What are government coalitions good for?

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This article by Matthew Bugeja was first published on this week’s edition of Diplomatique.Expert, Corporate Dispatch’s eJournal.

What are government coalitions good for? That really depends on who you ask.

Government coalitions are very popular in Europe, but have not existed in the United States to any real degree since its inception. Other western countries like Australia and Japan also seem to shy away from coalitions as a general rule, with only 2 or a few more parties being viable enough to capture enough of the vote to govern on their own. So why is it that in Europe we get so many of them, and how do they help, or hinder, the democratic process?

Part of the reason why coalition governments are so prevalent in Europe is because there are a multitude of political parties in many countries. These political parties can only exist, and are only viable if they can find a part of society to appeal to based on the party’s message. For instance, some parties are simply conservative, moderate, or liberal. Others put ethnicity, religion, culture or language at the forefront of their political identity, with some examples being political parties in Belgium who base a lot of their political base around linguistic identity. European countries, despite their long history, are both large and diverse in a number of ways. Germany, for instance, is a large country which used to be relatively homogenous. That has changed over the years. But it still had 6 or so political parties, which nearly ensured that one party could not govern without a coalition partner. This has been the case for several years now, with the current government being a “grand coalition” between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, their erstwhile rivals. Has the coalition delivered for the Germans? To some degree, yes, but of course there are gripes on both sides.

Government coalitions are good, in that they allow for a compromise between two or more political parties, and help to ensure that at least some of the policies of both are considered for implementation. It also ensures that both political parties have members in the Cabinet, which steers political direction in the country. Compromise is the name of the game here, and even if it can make life quite aggravating for the coalition partners, who have to negotiate a lot over a wide array of issues, it can also help to bring different parts of society together in a way that was not possible before. They allow for a wide spectrum of interests to be represented within the government, giving a voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless.

On the other hand, coalitions can also create animosity and tensions within the government, leading to endless debates both in public and behind closed doors, bringing the government’s momentum to implement its proposals to a grinding halt. This can be attributed to a number of factors, some being as simple as the political leaders of the different coalition parties just not liking one another all that much, or if there is a lack of mutual trust and respect. One need only take a look at the previous government in Italy, between the 5 Star Movement and the League to understand just how delicate governing partnerships really are. A series of debates that erupted in public led to Salvini and the League leaving the government coalition, thinking they would stand a better chance of getting support in opposition. Political necessity is also a factor in any governing coalition, and although trust must be built, each player knows that the other is inevitably seeking to become the most popular party in the country, so some element of competition remains, no matter what.

A coalition is a marriage, a partnership, although it is often not an equal one. It can work for a period of time, spanning several years, perhaps up to a decade. But it is rare to see one last any longer than that. Why? Because political parties and leaders change, their strategies change, and their constituents’ demands change also. Change can be good, because it keeps the spirit of democracy and debate alive. A lively democracy benefits the entire country, even if it can lead to some instability from time to time. Is a coalition government better or worse than a standard, one-party government? It is probably more representative, but it is also more unstable. Is that better, or worse?

Depends on who you ask.

Matthew Bugeja 

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