Coalition Government

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    Halfway through the tournament, however, you realise that you might be better off merging. You'd have a deeper bench, more voices to give ideas, and a greater chance of winning. Not only that, but the parents on the sidelines could unite their support and provide great motivation. Well, the same arguments could be applied in support of coalition governments, but of course, on a societal level. We will dive into what a coalition government is and when it's a good idea!

    Coalition government meaning

    So, what is the meaning of the term coalition government?

    A coalition government is a government (executive) that includes two or more political parties with members in the parliament or national assembly (legislature). It contrasts a majoritarian system, in which government is occupied by one party alone.

    Check out our explanation on Majority Governments here.

    Usually, a coalition government is formed when the largest party in parliament doesn't have enough seats in the legislatureto form a majority government and seeks a coalition agreement with a smaller party with similar ideological positions in order to form as stable a government as possible.

    The legislature, also known as the legislative branch, is the name given to the political body which is comprised of the elected representatives of a nation. They can be bi-cameral (made up of two houses), like the UK Parliament, or unicameral, like the Welsh Senedd.

    In some Western European states, such as Finland and Italy, coalition governments are the accepted norm, since they use electoral systems which tend to result in coalition governments. In other states, such as the UK, coalitions have historically been seen as an extreme measure which should only be accepted in times of crisis. In the example of the UK, the majoritarian First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system is used with the intention of bringing about single-party governments.

    Features of coalition government

    There are five main features of coalition governments. These features are:

    • They occur in different electoral systems, including Proportional Representation and First-Past-the-Post.
    • Coalition governments are formed by two or more political parties when no single party gains an overall majority in the legislature.
    • Within coalitions, members have to compromise in order to reach an agreement on policy priorities and ministerial appointments whilst keeping the best interests of the nation in mind.
    • Coalition models are effective in systems which require cross-community representation, such as the Northern Irish model we will explore later.
    • Coalition governments, in light of these other features, tend to put less emphasis on a strong singular head of state and prioritise cooperation between representatives.

    Coalition government in the United Kingdom

    The United Kingdom rarely has a coalition government, as it uses the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) Voting system to elect its members of parliament. The FPTP system is a winner-takes-all system, meaning that the candidate that receives the most votes wins.

    History of coalition governments

    Every country's electoral system has evolved due to a specific political history and culture, which means some countries are more likely to end up with a coalition government than others. So here we will discuss the history fo coalition governments inside and outside of Europe.

    Coalitions in Europe

    Coalition governments are common in European countries. Let's look at the examples of Finland, Switzerland and Europe.

    Coalition Government: Finland

    Finland's proportional representation (PR) system has remained essentially unchanged since 1917 when the nation gained independence from Russia. Finland has a history of coalition governments, meaning that Finnish parties tend to approach elections with a degree of pragmatism. In 2019, after the centre-left SDP party made electoral gains in Parliament, they entered a coalition comprised of the Centre Party, Green League, Left Alliance and Swedish People's Party. This alliance was formed to keep the right-wing populist Finns Party out of government after they made electoral gains.

    Proportional Representation is an electoral system in which seats in the legislature are allocated according to the proportion of support each party enjoyed in the election. In PR systems, votes are allocated in close alignment with the proportion of votes each candidate receives. This differs from majoritarian systems such as FPTP.

    Coalition Government: Switzerland

    Switzerland is governed by a coalition of four parties which have remained in power since 1959. The Swiss government is composed of the Free Democratic Party, Social Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party, and the Swiss People's Party. Like Finland, members of the Swiss Parliament are elected according to a proportional system. In Switzerland, this is known as the "magic formula" as its system distributes seven ministerial positions between each of the major parties

    Coalition Government: Italy

    In Italy, things are more complicated. After the fall of Mussolini's Fascist regime in 1943, an electoral system was developed to encourage coalition governments. This is known as a Mixed Electoral System, which adopts elements of FPTP and PR. During elections, the first vote takes place in small districts using FPTP. Next, PR is used in large electoral districts. Oh, and Italian nationals living overseas also have their votes included using PR. Italy's electoral system encourages coalition governments, but not stable ones. The average lifespan for Italian governments is less than a year.

    Coalition Governments Campaign Posters Finland in 2019 StudySmarterFig. 1 Campaign posters found in Finland during the 2019 election, which resulted in a broad coalition with the SDP at the head of the government

    Coalitions Outside of Europe

    Although we most commonly see coalition governments in Europe, we can also see them outside of Europe.

    Coalition Government: India

    The first coalition government in India to govern for a full five-year term was elected at the turn of the last century (1999 to 2004). This was a coalition was known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and was led by the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2014, the NDA was elected again under the leadership of Narendra Modi, who remains the country's president today.

    Coalition Government: Japan

    Japan currently has a coalition government. In 2021, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner Komeito, won 293 out of 465 seats in Parliament. In 2019 the LDP and Komeito celebrated their 20th anniversary since their initial formation of a coalition government.

    Coalition government reasons

    There are many reasons why certain countries and parties form coalition governments. The most significant are proportional voting systems, power, and national crises.

    • Proportional voting systems

    Proportional voting systems tend to produce multiparty systems, which lead to coalition governments. This is because many proportional representation voting systems allow voters to rank candidates by preference, thus boosting the odds of several parties winning seats. Proponents of PR argue that it is more representative than winner-takes-all voting systems used in places like Westminster.

    • Power

    Although the formation of a coalition government reduces the dominance of any single political party, power is one of the main motivations parties have for forming a coalition government. Despite having to compromise on policies, a political party would rather have some power than none at all. Furthermore, coalition-based systems encourage the diffusion of decision-making and influence in countries where power has been historically centralised by authoritarian regimes (such as Italy).

