Thursday 10 November 2011

Why grand coalitions rarely deliver

As Greek and Italian politicians scramble to form new governments, many people are gasping at the unedifying spectacle of prime ministers holding on to their positions. Yet before welcoming any Greek grand coalition or an administration of ‘technocrats’ in Italy we should perhaps pause and ask ourselves whether these interim governments have a track record of delivering the radical reforms both countries need.
Germany has an interesting history of grand coalitions. The first coalition between the main parties between 1966-69 is widely believed to have been a failure. While it prepared the Social Democrats (the junior partners of the CDU) to government, it did not initiate the reforms the country needed. 
In fact, most modernising reforms in the social and economic sphere were introduced by ‘small’ coalition governments under the leadership of visionary Social Democrats, such as Willi Brandt and Gerhard Schroeder. Both sought a strong democratic mandate from the German voters and introduced reforms through ‘small’ coalition governments (with the Liberals and the Greens respectively), implementing reforms often against the own parties and, more often than not, against the Christian Democrats in the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. 
So, if grand coalitions have the combined parliamentary support of the two main parties, why does their supposedly strong mandate not translate into decisive legislative action? The reason lies in the way in which representative democracy is set up. Political parties represent sectional interest of society, their clash of interests in the chamber is supposed to produce a consensus between those, often conflicting, interests. Where governments are formed by one party, or as in Germany and the UK at the moment, by one major and one smaller party, legislative programmes can by and large be implemented without significant hurdles. The struggle of ideas moderates their stance but does not prevent them from carrying out a coherent legislative agenda.  
Where two large parties come together, the interests they represent are often diametrically opposed, for example in the reform of labour law with the conflicting interests of trade unions and employers. The result is stasis, two parties blocking each other’s reform ideas. Their viewpoint of what constitutes the best way forward are bound to be farther removed from each other between two large parties than between a large and smaller party. And their habitual opposition to the other party’s proposal does not bode well for future co-operation either. 
So what about technocratic governments, so-called administrations of experts? Is their removal from the tussle of party political life not an advantage at times of crisis? Sadly not. While governments of technocrats may have a sound notion of how to break the reform deadlock, they often lack the support to get their ideas passed by parliament. The history of the Weimar Republic is a fascinating example. 
Once political parties blocked each others legislative programme in the Reichstag, the call for a technocratic Chancellor, someone above party politics, became stronger. Yet, it quickly transpired that this only quickened to move away from parliamentary politics in the first place, since the political parties in the Reichstag had little incentive to support someone without any loyalty to their ideological principles. 
In effect, technocratic Chancellors in the last years of the Weimar Republic governed without parliamentary mandate and hastened the end of representative democracy (the ironic twist of this story is of course Hitler who had achieved a strong relative parliamentary majority in the elections of July 1932 but was not appointed Chancellor until January 1933 and another round of elections where the share of the NSDAP went down). 
So what is the way forward? There may be no clean, neat option for those who find themselves in the straightjacket of overdue economic reforms and global market dynamics. To placate the markets, technocratic governments or grand coalitions may be an interim solution, yet we should not expect them to deliver the radical reforms that are necessary in either Italy or Greece. 
Ultimately, the voters will have to go to the polls again to provide the democratic mandate for such reforms. To weaken parliaments or to silence the struggle of ideas by artificially forcing technocratic solutions on political parties will only produce the impression that democracy does not work and undermine representative democracy in the long run. 


  1. Hi Becka,
    many thanks for your nice comment! I hope you enjoy reading the blog and wish you all the best in the future!


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