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In the world as we know it, it seems like political power is almost always consolidated into a single axis (Lancasters vs Yorks, Republicans vs Democrats, Conservative vs Labour, etc). This, in my opinion, is boring.

So how complicated could a legislature legitimately be? Obviously, there could not be a single party for every citizen or no one would be elected, but where could the line be drawn? Would (number chosen randomly) fifty different political parties all vying for control strain credulity for any reason? How long could that complicated legislature last before collapsing and tending toward two parties?

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    $\begingroup$ Seems like an American question. Take a look at proportional representation and coalition govt's if you want some examples of this in the current world..Australia is an interesting case. Ultimately...the bureaucracy can expand for expansions sake and you'll be surprised how big it can get. I've seen ballots for mayoral candidates where the ballot was over a meter long to get all the candidates names on it. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 12 '14 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ Yes the English/US systems have an instinctive need to define 2 broad parties and cram all issues into them. Other parliamentary nations don't, and often have weak executives due to shifting alliances with the little parties. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 13 '14 at 0:10
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    $\begingroup$ You could forbid parties altogether... and have 10,000 seats filled by random selection, with representation guaranteed for every language, religion, cultural background, philosophical position... $\endgroup$ – Dronz Nov 13 '14 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat Dutch parliament has like 25 parties, typical coalitions are made up of the 2-3 largest of those (which have been pretty stable for the last several decades, though shifting). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 13 '14 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ Another way to have a very complicated government -- have a complex way of selecting members. The Doge of Venice was elected by a very complex procedure: 30 members of the Council were chosen, then 9 of them were randomly selected; the 9 appointed a group of 40; 12 of the 40 were randomly selected; the 12 appointed a group of 25...(and so on for a while)...then the 41 elected the Doge, requiring a minimum of 25/41 votes in favor. $\endgroup$ – Joe Nov 13 '14 at 21:14
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It can be pretty complicated actually. The United States only have 2 large parties and it's the same in many countries with a Westminster system. We tend to have a first past the post system where the winner is the one with the most votes, even if it's just 25% of the votes. The name come from the horses race where the leading horse wins no matter how far away the others are behind.

This means that smaller parties have almost no chances to get elected in a single electoral district (or call it as you wish). In Canada, I think we have at least 11 parties in a particular district and most get almost no vote. That is why the legislatures are made mostly of two parties.

On the other hand, countries like Denmark, Sweden, Israel and many others, have a lot of parties elected. This is because they use a proportional system. Basically, each party is attributed a percentage of seats equal the percentage of votes. Most countries requires the parties to have a minimum percentage of the national vote to enter parliament. I think it's 4% in Sweden. Otherwise the seats are redistributed to the remaining parties.

Does the Knesset have enough parties for you ?

in this system, the Green party could get elected with 4% of the votes = 4% of the seats. In a first past the post system, you usually need around 10% of the national vote to get at least 1 seat. It is possible to get elected with less support but it's really rare. The system really distort the votes to the point it could be qualified as non democratic by some.

How does it work with so many parties?

They form coalitions. In order to share the executive powers of the legislature, the parties of the coalition accept to make concessions temporarily to work with the others in order to keep the coalition alive. They can go as far as giving important ministry to the smaller partners of the coalition.

If it breaks, it's possible to form another one but if they can't, the parliament could be dissolved. It is possible to function without a coalition in a minority government but they usually don't last for very long. In Canada, the parties are required to vote on the annual budget. if the vote doesn't pass, it's election time. At any time, the parties can ask for a Vote of Confidence to take place. If the parliament doesn't have confidence in the executive (party with the most seats), it's election time. There is usually someone with the power to dissolve the parliament but it's a power that is rarely used. In Canada this power is in the hands of the Governor General and the Lieutenant governor in the provinces.

Now, trying to answer the question proper: each party need to have something different from the others. They need to be able to make the population understand why they deserve to be in the parliament. With over 50 parties, the main problem is how they got elected in the first place. The state would need to cover a very larger area and population.

They would obviously have general parties : right, centre, left, fascist and communist. But they would also have regional parties. From experience I can tell that regional parties are not really useful in a federal parliament but they are there anyway. In a galactic government, they might chose to divide the systems by regions or races to avoid mixing the local affairs with the more general matters of the galactic federation. It becomes impossible to have so many parties, so many people at the same place.

This is another important concept of modern democracies: it's not a direct democracy like it used to be in Athens. One person is elected to represent thousand or millions of people. Having so many people only make sense in China but it's not a democracy. Not yet...

