Switzerland and Belgium are testaments to the possibilities of consensual governance

All the major political parties in Guyana are committed to further constitutional change to improve constituency participation and parliamentary and local government autonomy. Yet, ten years since the last constitutional reform, progress has been extremely slow and much is still left to be done. This is largely because in bi-communal societies, governments are suspicious of measures that will give additional authority to those communities they do not control. The still incomplete constitutional reform agenda is not however my immediate concern. Here I will briefly give examples of experiences of executive power sharing, in both the developed and developing worlds, so that we may grasp its scope, nature and usefulness and be able to conceptualise, and possibly construct, a system that suits our specific condition.

Two preliminary clarifications: firstly, executive power sharing governments may or may not be coalition governments. Shared governance is the result of pre-election institutionalised formal or informal arrangements to share executive authority. By this understanding, the PNC/United Force coalition of the 1960s is not an example of shared governance. Secondly, the following should indicate that many factors – history, leadership capacities, etc. – contribute to the establishment of shared governance systems but that they have often been adopted in an effort to deal with class, religious or ethnic cleavages.


Switzerland, which is one of the world’s most stable democracies, has one of the world’s highest per capita incomes (US$42,600 PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) in 2010) and is considered one of the best places to live, is administered by an executive shared governance “magic formula.”  65% of its 7.6 million population are considered German, 18% French, 10% Italian, 1% Romansch and 6% others.  The country is a federation with 26 cantons and a bicameral Federal Assembly comprising a Council of States and a National Council.

The government consists of the seven-member Federal Council, which is elected by the Federal Assembly, usually from among its members, for a four year term. The combined positions of head of state and head of government are held by council members in annual rotation. There is strict separation of powers: members of the Federal Council are not members of the legislature and the latter cannot pass a vote of no-confidence in the Council.

Established in 1959, the “magic formula” is one in which it is generally understood that the four parties gaining the highest votes will form the government (the Federal Council) on a 2:2:2:1 distribution.  The formula has been amended from time to time to reflect prevailing conditions and after the last election held in 2007 where, as is normal, none of the political parties acquired an overall majority, the Federal Council membership was allocated among five parties on a 2:2:1:1:1 basis. Linguistic groups must also be represented on the Council in proportion to their size. These informal but strictly obeyed rules have helped to bring peace and prosperity to the Swiss.


Unlike the Swiss, the people of Belgium have a formal and even more complicated governance arrangement and government instability is legendary. Indeed, coalition gridlock has prevented a new government from being formed since national elections in June 2010. However, in these circumstances interim governmental arrangements are in place and with a per capita income of US$37,800 PPP in 2010, this instability does not appear to have the negative impact we would normally expect. The country has a population of about 10.5 million. 58% are Flemish, 31% Walloon and 11% mixed or others. 75% of the people are Roman Catholic and 25% Protestant and others.  60% speak Dutch, 39% French and about 1% German and are legally bilingual.

Belgium is a federal constitutional monarchy. There are three 3 regions, the French, the Dutch and Brussels (the capital region) and three levels of government – federal, regional, and the linguistic communities – with a very complex division of responsibilities. There are about nine distinct regional political parties and “…one crucial feature of the Belgian party system is that there are no ‘Belgian’ parties anymore! All parties are homogeneously Flemish or Francophone and only present themselves in the Flemish or Francophone constituencies” (Wolfgang C Muller, et al, “Coalition Governments in Western Europe:” 2000).

The Belgian political system has some interesting features. The country is made up of three non-territorial Communities – French, Dutch and a small German one. These have their own budgets and a high degree of autonomy over education, health, language, youth, tourism, etc.  Over matters which they do not have control, each Community has what has been called a “soft veto.” Put simply, for certain votes in the federal parliament deputies must designate themselves as part of a linguistic group and if 75% of them sign a ‘justified motion’ (a motion with reasons) claiming that “the provisions of a draft bill or of a motion are of a nature to gravely damage relations between the Communities,” the offending law/motion is automatically suspended and the matter is referred to the federal cabinet. Since 1954, governments have usually been coalitions and the cabinet is limited by law to 15 members. With the possible exception of the prime minister, it must comprise an equal number of Dutch and French-speakers (this also applies to the judiciary). The federal cabinet must provide a reasoned recommendation to the parliament within 30 days of receipt of the offending law/motion.

The cabinet decides the distribution of top civil service positions, taking into consideration partner preferences. “[I]n most …sectors in which parties are influential, such as public education, public, semi-public, and quasi-autonomous enterprises and services, local government, etc., parties (and trade unions) interfere with the recruitment and promotion of personnel, from the janitor in a public kindergarten to the chairman of the board of directors of SABENA. Thus, public sector patronage is a very pervasive phenomenon in Belgium, and all traditional parties participate.” (Ibid).


Although outside the range of our discussion, the Belgium experience forces us to differentiate between democratic and governmental stability and to ponder the actual importance of the latter in the general system of governance. Furthermore, party control of the public service in this more-or-less open fashion is not our tradition but here again we need to remember that these are not national but community political parties, and the system appears to work. No country is without its problems but Switzerland and Belgium have sustained relative social tranquility and high standards of living and are testaments to the possibilities of shared governance.

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