Tuesday 13 September 2011

Coalition without legitimate mandate?

Since 2010 the UK is experiencing its first coalition government in more than 50 years. Following general election in May last year and the failure of the Conservatives to achieve an absolute majority in the House of Commons, David Cameron took the unusual step and offered to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Since then, there has been a vocal debate on whether or not a coalition government can command any proper legitimate mandate. At times, some senior Labour figures joined the debate with claims that some bills going through parliament have no mandate since neither of the governing parties won an outright majority. Does legitimacy depend on an electoral victory by a single party? Is all coalition politics inevitably illegitimate?

The question has as many perspectives as there are democratic or electoral systems. I cannot remember ever encountering the claim that the German government may be illegitimate simply because it was a coalition between two parties. Yet, different nations, different customs.

The argument against the current government's mandate seem to have two aspects. First, some observers maintain that governments are elected on the basis of their manifesto and hence only have a democratic mandate to implement what they have included in their manifesto. The second idea the opponents of coalition government put forward relates to the fact that all coalition governments are results of compromises that have been forged AFTER the electorate gave their verdict.

Both of these arguments assume a direct relationship between electorate and elected. In other words, legitimacy is the function of an uninterrupted and uncorrupted link between the choice of voters and those they elect. If governmental legitimacy is indeed based solely on such a clear connection, coalition government presents some serious challenges to legitimate democratic politics.

There are some other views, however, that cast some doubts on this rather simplistic vision of governmental legitimacy. First, some argue (and I think convincingly) that the assumption that elected members of parliament represent the will of their constituents directly resembles, if anything, a convenient fiction. The fact is members of parliament are supposed to vote with their conscience and in the interest of their constituency. It is up to them, however, to judge what this interest is. If the electorate thinks their judgments to be flawed they can re-call them next time around through the ballot box. But there is nothing that necessarily compels members of parliament to act as representatives of the wishes of all their constituents. In any case, given how divided modern society is on many issues, this would be an impossible task.

The second argument is that the notion of a linear line of legitimacy between the electorate and government is not very plausible. Society and government is far more complex. In order to implement policies, government requires much more than just a majority in parliament. It needs to win a public debate on the issues it wants to legislate, plus, to the chagrin of many political leaders, also has to battle the objections of the civil service.

In other words, if legitimacy for governmental action is not simply established by the walk to the ballot box every four or five years, why should it exclusively rest on it in the first place? Legitimacy is much more a result of continuously persuading the public to support legislation or policy rather than a singular act of electoral whim. Legitimacy, so some argue, is an ongoing reiterative process, rather than a linear one.

This in fact puts in place a far better system of checks and balances on the government than linear legitimacy could ever achieve. If governmental legitimacy would only require support every four or five years, semi-authoritarian government may be possible. If, however, government needs to win a public debate and persuade society about its suggestions for change and reform, we all have a stake in decision making. This share of responsibility and share of legitimacy appears to me to be a far more appealing arrangement. The flip-side is that we need to stop whining about 'not being told' in their manifestos what government does and does not do. Governmental legitimacy does not originate with a single act, nor does it end there.

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