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer...as an extention, the FPTP system in Canada results in a good amount of frustration and the proportional representation is often thought as of as ideal in comparison..I guess not unlike a republican living in NewYork or a Texan democrat...your voice will never be heard. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 12 '14 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ how to get many parties? religion. Just taking competing Christian groups, you can get dozens of parties. And the Netherlands for a long time had 2 communist parties, one based on Stalinist lines, the other Maoist lines. The Stalinists lost their monetary support from the USSR when that collapsed and merged with the greens, effectively making a new green-Stalinist party. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 13 '14 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ In Germany, we once had the German Communist Party, the Communist Party of Germany, the Communist Party of Germany - Marxist-Leninist Faction and the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany. Let's just say, my parents have a whole different view of the stadium scene from "Life of Brian" than I do, because they lived that scene every single day during lunch on campus :-D $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag Nov 13 '14 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't count them, but if you ignore the Grand coalition that parties have to group up in, I think the European Parliament has far over 50 parties. Parties with corresponding ideals form coalitions, but you can be pretty sure they all have differences also. $\endgroup$ – Dorus Nov 13 '14 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @oldcat - yes, it does result in 'pandering to minorities' as it's referred too. In the US system, 90% of all votes are already decided on partisan lines (the other 10% are laughed at for being undecided) long before a candidate is even registered and unless you live in one of the rare swing states, your vote is pretty meaningless. Most corporations can simply finance both parties and get what they want regardless of what is voted. There is flaws in both, atleast in proportional representation your vote matters (to some extent) regardless of your location $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 13 '14 at 18:17
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About how many axis, it is possible to have more than one. In Spain there is a left-right axis, but also a centralist-nationalist axis. In Belgium there is a Flemish-Wallon axis. In Quebec there is a canadien-independentist axis. In some other places there is a Christian-Muslim or Christian-Atheist axis.

You can have a party in any of the places defined by a large number of axis. It just happens than some places are more comfortable than others (e.g. a christian-gay place will have few voters, while an atheist-gay and a christian-antigay parties will have much more, same for a communist-christian place or a rightwing-highsocialexpenses place).

Also, there are plenty of different voting systems that allow for more or less variation. The first-past-the-post system in uninominal districts yield the lowest number of parties, while a pure proportional system in districts with high numbers of seats yields the largest.

Now, an (imaginary) example. Let's set a country composed of provinces of different origin, much like Switzerland, with different religions too (let's say two) and half-integrated in a bigger entity like UK in the EU.

We can have there the following parties in the country of Quux:

Nation-wide:

  • Quux popular party
  • Quux democrat-christian party
  • Quux socialdemocrat party
  • Quux socialist party
  • Quux communist party
  • Quux green party

Christian zone:

  • Quux christian-democratic party
  • Quux christian-socialist party (small)
  • Quux God's party (small)
  • Quux green party

Foo provinces:

  • Fooist popular party (small)
  • Fooist democrat-christian party
  • Fooist socialdemocrat party
  • Fooist socialist party (small)
  • Fooist communist party (small)
  • Fooist green party (small)
  • Foo's Independence party

Bar provinces:

  • Barist popular party (small)
  • Barist democrat-christian party
  • Barist socialdemocrat party
  • Barist socialist party (small)
  • Barist communist party (small)
  • Barist green party (small)
  • Bar's Independence party

Muslim zone, Baz provinces:

  • Quux muslim-democratic party
  • Quux muslim-socialist party (small)
  • Quux sharia party (small)
  • Bazist popular party (small)
  • Bazist democrat-muslim party
  • Bazist socialdemocrat party
  • Bazist socialist party (small)
  • Bazist communist party (small)
  • Bazist green party (small)
  • Baz's Independence party
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the programming documentation-inspired names. I may actually use the "Quux Socialist" and "Bazist Popular" party names. $\endgroup$ – ilinamorato Nov 13 '14 at 15:33
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While direct representation would get you a lot of political "parties", you would probably want to focus on a legislature made of representatives of every area of life. If each major trade organisation, aristocratic family (see the House of Lords...), Learning stage (primaries, secondaries, college, university) has a single member, plus those directly elected, plus overseers like the Speaker and whips; you'd get a lot of complexity. Add one or more extra houses to oversee the legislative process, and it could be very, very complex indeed. You can make the legislature especially complex by having extra people whose job is to promote or enforce union between political parties in the event of a hung parliament and fill a coalition with independent ministers.

Our laws in Britain are (roughly), put forth by ministers, worked and voted on by the House of Commons, undergo vetting and amendment by the House of Lords, voted and amended again by the Commons, all while party Whips tell ministers how the party would like them to vote, often in conflict with their coalition "partners". Once something goes through the Lords, it is made law. For the military our Queen can, in theory, have another look before she gives the nod, and veto any military action.

A parliament can get even more complex, with double checks, extra houses (as mentioned), additional voting requirements, more elements vying for power, vetoes, decision deadlines (both the UK and the US have the concept of the filibuster) and the like.

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Although parties denote groups of rough agreement, in practice they are not so monolithic. Very few votes go straight along party lines, and on different topics it's not terribly difficult to predict who will cross the aisle. Some of these factions are long-lasting enough to be given names: gang of 14, tea party, blue dogs, hawks, etc.

Some fictional political systems that might encourage more parties:

  • A multi-state government, not divided geographically, but instead you are subject to the laws of only the party you individually vote for.
  • A division of powers based on topic. For example, separate legislatures for diplomacy, war, abortion, taxation, education, crime, immigration, etc.
  • A legislature where instead of winner takes all, any laws must be passed by a majority of each party.

Obviously, these all would have their own problems, but they would make an interesting thought experiment.

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    $\begingroup$ That last is probably too much like Polands old Liberum Veto, where one guy could hold up anything. Even in a 2 party state this is a recipe for permanent deadlock, but if you have a rump party with one or two seats it become impossible to manage. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 13 '14 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ Hence my comment about having their own set of problems. Deadlock isn't always a bad thing. Most of our worst laws are passed on party line votes. $\endgroup$ – Karl Bielefeldt Nov 13 '14 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ The first bullet reminds me of Kevin O'Donnell's ORA:CLE, in which (as I read it) the parties' political role often takes a back seat to their functions as service providers; most people pick and choose services (power, trash collection, news …) from several different parties. $\endgroup$ – Anton Sherwood Jun 29 '16 at 7:35
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Here is an extreme version of Vincent's answer. Bring in random ballot!

Let's give your legislator a large number of seats, let's say 1000 (it being large is important). Now, everyone votes for who they want to be a legislator. Now 1000 random ballots are drawn, and those are the legislators for this term!

This is, on average and in the long run, perfectly proportional. This means that basically every view point that's held by at least 1% of the population will likely be included.

In the extreme, you can let people vote for anyone. This means you could have everyone vote for themselves, in which case, everyone can have their own political party! If you want to put some checks in place, you could do things like say you need 300 signatures to run (which exceeds Dunbar's number), or make another legislature that is set up in a different way to that has some ability to limit the random legislature.

Random ballot has the interesting property that it doesn't become denominated by career politicians (you can still be a successful career politician, its just that they won't have 100% of the power), theoretically. If 10% vote for a farmer, even though each individual farmer is not very likely to get in (since they focused on farming instead of politics), 10% of the legislature will be farmers.

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As you think about options, keep in mind that the legislature's complexity will be deeply affected by the geographic(/-spatial?) dispersion and infrastructure of your society - especially communications infrastructure. If you mean to have elected legislators (which I read as an implication of your question), a highly literate populace with transparent access to information about the candidates and issues is more likely to support a complex multi-party system than a mostly non-literate populace, or a society with a censored or nonexistent press.

Other possibilities: Maybe your legislators are hereditary positions, in which case family interests would play a greater consideration than the average citizen's. Maybe legislators are appointed by a central authority (humanoid, or a computer/divination tool), based on what will make the populace feel represented while not actually getting to choose for themselves.

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In Ken MacLeod's novel Dark Light, each neighborhood randomly elects someone to a low-level council, which in turn randomly elects one of its members to a higher-level council ... I don't remember how many levels. A character says:

Drawing lots is fair, even if it sometimes throws up a freak result. With elections you're actually building the minority problem right in at every level, and lots more with it – parties, money, fame, graft, just for starters. What chance would that leave ordinary people, what chance would we have of being heard or of making a difference? Elections are completely undemocratic, they're downright antidemocratic. Everybody knows that!

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legislature can be as complex as the number of ballets a person needs to fill in. If there are more "houses to fill" number of parties would increase but not always.

But the best answer is Preferential voting system

if there are 3 parties that support important proposition A and one party that opposes it. Voters will release that in the "Winner takes all system" where votes are lost in the system it is illogical to have candidates for all three parties as that would play in the hands of opposing party. More on this in by CGP Grey

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