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If parliament be hung...?

What do coalition governments around the world tell us about the possible logistics of a hung parliament after 7 May? 

Flickr/UK Parliament. Some rights reserved.

Democracy, they say, is based on a decision by the majority. Elections can be by first-past-the-post or the alternative vote or a form of proportional representation; any voting system, apparently, is just fine. But once those MPs come to parliament, everything, it seems, has to be done by simple or weighted majority vote. 

Hence, if parliament is hung, there will be a lot of confusing mathematics. Parties manoeuvre. Deals are done. There may be quite a few combinations by which either a majority may be achieved or a minority sustained. But are they all equally democratic?

Predictions suggest Labour might get 271 seats; the Tories 270; SNP 54; Lib Dems 29; DUP 9, Ukip 4, Plaid Cymru 3, SDLP 3 and GP 1. So in theory, a majority (326) could involve either a grand-coalition of Labour and Tory (271 + 270 = 541); or one of a number of majority coalitions of Labour and SNP and Lib Dem (270 + 54 + 29 = 353); or Labour and SNP and others (271 + 54 + 3 + 1 = 329); while the present coalition of Tory and Lib Dem plus a few others (270 + 29 + 9 + 4 = 312) falls a bit short.

First, let us see what arrangements might exist, and look at experiences elsewhere. Then let’s ask the question which some prefer to avoid: why do many countries, including the UK, have majority rule? Is this the apogee of democracy? Is a less adversarial polity not even possible?

Different forms of governance 

If no single party has a majority of parliamentary seats, than maybe, as in the SNP's first rule in Scotland, a minority administration could suffice. This means that either a large party seeks allies from beyond its ranks and enacts only those measures for which it manages to get a majority; or, in a more formal arrangement of ‘confidence and supply’, seeks the support of one or more smaller parties for the budget and other measures. On 8 May, such a loose arrangement between the SNP and Labour has already been mentioned as one possibility.

A second possibility is for a larger party – Tory or Labour – to join a smaller party like the Lib Dems and others in a majority coalition. But this raises the question: should a tiny party like the DUP or Ukip hold sway, while the much larger SNP does not? Should a small party be able to gain more democratic influence than is its proportional due? Alas, the answer is yes; indeed, on some occasions, a single MP can become the ‘king-maker’, and such was the case in Ireland in 1982 when Tony Gregory was ‘bought’ for £100m by one Charlie Haughey.

There are, it seems, few rules. Sometimes, the biggest party forms the government; but sometimes, as in 1999 in Austria, the most popular party was side-lined by the second and third biggest. A similar fate befell the largest party in Hungary in 2002. Or take the Netherlands in 2003: the second biggest party was not in government, nor the fourth, fifth or sixth, but the seventh! Any combination, apparently, no matter how tortuous the negotiations, is considered democratic, as long as it consists of a majority.

Germany has also produced some interesting results. In 2005, the two big parties got 226 and 222 seats, while the three little ones got 61, 54 and 51. So any combination of one big plus any two small parties would have surpassed the 308 mark needed for a majority, as would a grand coalition of the two big parties. For those who believe in majority rule, any one of these seven concoctions would all have been totally democratic!

There is one other form of governance: a non-majoritarian government of national unity (GNU), an all-party coalition. By the different name of 'inclusive government', this was recently advocated for Iraq. Under the title of 'power-sharing', this was the EU’s February 2014 recommendation for Ukraine… but only at the 11th hour, on the very day President Yanukovich fled into exile.

Switzerland remains the only country to adopt a form of all-party government without first suffering an internal conflict. It has a long tradition of de-centralised democracy, with much power devolved to the cantons and other direct powers enjoyed by the electorate in the form of citizens’ initiatives. Then, in 1959, they adopted an all-party Federal Council: the top four parties chose who was to serve on the seven-person Council on the basis of a ‘magic formula’ of 2:2:2:1. Given a change in the various parties’ electoral fortunes, the formula has now been changed to 2:2:1:1:1, but the ‘magic’ still works.

