Dateline UK: In Praise of Coalition Governments
Has the time come to consider new political arrangements among opposing political camps?
May 13, 2010
Normally in a democracy, the principal idea of elections is to provide one political camp or another with a sufficient majority to govern the country for a period of time before a new round of elections is held to give voters the chance to evaluate the performance of those in power.
To ensure clear-cut majorities, some countries — such as the United States and the United Kingdom — traditionally resort to electoral mechanisms and traditions that are designed to ensure governability, for example, by effectively managing a two-party system.
Absent that, countries find themselves exposed to minority governments that are in power only because they are tolerated by opposition parties, with Canada being a case in point.
And then, there is a political trend prevailing from India to Israel, in which a near-endless supply of political parties — for reasons of political, religious, ethnic, regional and social identity — succeeds in obtaining representation in parliament.
That, in turn, not only makes coalition-building exceedingly difficult — but, due to the law of the lowest common denominator, also results in a built-in level of political dysfunction right from the get-go.
We also live in a time when the socio-economic nerves of virtually each and every society are more exposed than ever — and the potential for a serious fractioning of domestic political consensus is more pronounced than at any other time in the era of modern democracy.
Street protests may, for now, seem to be a relevant political factor only in Greece, France and some parts of Eastern Europe. In reality, they have become more pronounced the world over — just think of Thailand and Pakistan.
True enough, the unresolved political and economic legacies of feudalism play significant roles in the unstable political situation in both of those countries. Across much of Thailand and Pakistan, the people at large still feel quite disenfranchised when it comes to having a real stake in political power.
There are those who argue resolutely that the only way for these countries to find their path to a more stable future is to rely on majority rule — and the moderating effects that actually having to provide government services has on the party that represents "the masses."
The bigger question from London to Bangkok is whether coalition governments do not provide an option worth considering. At first glance, such a choice seems to run counter to political realities on the ground.
There is certainly no love lost between Thailand's rural masses (the red shirts) and the urban middle class (the yellow shirts). And yet, collaboration ultimately provides the only practical way out — a lesson that is also slowly being learned in Palestine between similarly irreconcilable partners.
Ultimately, for all its supposed, and very real, flaws, the global economy does serve as a great equalizer in the context of domestic political governance. Simply put, countries that manage to reconcile political differences in a constructive fashion will position themselves more beneficially than countries that tear themselves apart.
The big test for any country in the world today — whether developed, emerging or poor — is to react swiftly to adverse changes in the global market environment. The time-tested escape hatch, just blaming the other political party for the country's current ills, really is a throwback to a non-global political past.
In that sense, what is becoming vital is to have both main political camps represented at the cabinet table. In many cases, the pressures of the global economy are too real and too demanding to resort to the traditional form of political gamesmanship: blaming the (domestic) opposition for what clearly are global pressures.
Countries that manage to unify the political "left" and the "right" more constructively in their daily decision-making are likely to be more successful economically because they, in effect, make faster adjustments.
The case of Germany's current political landscape is illustrative in that regard. The so-called grand coalition of the CDU and the SPD has effectively meant that the country was governed from the center until the changeover to a conservative-liberal coalition in September 2009.
The results of this supposedly more cohesive government were disappointing, especially when compared to its predecessor. Now, Germany's voters — through the back door of a state election which shifted majorities at the federal level — have effectively reestablished a grand coalition between the CDU and SPD.
The fact of the matter is the previous Merkel government worked well by and large. The temptation to blame the other guys was, and of course still is, there. But it was a sobering antidote to mere political grandstanding to see the "other guys" around the cabinet table every week, forcing both sides to come to their collective senses.
Half a world away, India, with its increasingly unwieldy multi-party democracy, may be the next big country to find itself contemplating the virtues of the Congress Party and the BJP Party coalescing in some fashion.
Unlikely though this may seem at this juncture, this option is bound to become more pressing, as the country, faced with China's economic rise, seeks to secure a political framework that is dependable enough to advance its economic and political reform agenda.
The big test for any country in the world today — whether developed, emerging or poor — is to react swiftly to adverse changes in the global market environment.
Just blaming the other political party for the country's current ills really is a throwback to a non-global political past.
What is becoming vital is to have both main political camps represented at the cabinet table.
We live in a time when the potential for a serious fractioning of domestic political consensus is more pronounced than at any other time in the era of modern democracy.