Tag Archives: coalition politics

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?

The Politics of Parliamentary Systems

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Two parties fell from power last week, trigging election. In Portugal, the government of Prime Minister José Sócrates fell after a no-confidence motion was passed by the five opposition parties over spending cuts and tax increases intended to address the ongoing economic crisis in the country. A general election looks likely to take place in May or June. Meanwhile, in Canada, Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government fell after three opposition parties passed a no-confidence motion in response to a finding in the House of Commons that found Harper’s government in contempt of parliament. Harper’s government was found to have provided falls information to parliament on at least three separate occasions. New elections are scheduled to take place on May 2.

The collapse of Sócrates’ government in Portugal and Harper’s government in Canada highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of parliamentary systems. Unlike presidential systems, where legislative terms are fixed and elections are set according to a regular schedule, parliamentary systems usually only have a maximum length of time between elections, normally five years. Elections can—and indeed, often do—come earlier. The government may call an early election if it feels that doing so can give it a larger majority in parliament. And opposition parties may force an early election by passing a no-confidence motion.

Both country’s upcoming elections should provide interesting political theatre. In Canada, public opinion polling is suggesting that Harper’s Conservative Party will likely win a plurality of seats but be denied an absolute majority in the House of Commons, the country’s parliament. If this happens, it will either be forced to seek coalition partners to establish a government, or (more likely) it will try to rule as a minority government again. The problem is that minority governments are inherently unstable, as the government is forced to cobble together a majority vote on every issue from an unstable and often shifting group of Members of Parliament from other parties.

In Portugal, the stakes are perhaps even larger. There, the collapse of Sócrates’ government came just days before the European Union was scheduled to decide on a rescue package for the Portuguese economy. That package, which was conditioned on the government of Portugal enacting strict (and widely unpopular) austerity measures, now appears to be in jeopardy. But the ability of the E.U. to discipline the government of Portugal may be limited, as any spillover of the economic crisis from Portugal could endanger the stability of the euro, the common currency used in fifteen E.U. economies, including Spain, France, and Germany.

Who Governs Lebanon?

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, waves to the crowd at a political rally.

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, waves to the crowd at a political rally.

Incumbent Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will remain in his post as head of a caretaker government in Lebanon, according to a report by the BBC yesterday. Lebanon had been poised to enter a period of political deadlock and uncertainty, and the Arab League described the situation in Lebanon as “tense,” after eleven ministers from Hariri’s ruling coalition resigned last week. The ministers, all of whom have ties to the powerful Hezbollah party, are angry about plans by a United Nations-backed tribunal to indict several of its members for their alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was also the father of current Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Their decision effectively dismantled the government of national unity [glossary] that had been in place since 2008.

Lebanon appears to be entering a prolonged period of political stalemate which, unlike the longstanding stalemate in Belgium, will likely paralyze the country. The country is sharply divided along religious and sectarian lines and has a history of civil conflict. The National Pact, the informal agreement that has governed Lebanese politics since 1943, mandates that the top three political posts in the country be allocated on the basis of religion, with the country’s president be a Maronite Christian, its Prime Minister be a Sunni Muslim, and its Speaker of the Parliament be a Shi’a Muslim. The Pact also reserves half the parliament for Christian parties and half for Muslim parties. 

Further, neighboring powers, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, have regularly intervened in Lebanese affairs.

The current political standoff in Lebanon is more than a simple problem of coalition [glossary] politics. Hezbollah, the favored party of the country’s Shi’a population, is more than an opposition party. It is also the most powerful military force in the country and frequently operates as a government in its own right, operating its own satellite television station and providing social services like subsidized housing and welfare support to people across the country. Internationally, Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing has been a strong opponent of Israel.

If al-Hariri is unable to re-establish a majority coalition in the parliament—a situation that appears highly unlikely, given Hezbollah’s strong opposition to the release of tribunal findings—Lebanon appears likely to remain in a political quagmire. Neither side can form a ruling coalition without the support of the other, but neither side appears willing to compromise.