A few other formulas have also been devised: Northern Ireland uses a d’Hondt interpretation of the most recent Assembly elections, to award ministries to the bigger parties in a sequence known as ‘cherry-picking’. Lebanon awards important posts such as those of Prime Minister and Speaker on the basis of confessional belief. And in Bosnia, the three-person presidency consists of one of each religion: Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox. In actuality, all of these formulas perpetuate the very sectarian divisions they were supposed to obviate.


Elsewhere, reliance is placed on talks. Elections free and fair are followed by inter-party discussions in a process which is often the very opposite of open and transparent: meetings are held, bargains are struck, ministerial portfolios are exchanged… and eventually, a government is formed. 

Inter-party arrangements can, of course, be very problematic: Will the coalition be narrow or broad? Which ministerial posts, if any, will be shared? Will the coalition partners be of a similar political persuasion?

Again, it seems all sorts of coalition settlements are represented as totally democratic. As was seen in 1978, the Labour Party was able to form an alliance with those of an opposite hue, the Unionists. In Austria, in 1999, the highly criticised right-wing populist Freedom Party was in a coalition government, which led to sanctions from the EU which claimed that the coalition was "legitimising the extreme right in Europe". Anything is possible. So everything is problematic. No wonder many negotiations are tortuous.

Admittedly, in 2010, the UK took only five days to form a government; that was quick by any standard. Three years later, Germany took five weeks, while in 1999, Austria took over 100 days, as did the Dutch in 2003 and again in 2010. After the post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2008, UN-sponsored negotiations took 70 days to devise a form of power-sharing. Iraq in dire straits in 2010 took 249. At about the same time, after the 2010 elections, Belgium’s negotiations on forming a government lasted for 541 days!

A more inclusive polity

If, however, majority rule were to be questioned, if an all-party coalition, a GNU, were to be the norm, the world could be at least a little more peaceful.

At the moment, in politics, decisions are taken and/or ratified by majority vote. So questions are dichotomous. So politics is adversarial. So, except in some former conflict zones, many parliaments split into two: the bigger ‘half’ forms the government, the smaller becomes the opposition.

It does not have to be so. After all, other gatherings do not split themselves asunder. Trade unions, company boards and NGO executives do not divide into two. People come together and individuals take on different functions, but all share the same purpose, and all work for the common good.

Politics could be similar. Questions do not have to be dichotomous, even those that include a binary choice: for example, which side of the road shall we drive on? The only country to hold a referendum on this question, Sweden, had three options on the ballot paper: ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘blank’. Those committed democrats who on this question were indifferent could vote ‘blank’ and, as it were, go with the flow. Even when the question is binary, therefore, there may be more than two ways of voting. Indeed, with preference voting on three options, there would be at least six possible sets of preferences.

Accordingly, in a plural democracy, a contentious question should cater for a plurality of options, and final decisions should be taken or ratified via a multi-option preference vote. If the chosen methodology were non-majoritarian, i.e. a Modified Borda Count (MBC), that would be the end of majority rule. The will of parliament would be that option which gained the highest average preference… and an average, of course, involves every MP who votes, not just a majority of them.

Prior to all this, of course, parliament would be required to elect its executive. The actual methodology – a matrix vote – would allow every MP to cast preferences both for those whom he/she wished to see in cabinet, and for the particular portfolio in which he/she wanted each of these nominees to serve. The methodology is proportional and ethno-colour blind; at best, then, the outcome would be such that, individually, each minister would be the one whom the House regarded as most suitable for the chosen ministry, while collectively, the cabinet would be an all-party GNU, with each party represented proportionally. 

On 8 May, a government of, say, 20 ministers would probably consist of about eight Labour, eight Tory, two SNP and one Lib Dem. And they would have to work together, just as we in society have to work together, all for the common good. Given the size of the problem of global warming, such an inclusive polity may be a prerequisite for our collective survival.

Democracy is for everybody, not just 50 per cent and a bit. A two per cent swing amongst the electorate should produce a similar swing not only in parliament but also in government. Indeed, it could be said that the above more consensual polity would be much more suitable for a species which is inherently evolutionary.

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About the author

Peter Emerson, the child of an English Catholic mother and Irish Protestant father, is the director of the de Borda Institute, a Belfast-based NGO which specialises in voting systems for decision-making.  He has worked in several other conflict zones as well, in the Balkans, the Caucasus and East Africa.  His latest book is From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics, (Springer, 2016).

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