There are two main categories of candidates who compete in an election. There are those who are the pick of political parties. Hopefully, the party would have had a selection process that follows some transparent procedure as outlined in its constitution. The political party candidate would be expected to have agreed to the ideas and general objectives and approach to governance of the party. This candidate is expected to abide by the rules and policies of the party which would have been articulated before. In fact, in a political party worth its name, there would have been constant discussion and analysis of positon papers inviting colleagues to have their say as they work through the best policies for the country.
Thus the political party candidate, as part of a team of persons who have a cohesive platform of ideas, would be expected to promote this platform in the campaign preceding the election. Should the party win, she would be clear as to the priorities and policies to be implemented in collaboration with party colleagues and others in the legislature.
Significantly also, the candidate representing a political party would have the advantage of benefitting from an established party, its various identifying symbols, and its organizational acumen and so on. This candidate would also benefit from the party’s financial resources in carrying out its campaigning and other activities and the support and backing of the party leader and his fellow colleagues all seeking to be elected. These are significant resources that are usually available to the political party candidate.
On the other hand, the independent candidate is the so-called nonpartisan politician who does not want to or is not able to be affiliated to any political party. In many instances, the independent candidate has a different view of what is urgent and important for the society from those of the main political parties.
There are instances where an independent candidate may be associated with a political party, perhaps as former members of it, or else have views that align with it, but choose not to stand in its name, or are unable to do so because the party in question has selected another candidate. Others may belong to or support a political party’s ideas, but believe they should not formally represent it as they do not want to be subjected to that party’s rules. They instead desire to have the autonomy to form alliances as needed to achieve important objectives.
Ironically, in attempting to win and hold public office, sometimes independents choose to form a party or alliance with other independents and as one political scientist explains, even where the word "independent" is used, such alliances have much in common with a political party.
Sometimes independent candidates underestimate the challenge of going it alone. It is a major financial undertaking made even more-so as it is usually more difficult to find sponsors. Those who contribute money to political organizations usually favour giving to political parties, not single individuals. The independent candidate might have to depend significantly on personal resources to fund his campaign.
The independent candidate must also take on the challenging task of putting together an effective campaign. This can also be a daunting task and to be successful the candidate must gain as much help as possible.
The independent candidate must also have a set of policies to take to the public and must be convincing enough to have the attention of the voters. Critically, this candidate must have the ability to work with as many members of the legislature if she is to get anything achieved, should she win her seat.
Independent candidates do add much to the political process. Voters have more choices and more policy platforms from which to choose. For those who are not attracted to any of the parties, they might see their political salvation in an independent candidate.
There is a view that one person, one vote, leads to the winner taking all, an entrenchment of a two party system and the discouragement of third parties and ‘ independent’ candidates. This perspective has long been influenced by the work of political sociologist Duverger whose writings on political parties in the 1950’s and 1960’s suggested that ‘ plurality’ electoral systems discourages the formation and success of smaller parties, while reinforcing the presence and success of a two-party system.
In fact, Duverger argued that simple-majority single-ballot system favours, even possibly, encourages, the two-party system. It does so, the argument goes, because the voter, keen on making his vote have an impact on the election outcome, has little incentive for voting for a third party or an independent candidate deemed as having little chance of success. Because the First- Past-the- Post system gives third parties and independent candidates little chance of winning seats, voters will avoid supporting them for fear of wasting their votes on what they see as ‘sure losers’. Because of this, third parties and independent candidates tend to be eliminated over time leaving two dominant parties.
Duverger argued that the link between the First-Past-the Post system and two-party systems was so strong; it could be called a ‘Law’. Hence, in the literature it is called ‘Duverger’s Law’.
The independent candidate, much more than the political party candidate, must give serious thought as to whether a run is worth it, especially given the resources required and the multiple challenges of going it alone.
Significantly, this candidate must consider if, should he win, how will be make an impact, how will he get through an agenda, how will he influence policy and be seen to be doing so.