But concerns also run deeper. Many domestic observers are cautioning that the political standoff could turn violent, rekindling tensions remaining from the Lebanese Civil War. And if that takes place, it is possible that Israel would feel compelled to intervene, as it did most recently in 2006, resulting in the displacement of some 1.5 million people in northern Israel and southern Lebanon  More broadly such a conflict would also endanger the ongoing talks with the Palestinians. Unlike the political stalemate in Belgium, which has been unable to form a ruling coalition in its national parliament since elections in July 2010, the political stalemate in Lebanon appears both more fragile and more dangerous.

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!

Is Belgium the Future of Britain?

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

It’s been a turbulent week in Belgian politics. The country, created in 1830, is often referred to as the capital of Europe as it is home to the major institutions of the European Union. But Belgium has long been wracked by a divisive language dispute, pitting the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north against their French-speaking neighbors, the Wallonians, in the south. The linguistic division is reflected in the broader political division and structure of the country. 

Belgium is a federal state [glossary], with much of the political power of the country devolved to the regional and local governments. The devolution of political power in Belgium (and the broader federal structure of the state as well) were part of a series of efforts to maintain the political unity of the country in the face of intensifying linguistic divisions.

There are twelve major political parties in Belgium, each vying for seats in the national parliament, which are granted on the basis of proportional representation [glossary]. Parties are divided on the basis of ideology and language. Thus there are two Green parties, one for the French-speaking Waloonians and another for the Dutch-speaking Flemish. There are similarly two socialist parties, two nationalist parties, two liberal parties, and so on.

The sharp divisions in parliament make it difficult for governments to establish coalitions. Indeed, in a not-so-surprising development on Monday, the Belgian Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, tendered his resignation after the Flemish liberal party withdrew its support from the coalition government. The collapse of Leterme’s government comes just five months after he cobbled together a power-sharing agreement brining in his own Flemish Christian Democrats, the Open Flemish Liberal Party, the Waloonian Reform Movement, the Waloonian Socialist Party, and the Waloonian Human Democratic Centre Party.

The collapse of Leterme’s government is the most recent in a series of short-lived coalitions attempting to govern the country. In the last crisis, Belgium was without a national government for nearly six months as parties squabbled over the composition of the cabinet. But the timing of the most recent crisis is poor, coming just two months before Belgium is scheduled to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency. Snap elections have been scheduled, but there is little reason to believe the new parliament will be any more successful than the previous one in developing a stable coalition government. Belgian newspapers are already forecasting the dissolution of the country into two separate states, with headlines like “Bye-Bye Belgium.”

At the same time, British elections are shaping up to be an interesting affair, with many observers forecasting a hung parliament divided between the three major British parties (the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic Parties), each controlling a portion of the parliament but none able to establish a majority coalition. Add to that regional tensions, pressure for greater devolution of political authority to the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and you’ve got the recipe for some tumultuous politics.

But is Belgium the future of Britain? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not likely. Belgium’s political divisions run far deeper than Britain’s, and the linguistic divide is probably stronger and tenser than the United Kingdom’s nationalist divide. There are far fewer viable parties in British politics as well, thanks in part to the first-past-the-post electoral system [glossary] used there.  That said, is Britain winds up with a hung parliament, we could likely look forward to more British elections in the not-too-distant future.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It was a busy week for the U.S. Federal Reserve. Addressing a meeting of bankers on Friday, the Chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, called on legislators to address the need for regulatory reform of global financial markets. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve undertook announced new plans intended to improve the position of the U.S. credit markets. With the federal funds rate remaining near zero percent, the Federal Reserve has been forced to turn to a program of qualitative easing, under which it purchases mortgage-related securities, removing them from the market and expanding the amount of cash in circulation. It is coordinating policy with the central banks of England, Japan, and Switzerland. But the dramatic move carries a number of risks, including the introduction of high rates of inflation and a decline in the value of the dollar

In news from outside the United States last week:

1.  A two-day meeting of the European Union last week produced a number of important outcomes, including a commitment to increase the E.U.’s contribution to the International Monetary Fund by €75bn. The European Union also staked out its position on reforming global financial market regulation, the focus of an upcoming G20 meeting in April. Current speculation is that the meeting of the G20 will likely pit Germany and France, which favor stricter regulation, against the United States and China, with the United Kingdom falling somewhere in the middle. However, all sides are currently playing up the likelihood of compromise.

