The Instability of Coalition Politics

The number of governments facing problems of political instability seems to be on the rise.  Yesterday, I mentioned problems facing Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Turkey as governments in those countries face increasing challenges from opposition groups hoping to secure political power for themselves. 

But other countries are facing similar challenges.  In India, the continuing debate over the status of the country’s nuclear deal with the United States has prompted a minor political crisis, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attempts to keep his fragile coalition together.  Singh’s government is comprised of a coalition of center-left parties.  Earlier this month, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the coalition’s junior member to Singh’s Congress Party of India, withdrew from the coalition over a nuclear deal signed with the United States.  The Communists argued that the deal represented a transfer of India’s sovereignty to the United States opened the way for the further colonization of India’s economy.  A confidence vote by the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, is scheduled for Tuesday.  If the government loses the vote, snap elections will be called.

A vote on the nuclear deal, which would see the US sell nuclear fuel and civilian nuclear technology to India, is also scheduled for a vote in the Indian Parliament later this month.  Ironically, the outcome of that vote may be inconsequential for the nuclear deal, as the deal is currently stalled in the US Congress and appears unlike to move forward before the November elections.

The ruling coalition in Belgium is in even worse shape.  On Monday, Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned.  Leterme took office in March after a nine month political deadlock in which the country officially had no Prime Minister or government.  The crisis sparked by Leterme’s resignation has been called the worst political crisis faced by Belgium in the country’s history.  Strong divisions between Belgium’s Flemish-speaking population in the north and the French-speaking population in the south have intensified in recent years, and it seems difficult to imagine how a new government, which because of Belgium’s electoral system will almost certainly have to develop out of a multi-lingual coalition involving four or more political parties, will be any more stable. 

So why all this political instability?  Certainly the nature of the parliamentary systems in Belgium and India play a role.  It’s widely held that parliamentary systems, particularly when based on proportional representation electoral systems, are inherently less stable than presidential systems based on single-member district electoral systems.  But for every unstable PR-based parliamentary system like Belgium or contemporary India, there is South Africa or historical India, which has the same political system but is far more stable.  Clearly the issues at play must also be important.  The unique status of identity politics in Belgium, given the country’s status as an artificial creation as a buffer zone between major European powers, clearly has an important influence.  Similarly, in India, the debate over the relative influence of the United States in Indian society is a serious one, as many Indian political leaders continue to hold to the tradition of non-alignment and home rule.

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