    • National crisis

    Another factor that can lead to a coalition government is a national crisis. This could be some form of disagreement, a constitutional or succession crisis, or sudden political turmoil. For example, coalitions are formed in times of war to centralise the national effort.

    Advantages of a Coalition government

    In addition to these reasons, there are a number of advantages to having a coalition government. You can see some of the biggest in the table below.

    Advantage

    Explanation

    Breadth of representation

    • In two-party systems, those who support or are involved with smaller parties often feel their voices aren't heard. However, coalition governments can act as a remedy to this.

    Increased negotiation and consensus building

    • Coalition governments focus much more on compromise, negotiation, and developing a cross-party consensus.

    • Coalitions are based on post-election deals which formulate legislative programmes that draw on the policy commitments of two or more parties.

    They provide greater opportunity for conflict resolution

    • Coalition governments facilitated by proportional representation are prevalent in countries that have a history of political instability.
    • The ability to include a variety of voices from different regions, when implemented properly, can help to bolster democracy in countries where this has been historically challenging.

    Disadvantages of a coalition government

    Despite this, there are of course disadvantages of having a coalition government.

    Disadvantage

    Explanation

    Weakened mandate for the state

    • One theory of representation is the doctrine of the mandate. This is the idea that when a party wins an election, it also gains a ‘popular’ mandate that gives it the authority to carry out promises.

    • During the post-election deals which are negotiated between potential coalition partners, parties often abandon certain manifesto promises they have made.

    Decreased possibility of delivering policy promises

    • Coalition governments may develop into a situation where governments are aiming to 'please everyone', both their coalition partners and the electorate.
    • In coalitions, parties must compromise, which can lead to certain members abandoning their campaign promises.


    Weakened legitimacy of elections

    • The two disadvantages presented here may lead to a weakened faith in elections and an increase in voter apathy.

    • When new policies are developed or negotiated following a national election, the legitimacy of each political party may be weakened as they fail to deliver on key promises.

    Coalition governments in the UK

    Coalition governments aren't common in the UK, but there is one example of a coalition government from recent history.

    Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition 2010

    In the 2010 UK general election, David Cameron's Conservative Party won 306 seats in Parliament, less than the 326 seats required for a majority. With the Labour Party gaining 258 seats, neither party had an outright majority - a situation referred to as a hung parliament. As a result, the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg and with 57 seats of their own, found themselves in a position of political leverage.

    Hung Parliament: a term used in UK electoral politics to describe a situation where no one single party holds enough seats to command an absolute majority in Parliament.

    Eventually, the Liberal Democrats agreed a deal with the Conservative Party to form a coalition government. One of the key aspects of the negotiations was the voting system used to elect MPs in Westminster.

    Coalition government david cameron and nick clegg pictured together StudySmarterFig. 2 David Cameron (left) and Nick Clegg (right), the leaders of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, pictured together in 2015

    The Conservative Party had opposed plans to reform the FPTP electoral system, used to elect MPs in Westminster. The Liberal Democrats advocated a proportional voting system to produce more diverse parliaments. The Conservative Party therefore agreed to hold a referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV) system for Westminster elections.

    The referendum was held in 2011 but failed to garner support among the electorate - 70% of voters rejected the AV system. Over the next five years, the coalition government implemented several economic policies - which have come to be known as 'austerity measures' - which changed the landscape of British politics.

    Coalition Government - Key takeaways

    • A coalition government is formed when no one party has enough seats to dominate the legislature.
    • Coalition governments can occure under electoral system but are more common under proportional systems.
    • In some European countries, coalition governments are the norm. Some examples include Finland, Switzerland, and Italy.
    • The main reasons for a coalition government are proportional voting systems, a need for power, and national crisis situations.
    • Coalitions are beneficial because they provide a breadth of representation, increased negotiation and consensus and conflict resolution.
    • However, they may be viewed negatively as they can result in a weakened mandate, failure to implement key electoral promises and the delegitimisation of the electoral process.
    • A recent example of a Westminster coalition government was the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat partnership.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 Parliamentary election posters Finland 2019 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parliamentary_election_posters_Finland_2019.jpg) by Tiia Monto (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Kulmalukko) licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    2. Fig. 2 PM-DPM-St David's Day Agreement announcement (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PM-DPM-St_David%27s_Day_Agreement_announcement.jpg) by gov.uk (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/welsh-devolution-more-powers-for-wales) licensed by OGL v3.0 (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Coalition Government

    What is Coalition Government?

    Coalition governments are defined by a government (or executive) which includes two or more parties that have been elected to the representative (legislative) house.  

    What is an example of a coalition government?

    The UK Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition formed in 2010 and dissolved in 2015.


    How do Coalition Governments work?

    Coalition governments only arise when no parties have won enough seats to command control of the House of Commons in an election. As a result, sometimes rival political actors decide to cooperate, as they understand that they cannot achieve their individual goals whilst working separately. Therefore, parties will make formal agreements to share ministerial responsibilities. 

    What are the features of Coalition Governments?

    1. Coalition governments take place in democratic societies and can occur in all electoral systems. 
    2. Coalitions are desirable in some contexts, such as those where Proportional Representation is being used, but undesirable in other systems (such as First-Past-the-Post) which are designed as one-party systems
    3. The parties that join together will have to form a government and agree on policies while both making compromises in the best interests of the nation. 

    What are the Reasons for Coalition Governments?

    Throughout a number of Western European states, such as Finland and Italy, coalition governments are the accepted norm, as they act as a solution to regional divides. In other states, such as the UK, coalitions have historically been seen as an extreme measure which should only be accepted in times of crisis. 

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