2. On Saturday, the Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government in Thailand survived a no confidence motion in the national legislature. Vejjajiva has been in office for only three months, but has been under fire nearly the entire time, as Thailand has been plagued by political and economic instability compounded by declining exports, part of the impact of the global economic crisis. 

3. On Thursday, the government of China announced it would step up naval operations in the South China Sea, specifically targeting the disputed Spratly Islands. The Spratly Islands are claimed (in whole or in part) by at least six countries, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The announcement comes after a standoff between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels earlier this month, when the U.S. accused China of harassing a U.S. naval vessel operating in the South China Sea. China maintains the vessel was operating illegally in Chinese waters.

4. Israeli President Shimon Peres last week granted Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu two more weeks to form a coalition government. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party was named by Peres as formateur party after extremely close restuls in national elections earlier this month.  Netanyahu has the option of forming a coalition with a group of far-right and religious parties, but has been seeking to form a more centrist coalition with either Ehud Barak’s Labour party or Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party. A more centrist coalition, Netanyahu believes, would be better positioned to avoid potential clashes with the United States. But both Labour and Kadima remain hesitant to join a coalition government with Likud.

5. Andry Rajoelina was sworn in as the new president of Madagascar on Saturday. Brought to power under the auspices of a military rebellion, Rajoelina committed the new government to routing out the corruption of the previous regime and to re-establishing democracy within two years. But may observers remain skeptical. On Friday, the African Union suspended Madagascar from the organization, many donors have announced they will freeze aid, and the United States

And a bonus story this week:

6. A standoff between farmers and the government in Argentina last week threatens global food markets. Farmers are angry about the imposition of a 35 percent duty on soya exports and bans on export of some other food commodities. A similar standoff last year resulted in nationwide strikes and export bans. The standoff in Argentina has the potential to influence global food prices, as Argentina is one of the word’s largest food exporters—second only to the United States. China is the largest consumer of Argentinean soya exports.

The Politics of Instability in Canada

Canadian politics have become much more exciting in the last few days.  Just seven weeks after an election which saw Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party declare victory and form a minority government, a counter-coalition of opposition parties is threatening a confidence vote which could see the Conservative government fall.  The counter-coalition is comprised of two, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, and is supported by a third, the Bloc Québécois. 

In the last national election, held in early November, the Conservatives won 37.6% of the poplar vote, which translated into 143 seats (46% of the total seats) in Parliament.  The Liberals won 26.2% of the vote (77 seats), the New Democratic Party won 18.2% of the vote (37 seats), and the Bloc Québécois 10% of the vote (49 seats).  After the election results, Stephen Harper decided to try and rule through a minority government.  His party’s attempt to force through fairly dramatic economic reforms provoked a sharp response from the opposition, leading to the current standoff.

Michaëlle Jean, the Canadian Governor General, who acts as head of state, is returning from a conference in Europe to consider ways out of the current crisis. Three options appear to be on the table.  First, she may permit new elections to be scheduled, though it is unclear that new elections would resolve the crisis.  Second, she may approve the new coalition and allow it to form a new government.  Or third, she may permit Harper to suspend parliament without calling for new elections.

Whatever the outcome of the current standoff, the crisis illustrates the challenges of parliamentary governance.  Parliamentary systems are often criticized for being less stable than presidential systems.  This is certainly illustrated by the contemporary crisis in Canada.  But on the up side, they can also force greater compromise and are often more inclusive of a greater variety of opinions.  The current crisis in Canada is, in part, a function of the larger number of political parties represented in the national legislature.  The four major parties in the Canadian Parliament each represent a specific ideological or political constituency, and it appears unlikely that either the major parties or their constituencies are going to disappear to make governance easier.

The crisis also raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy.  In the context of the crisis, the Conservatives have accused the Liberals of being undemocratic in their attempt to circumvent the popular expression of the people in the last national election.  By tradition, the party that wins a plurality of the seats in parliament gets the right to form the new government.  But the Liberals counter that the current government is not representative of the interests of the Canadian electorate, the majority of which voted for parties other than the Conservatives.  Both positions have an element of truth.  Ultimately, however, the debate over the future of the Canadian Parliament will likely be resolved through power sharing deals negotiated in the back halls of Parliament rather than another national election.