Coalitions in parliamentary democracies: can we find consensus in times of polarisation?

The majoritarian electoral system often leads to severe distortions of election results and a highly disproportionate distribution of seats, especially if voters are unwilling to follow the two-party ideal.

Lukas Leuzinger
14 June 2017


Jesse Klaver, leader of the Dutch party GroenLinks, and his fellow negotiators on their way to coalition negotiations. Photo: Roel Wijnants/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Two months have passed since the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands in March, yet the country is still waiting for a new government. On Monday, negotiations to form a new cabinet failed again because the four parties involved – including prime minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD party, which had won the most seats in the election – were unable to find an agreement about migration policy. They are now exploring other combinations for a coalition, but no agreement seems to be in sight.

The picture looks familiar. Last year, it took almost a year until Spain got a new government. After two elections, no single party held a majority in parliament and no two parties that could get one together were willing to form a cabinet. After months of negotiations, in October, the socialist PSOE finally agreed to support a minority government of the conservative Partido Popular, allowing their leader Mariano Rajoy to remain prime minister.

The record, however, was set by Belgium: between June 13, 2010 and December 6, 2011, the country spent 589 days without government, as the major parties were unable to decide on a coalition. It was the longest time in history that a democratic country was without a government.

It has become worryingly normal that democratic countries in Europe are paralysed by endless negotiations between parties.It has become worryingly normal that democratic countries in Europe are paralysed by endless negotiations between parties, threats of new elections and tactical games, while pressing challenges for these countries remain unaddressed.

Why has it become so difficult to form governments in European democracies? The obvious explanation is that, in the last decades, the number of parties in parliament has increased in most countries. With more parties in parliament, the likelihood of one single party achieving a majority of seats is smaller. Currently, only 7 out of 40 parliamentary democracies in Europe have a government consisting of just one party. Of these, four (Spain, Ireland, the UK and Portugal) are ruled by minority governments, while in the cases of the UK, Poland and Turkey, the ruling party has a majority of seats, but not of votes, and is in power only thanks to a relatively disproportional electoral system. Only in Malta did the strongest party (the Labour Party) win a majority of votes in the last election.

Catch no more

The main reason for the increasing number of parties is the growing diversity of European societies. Citizens are ever less willing to choose between only two or three "catch-all" parties that represent a broad part of the electorate. Parties that were formed along traditional cleavages to represent a specific part of society such as workers, farmers or Catholics lose votes because voters tend to vote less on the basis of their socio-structural background and more according to topics and ideologies that matter to them.

The fact that voters are increasingly selective has intensified competition between parties. Since they cannot rely on the support of a certain part of the population, it is essential for them to have a clear-cut profile. This means not only to have clear, consistent positions on a variety of issues, but also to make these clear to voters. In the digital age, where attention spans are short and the fight for people's attention is rough, this is becoming even more important.

Clear-cut policy profiles are ill-suited to compromises.The problem is that clear-cut policy profiles are ill-suited to compromises. The politicians that take the toughest stands get the most public attention, while pragmatic, consensus-oriented ones are ignored or despised for not sticking to their principles. Therefore, being in a government coalition – which essentially means reaching compromises with competitors – is much less appealing to parties than it used to be. In the first decades after World War II, parties in government in European democracies lost, on average, around 2 percentage points of their vote share in the next elections. In the 1990s and 2000s, the average loss rose to over 5 percentage points.[1] In terms of electoral success, agreeing to compromises and taking responsibility by taking part in a coalition government is about the worst decision for any political party. (Of course, in other respects – influence, cabinet posts, money –, participation in government looks more advantageous.)

Majoritarian distortions

Ever more parties with ever less incentive to form governments – it's not difficult to see the consequences: time-wasting coalition talks, deadlock, snap elections, new coalition talks, and, as a result, increasingly disaffected citizens and dwindling confidence in democratic institutions.

The solution, in the eyes of some, is to create artificial majorities for parties or coalitions that don't have the support of a majority of the electorate. One way to achieve this is the Westminster-style majoritarian system of government: the first-past-the-post electoral system, which strongly benefits larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. If, in every electoral district, there's only one seat to fill, voters have no incentive to waste their vote on a candidate from a small party with very slim chances of winning. Better pick the candidate of one of the main parties that you dislike least. At the same time, politicians have little incentive to form new parties. In theory, this system tends to create a pure two-party system, which Britain had for decades (with the Conservatives and the Liberals and later the Conservatives and Labour being the dominant parties). However, even in Britain, in practice, the majoritarian system doesn't correspond to the theory anymore: small parties like the Liberal Democrats or UKIP receive a considerable share of the vote but get much fewer seats (in the 2015 elections, UKIP got only one seat although being supported by 12.7 percent of the electorate). The system is less harmful (or even beneficial) to the SNP because this party is geographically more concentrated.

