Bipartisanship – What it is, definition and concept

The bipartisanship is a system of political parties that configures the Government of a territory. This is present when the party system favors the emergence of two political forces (Government and opposition), usually the most voted in the country. This, excluding third parties in the distribution of power.

The party system of a country shows us how many parties there are in the political sphere, what they are, their size and their real power. That said, bipartisanship is that system in which two political parties predominantly operate. There may be more, but they will not condition, or will do so to a lesser extent, political life.

Bipartisanship is typical of democratic systems, but with majority electoral systems. It can also occur in proportional electoral systems, as happened in Spain until 2015.

Types of bipartisanship

Within the two-party system, we find two different types:

  • Perfect bipartisanship: This type of bipartisanship excludes third parties from the political sphere. Only the first two obtain representation and alternately take turns in power. In the case of any other party, its weight is totally residual, lacking real power. Example: United States.
  • Imperfect bipartisanship: On the other hand, imperfect bipartisanship supposes that there are two large parties that alternate in the Government, but allows another that can be decisive. This or these third parties will never reach power, but they have enough electoral weight to condition some decisions and can even be decisive in shaping the government. Example: Spain (1989 – 2015).

Characteristics of bipartisanship

Bipartisanship as a party system has the following defining characteristics:

  • It happens in competitive electoral systems, that is, it occurs in democratic systems where electoral competition is real.
  • There are two predominant parties.
  • There may be third parties with variable real power.
  • The two predominant parties compete for the Government through an absolute majority.
  • The winning party governs alone, it does not need coalitions, since it has acquired an absolute majority. In case of being slightly supported, it is not enough for someone from this third party to form part of the Government.
  • The other major party, which has lost the elections, carries out the opposition work, also practically alone.
  • There is alternation in power every one or two legislatures generally.
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What does bipartisanship depend on?

Broadly speaking, we can say that bipartisanship depends on three factors: the electoral system, the political offer and the voters themselves.

If a country’s electoral system is majority, it generally sets up a bipartisan party system. This electoral system is characterized by channeling all the votes into the establishment of seats for the largest parties. It may also be the case in which a proportional system yields results of majority systems, such as the D’Hondt formula, which, although proportional, favors the most voted.

It also depends on the political offer. If a country at the national level only has two large parties and some regionalists, the voter is forced to vote preferentially for one of the two large parties. However, if we have two or three national parties of each ideology, the vote will be distributed to a greater extent. The media and the cost of party financing are also entry barriers for new political forces.

Finally, the population itself also influences. It depends on the electoral culture that predominates among the voters. Also how conservative they are; what they have traditionally voted for; or whether they choose to split the power of their bloc, since the division of the vote may produce a lower representation of seats in that ideological bloc.

Ideologies in bipartisanship

As is known, the bipartisanship consists mainly of two large parties.

These are antagonists, that is, they have a contrary ideology that, at the same time, is the reason for their existence. One party wants to monopolize what the other ideologically cannot. For this reason, they often give up part of their programs if they can capture new voting niches.

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This translates into the existence of two great ideologies, what we traditionally know by right and left. Although the population identifies ideologically more with one of the two parties, they tend to alternate in power due to the existence of crises, almost always economic.

Advantages and disadvantages of bipartisanship

Bipartisanship has a series of advantages and disadvantages, like any party system:


  • Greater governance and less blockage: The existence of two predominant parties favors governability and the situations of blockade are reduced.
  • Increased stability: If there are fewer parties, the main one will be more stable and it is more difficult to overthrow it and form a new Government.


  • Lower representation: The population is more plural than the existence of two parties. So many people will not be fully represented by them, which can translate into abstention.
  • Exclusion of minorities: The system tends to exclude minorities from the government agenda, since their votes are not usually necessary to establish a government.

Examples of bipartisanship

To better understand what bipartisanship means in practice, let’s look at the examples of Spain and the United States.

Bipartisanship in Spain

Spain has a proportional electoral system, but whose formula generates majority effects, which helps to form large political conglomerates. During the transition, and from 1989 to 2015, the party system was an imperfect bipartisanship.

During this last period, the two main parties alternated: PSOE and PP. The rest of the parties that made up the Parliament were national with very little weight or regional. It is called imperfect because, to govern, the winning party had to obtain the support of the smallest. Although it always ruled the most voted list.

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In 2000, the elected president was the popular José María Aznar, with the support of Convergencia y Unió and Coalición Canaria, two regionalist parties. In 2008, on the other hand, the socialist Zapatero was inaugurated as president, with the abstention of most of the minor opposition parties.

Bipartisanship in the United States

In the United States, bipartisanship is generated largely by its electoral system, which is purely majority. It consists in that the force that wins in a State, even by one vote, takes all the representatives of the territory. This makes it impossible for third parties to enter Congress. That is why it is called perfect bipartisanship.

Due to this form of election, the most contested states are those that present the key to winning the presidency. On the other hand, the States most identified with one of the parties are not usually susceptible to many campaign events, since expanding the majority does not provide any extra advantage.

The main parties are the Democrat and the Republican. Both usually last in the presidency between one and two legislatures. This is because, due to the existence of economic and social crises, the population chooses to change the party.

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