The Continuing Challenge of Coalition Politics

Julia Gillard

Australian Prime Minisiter Julia Gillard

Australia has a new government, two weeks after elections left the future of Australian politics in uncertainty. Two independent members of parliament (MPs) announced they would back Julia Gillard’s minority government, permitting the Labour Party to continue to try to govern the country. But Gillard’s government is fragile. She’s promised the Greens a renewed effort to address climate change in exchange for their support and three rural MPs a high-speed fiber optic cable to connect their rural constituencies with the national broadband network. The deals give Gillaard’s center-left Labour Party coalition a narrow two-seat advantage over the rival Liberal/National coalition. But Gillard’s ability to manage her narrow majority will be tested at nearly every turn, as a single defection from the coalition could trigger a confidence motion in the government.

But the news is less positive in Belgium, where three-month old talks collapsed over the weekend, leaving the country without a national government. Belgium, like its neighbor the Netherlands, has been without a government since elections in June. The defeated pre-election government continues to operate as a caretaker government. But Belgium has, since July 1, also held the rotating presidency of the European Council.

In both the Netherlands and Belgium, the inability of the various political factions to form a new coalition government stems largely from the rise of political parties which lack any real interest in establishing a national government. In Belgium, the longstanding linguistic division and the rise of parties like the Vlaams Belang make it difficult to form alliances between traditional allies across the Flemish-French linguistic divide. Strong anti-immigration platforms in the Netherlands have also undermined coalition possibilities.

But the challenges facing Belgium and the Netherlands (and the crisis narrowly avoided in Australia) demonstrate the challenge of coalition politics. While the proportional representation electoral system [glossary] used in Belgium and the Netherlands affords voters a greater choice of political parties, it also fractures the political spectrum. Twelve separate political parties are represented in the lower house of the Belgian parliament, the largest of which controls just 18 percent of the seats. In such a fragmented political system, it is hardly surprising that a coalition would be difficult to form. Indeed, any realistic coalition would have to (1) transcend the linguistic divide, arguably the most difficult and controversial division in Belgium today; and (2) involve more than five coalition partners.  A tall task indeed!

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