Greece, Israel, and the Peculiarities of Parliamentary Politics

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the rising Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) in Greece, has refused to join a coalition with the political parties responsible for Greece’s bailout deal, which came with harsh austerity conditions.

Parliamentary democracies (e.g., Greece, Israel) are different in several respects from presidential systems (e.g., France, the U.S.). They have different rules for government formation, elections, and frequently party representation, with important implications for the process and substance of policy.  Events in Greece and Israel over the past week provide good examples of the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of parliamentary systems.

In parliamentary systems the executive branch (led by the prime minister and cabinet) relies on a parliamentary majority for its selection and retention in power.  This means that the government must have the consent of a relatively broad coalition of parliament members–typically coming from a range of parties who don’t see eye to eye on all issues but have some basic goals or principles in common.  This system often makes it easier to pass legislation and get things accomplished, since the executive and the legislative branches are not working at cross-purposes (as can happen with “divided government” in presidential systems).  But it also means that when members of parliament are themselves divided or fragmented into polarized groups, forming a government–and keeping it in power–becomes a real challenge.  Greece’s recent parliamentary elections produced a parliament severely divided on issues such as Greece’s adherence to the austerity measures imposed by its creditors, which has made it extremely difficult to form a government.  If a government is not formed soon, new elections will be called.

In contrast, in Israel this week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu averted the need for new elections and achieved a “master stroke” by inviting the opposition Kadima Party into his ruling coalition, thereby “creating the largest and broadest coalition government in recent memory, one that no single faction can topple.”  While a government needs only a simple majority of the Israeli parliament’s (Knesset’s) 120 seats, this new super-coalition boasts 94 seats.  This deal simultaneously buys time for Kadima, which would have lost seats if elections were held soon, and helps to strengthen Netanyahu’s power.  While this new government does not give Netanyahu a “blank check” (since coalition members can always withdraw), some analysts believe this move may be calculated to allow–or at least credibly threaten–bold action such as a preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

What do you think the politics of parliamentary systems will mean for Greece’s future in the eurozone?  For Israel’s willingness to take military action against Iran?  Would a presidential system be better able to deal with the domestic and foreign policy challenges facing Greece or Israel today?

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