A one-party state, single-party state, one-party system, or single-party system is a type of state in which one political party has the right to form the government, usually based on the existing constitution. All other parties are either outlawed or allowed to take only a limited and controlled participation in elections. Sometimes the term de facto one-party state is used to describe a dominant-party system that, unlike the one-party state, allows (at least nominally) democratic multiparty elections, but the existing practices or balance of political power effectively prevent the opposition from winning the elections.
A one-party system is a system in which a single political party has the right to form the government, usually based on the existing constitution, or where only one party has the exclusive control over political power.
One-party states explain themselves through various methods. Most often, proponents of a one-party state argue that the existence of separate parties runs counter to national unity. Others argue that the one party is the vanguard of the people, and therefore its right to rule cannot be legitimately questioned. The Soviet government argued that multiple parties represented the class struggle, which was absent in Soviet society, and so the Soviet Union only had one party, namely the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Some one-party states only outlaw opposition parties, while allowing allied parties to exist as part of a permanent coalition such as a popular front. However, these parties are largely or completely subservient to the ruling party and must accept the ruling party’s monopoly of power as a condition of their existence. Examples of this are the People’s Republic of China under the United Front, the National Front in former East Germany and the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland in North Korea. Others may allow non-party members to run for legislative seats, as was the case with Taiwan’s Tangwai movement in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the elections in the former Soviet Union.
Within their own countries, dominant parties ruling over one-party states are often referred to simply as the Party. For example, in reference to the Soviet Union, the Party meant the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; in reference to the pre-1991 Republic of Zambia, it referred to the United National Independence Party.
Most one-party states have been ruled by parties forming in one of the following three circumstances:
- an ideology of Marxism–Leninism and international solidarity (such as the Soviet Union for most of its existence)
- some type of nationalist or fascist ideology (such as Italy under Benito Mussolini)
- parties that came to power in the wake of independence from colonial rule. One-party systems often arise from decolonization because a single party gains an overwhelmingly dominant role in liberation or in independence struggles.
One-party states are usually considered to be authoritarian, to the extent that they are politically totalitarian. On the other hand, not all authoritarian or totalitarian states operate upon one-party rule. Some, especially amongst absolute monarchies and military dictatorships, have no need for a ruling party, and therefore make all political parties illegal.
The term “communist state” is often used in the West to apply to states in which the ruling party subscribes to a form of Marxism–Leninism. However, such states do not use that term themselves, seeing communism as a phase to develop after the full maturation of socialism, and instead often use the titles of “people’s republic”, “socialist republic”, or “democratic republic”. One peculiar example is Cuba. While the role of the Communist Party is enshrined in the constitution, no party is permitted to campaign or run candidates for election, including the Communists. Candidates are elected on an individual referendum basis without formal party involvement, though elected assemblies predominantly consist of members of the Communist Party alongside non-affiliated candidates.