Dynamics of normal coalition governments

In recent weeks, criticisms of the coalition government’s internal processes have only been surpassed by criticisms of its handling of its relationship with ExxonMobil. Of course, generally, fractious internal coalition relations only appear unusual to those such as ourselves, unaccustomed to this type of arrangement. It does appear that coalition behaviour differs depending on the stage in its lifecycle and one commentator surmised, ‘The first two years of coalition is about working together …It’s logical in the later stages of coalition that both sides emphasise their differences. Parties increasingly focus on the election and developing and setting out their policies for the election.’ Our coalition government is nearing the final half of its term during which coalition parties usually begin to seek opportunities to emphasise their ‘distinct values and achievements, while defending the overall coalition record.’ But again, Guyana is politically different: in our situation the smaller parties are focusing upon finding opportunities to negotiate arrangements with their larger partner to avoid having to go separately to an election. If not a contradiction, what appears to be developing in Guyana is a permanent coalition. In two parts, based upon comparisons with usual coalition dynamics, I will consider how and why this occurred and where we may be heading.

For the first time since the Second World War, the United Kingdom had a coalition government between the Conservative party and Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015. About two years before the 2015 general elections, the British Institute of Government, in a paper intended for distribution at the Liberal Democrat conference, considered how the coalition government would work in its final 18 months (https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/ publications/ Lib%20 Dem%20Conference%20Briefing%20Paper%20Finalv.2.pdf). Drawing upon international experiences, the Institute had been studying the life cycle of coalition governments and some of its findings will be used here to indicate the dynamics of normal coalition governments.

The German Green party was the first to break the traditional hold of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Free Democratic Party (FDP) on government when it entered a coalition with the SPD in 1998.  Given its pacifist position, early in the coalition the Greens were much criticised when the government supported intervention in Kosovo and for its backing of some controversial SPD policies having to do with welfare and labour market reforms. Indeed, the latter caused a split in the larger party which brought down the coalition. However, the stance of the Greens demonstrated that it was prepared to take hard decisions and improved its image as a credible governing party. Furthermore, the party went on to secure a number of policy successes under its strong, charismatic and popular leader, foreign minister Joschka Fischer. This prevented it from being overshadowed by its larger partner and in the elections that followed the split in the SPD, while the SDP lost votes, the Greens gained them. According to the study, what the entire episode served to indicate is that ‘Coalitions are often rewarded or punished as a whole for their performance in office. Ensuring that the government is seen as effective and competent is crucial, and particularly so for the smaller party, which will often have less credibility at the outset as a party of administration.’ Bearing in mind their own agenda, smaller parties are also required to show discipline in supporting major policy initiatives of their larger partners.

In 1999, a proportional representation electoral system brought to government a coalition between the Labour and Liberal parties in Scotland that lasted until 2007. The smaller Liberal party was criticised for some of the concessions it had to make in coalition but notwithstanding Labour’s initial objections, the party achieved a number of policy ‘wins’, preventing the introduction of up-front tuition fees, securing ‘free’ care for the elderly and the introduction of proportional representation for local elections. The coalition agreement allowed the Liberals to distance themselves from Labour on reserved issues, e.g. the Iraq war, and this also helped it to maintain a distinct profile. The good ideological and personal relationships between the leaders of the two parties served to avoid severe conflict and withdrawing from the coalition was never seriously considered. The coalition completed two full terms and when the Liberal  party left government in 2007 it had 11, seats only one less than in 1999. The Liberals did not fare well in opposition wining only 2 seats in 2011 and 4 in 2016. However, so far as coalition is concerned, again we observe that ‘smaller parties also need to be able to demonstrate their distinct contribution to government, and therefore need to have some distinct flagship policy successes to point to at the next election.’

Both of the examples above indicate that the success of small parties rests heavily upon the profile and performance of the party leader. ‘Successful junior coalition partners have leaders with a strong public profile, a clear personal record of achievement and parties with weak or unstable leadership have fared poorly.’ As noted above, the FDP has been a standard feature in postwar German coalition governments. However, having won 14.6% of the national vote at the 2009 election, by 2013 party support had fallen to 4.8%, below the 5% threshold needed to win a seat in parliament. Several factors account for the FDP’s poor performance but importantly, its leader performed poorly and a mid-term leadership change divided the party. Furthermore, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of its coalition partner the CDU, eclipsed its leader and made the party’s ownership of the foreign affairs portfolio largely irrelevant.

Reflecting on the 2010 to 2015 British experience, one knowledgeable commentator surmised that  that coalition continued simply because ‘parties tend to get punished at the ballot box if they bring down a government’(https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/news/in-the-press/highs-and-lows-uk%E2%80%99s-coalition-government). And the experience of New Zealand First (NZF) illustrates that parties associated with the premature coalition breakdowns are not usually rewarded by voters. Up to the end of the 1990, when there was a switch to a proportional electoral system, the Labour and National parties won over 90% of the vote. In the first PR election in 1996, New Zealand First held the balance of power and collated with the National Party. After personality clashes and policy disagreements, the coalition collapsed in mid-term and the NZF sought to save itself by moving back to the opposition. The coalition failed for several reasons but of note is ‘an overly prescriptive, 17,000 word coalition agreement which restricted the NZF’s room for manoeuvre and right to take distinct positions.’  The ensuing election was a disaster for the NZF with its seats in parliament falling from 17 to 5.

Finally, the performance of smaller parties need not influence whether they remain in government. The German Greens and the Scottish Liberals ended up in opposition even after performing well at elections, while the social liberal Democrats 66 Party (D66) in the Netherlands remained in the coalition after performing badly. D66 was a junior partner in four government coalitions between 1994 and 2006 and although it secured several policy wins during its time in government, it lost seats across this entire period, moving from 24 to 6 seats. ‘The party appeared to suffer from a lack of clear direction and distinct identity.’  However, since 2006, D66 has remained in opposition, rebuilding support and a distinct profile under a strong leader and taking 19 seats in 2017.


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