, the bibliography gives readers an overview of how existing studies may contribute to the general literature on party politics—even though these studies themselves may not make their contribution explicit. Specifically, the bibliography is structured along four key theoretical questions: (1) How can we account for differences in the development of party systems? (2) How do party systems affect the consolidation of (democratic and autocratic) political regimes? (3) How do party systems relate to the state? (4) What is the effect of party systems on the quality of governance? The bibliography covers different conceptual dimensions of party system development, including fragmentation (how many relevant parties are there?), party-voter linkages (how are political parties rooted in the electorate?), party system institutionalization (how stable are patterns of interparty competition?), and party institutionalization (how routinized are party internal processes?).

Comparative Overviews

Even though scholarship on East Asian party systems tends to be based on single-country case studies, a number of notable comparative studies apply general conceptual frameworks to identify differences and similarities in party system characteristics. In particular, scholars have employed measurements of party system institutionalization to develop comparative analyses of party politics in democratic regimes. The findings of these studies are consistent: party systems in East Asia’s democracies are—with the exception of Taiwan and, to some extent, Japan—only weakly institutionalized. Political parties are not strongly rooted in the electorate and, because they lack formally enforced procedures, can easily become “hijacked” by ambitious politicians (Croissant and Völkel 2012 and Stockton 2001 provide an overview of both East Asia and Southeast Asia; Hellmann 2017 focuses on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; and Hicken and Riedl 2018 and Inoguchi and Blondel 2012 compare East Asia to Latin America and Western Europe, respectively.). In contrast, the level of party institutionalization is considerably higher in East Asia’s nondemocratic regimes. In particular, the surviving communist regimes (China, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos) command extensive party organizations that reach into all aspects of political and social life. Party institutionalization is somewhat weaker in the region’s hybrid regimes—yet, at least in Singapore and Cambodia, the respective regime party has been found to play a crucial role in mobilizing voters in less-than-democratic elections. Unfortunately, we lack studies that would compare East Asian dictatorships through conceptual frameworks from the party system literature. However, a number of accessible analyses are available to give readers a basic understanding of why these single- or dominant-party regimes persist. Arugay and Sinpeng 2018 and Bertrand 2013 discuss autocratic regime resilience in Southeast Asia, while Dimitrov 2013 investigates why Asia’s communist regimes succeeded in surviving the end of the Cold War.

  • Arugay, Aries A., and Aim Sinpeng. “Varieties of Authoritarianism and the Limits of Democracy in Southeast Asia.” In Contemporary Southeast Asia: The Politics of Change, Contestation, and Adaptation. Edited by Alice D. Ba and Mark Beeson, 91–110. London: Palgrave, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-59621-5_6

    An easily understandable overview of democratization in Southeast Asia. Shows how some political systems have moved toward multiparty competition (e.g., Philippines, Indonesia), while others continue to be dominated by a single party (e.g., Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia).

  • Bertrand, Jacques. Political Change in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139047135

    A comprehensive and highly readable introduction to democratization and autocratic regime resilience in Southeast Asia. Does not explicitly discuss party systems but provides essential background knowledge on historical and social dynamics.

  • Croissant, Aurel, and Philip Völkel. “Party System Types and Party System Institutionalization: Comparing New Democracies in East and Southeast Asia.” Party Politics 18.2 (2012): 235–265.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354068810380096

    Offers a quantitative overview of party system institutionalization in the democratic regimes of Northeast and Southeast Asia. Includes an analytical element that discusses possible explanations for differences in party system institutionalization as well as implications for democratic consolidation.

  • Dimitrov, Martin K., ed. Why Communism Did Not Collapse: Understanding Authoritarian Regime Resilience in Asia and Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    An edited volume that explores why East Asia’s communist single-party regimes succeeded in surviving the collapse of the Soviet Union. Analyses focus not only on party-directed organizational and institutional reform, but also on other factors (e.g., economic performance, ideological adaptation).

  • Hellmann, Olli. “The Development of Party Systems.” In Routledge Handbook of Democratization in East Asia. Edited by Tun-jen Cheng and Yun-han Chu, 175–192. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    Compares party systems in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan on three separate dimensions: fragmentation, institutionalization, and party-voter linkages. Offers a theory-informed explanation for why problems of party system development persist.

  • Hicken, Allen, and Rachel Beatty Riedl. “From the Outside Looking In: Latin American Parties in Comparative Perspective.” In Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse. Edited by Scott Mainwaring, 426–440. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    Develops a unique cross-regional analysis that compares party systems in East Asia with party systems in Africa and Latin America. Focuses on party system institutionalization in particular.

  • Inoguchi, Takashi, and Jean Blondel, eds. Political Parties and Democracy: Contemporary Western Europe and Asia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    Brings together leading experts on party politics in Europe and East Asia. Highlights the differences in political party development across the two regions.

  • Stockton, Hans. “Political Parties, Party Systems, and Democracy in East Asia: Lessons from Latin America.” Comparative Political Studies 34.1 (2001): 94–119.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414001034001004

    The first analysis to apply measurements of party system institutionalization, which were originally developed in the context of Latin American politics, to the democratic regimes in East Asia. Given that party system institutionalization has changed very little over the years (at least in East Asia), the paper continues to provide an insightful discussion.

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