The majoritarian electoral system often leads to severe distortions of election results and a highly disproportionate distribution of seats, especially if voters are unwilling to follow the two-party ideal.

The illusion of stability

There are other ways to reduce the number of parties in the hope of increasing governability. A number of countries have introduced electoral thresholds. In Germany, for example, parties have to receive at least 5 percent of the vote in order to take seats in parliament. In 2013, both the liberal FDP and the right-wing AfD narrowly failed to reach the threshold, resulting in a record-high number of wasted votes in that election. Since then, the AfD has risen sharply in popularity and won't have any problems to pass the threshold in the next elections in September.

The bluntest way to make it easier for parties to form coalitions is to simply give some additional seats to the largest party. Some countries (such as Greece or Italy) reward the winner of an election with a number of "bonus seats". In Greece, the largest party gets an additional 50 seats. In Italy, the largest party receives as many seats as necessary to get a majority in the lower house (though not in the Senate).

This system, however, not only violates the democratic principle that every vote should have the same weight. It also doesn't seem to work very well. Italy has a long tradition of short-lived governments. Greek governments don't look very stable as well, especially in recent years.

What is needed is not a change in institutional rules at the expense of proportionality and fairness, but a change of culture.

Creating artificial majorities in order to increase government efficiency has many faults and fails to solve the underlying problem. What is needed is not a change in institutional rules at the expense of proportionality and fairness, but a change of culture.

To agree or not to agree?

Many voters and politicians are used to the idea that governments represent coherent sets of policies that the respective parties can be held accountable for. However, the more parties a coalition consists of, the more compromises they have to make, and the more of the policies agreed upon differ from any party's position before the election.

We have to get used to the fact that many governments are not formed because the coalition partners are best friends or agree on a lot of things. Rather, they are formed because they are the only way to have enough votes in the legislature to get anything done.

Of course, parties in government should at least have some common ground, but pretending to have a wide agreement among coalition parties after spending the election campaign stressing the differences between each party is just silly. Representatives of government parties should be honest about their disagreement on many things. They should not be expected to agree in every vote in parliament. Parties and individual politicians should be allowed to deviate from the government's position without having to fear sanctions. The result would be that governments would appear less like a monolithic, coherent block and more like an alliance of different groups with the goal of managing the country.

This would not only be more honest, but it would also have the advantage that it would matter less who is in government and who isn't. Even when it’s not in government, a party would have opportunities to achieve something, be it only in certain areas and thanks to alliances with one or several parties in government. It would also be possible to include more parties in a coalition than necessary to reach a majority in government – a practice common in Switzerland, one of the most stable governments not just in Europe but around the world, since 60 years.

Coalitions of chaos?

Consensus democracies that limit the power of majorities in parliament at the benefit of minorities are often frowned upon. This type of democracy, it is argued, produces less accountable governments than majoritarian democracies and, consequently, is less democratic.

However, consensus democracies have one advantage that is becoming more clearly visible as party fragmentation increases: they allow for more flexibility in the parliamentary process. In Switzerland, for example, all the major parties (representing over 80 percent of the voters) are included in the government. Yet in parliament, all of them sometimes vote against the government (some more often than others). Coalitions in the legislative process vary from one issue to another: sometimes the parties in the center ally with the right, sometimes with the left, and sometimes even the parties on the extremes team up to form an "unholy alliance". What's more, if a party doesn't succeed with a demand in parliament, it can resort to instruments of direct democracy and collect signatures to force a popular vote on an issue.[2]Parties often use these instruments to put pressure on the government and the other parties to accept their demands. In recent years, the decreasing agreement among government parties has brought Switzerland's political system under pressure. So far, however, the flexibility of consensus democracy has allowed it to deal with these challenges without falling apart.

A quite different pattern, yet with similar results, can be observed in Denmark: Danish governments normally consist of as little parties as necessary. Often, they even have less than 50 percent of the seats in parliament. Denmark has had the most minority governments in the last 50 years. In order to get things done and laws passed, a minority government needs partners in parliament. So, unlike in Switzerland, in Denmark negotiations take place not inside the government, but in the parliamentary process. The result, however, is similar: Alternating coalitions between parties and flexible politics, instead of a strict coalition discipline that forces government parties and their representatives in parliament to vote in line with the executive. 

The examples of Switzerland and Denmark show the advantages of treating the government not as a monolithic, coherent block with one single opinion, but as just another agent that can never be sure of having a majority in parliament and, hence, has to build alliances. This makes politics more interesting. But more importantly, it is more honest with the voters. Why should parties in a coalition have to choose between agreeing on everything and letting the government fail? Why should they pretend to be of one opinion, when in fact the very reason of their existence is to have and to represent specific views and interests? And why should we try to reduce diversity in parliament for the sake of "efficiency" or "governability"? We should appreciate that the diversity of a society is represented in parliament and try to reach consensus over as broad a part of the representatives of society as possible.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData