Essay on Arguments for and against coalition government

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Advocates of proportional representation suggest that a coalition government leads to more consen­sus-based politics, in that a government comprising differing parties (often based on different ideolo­gies) would need to concur in regard to governmental policy.

Another stated advantage is that a coali­tion government better reflects the popular opinion of the electorate within a country.

Those who disapprove of coalition governments believe that such governments have a tendency to be fractious and prone to disharmony. This is because coalitions would necessarily include different parties with differing beliefs and who, therefore, may not always agree on the correct path for govern­mental policy.

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Sometimes the results of an election are such that the coalitions which are mathemati­cally most probable are ideologically infeasible, such as in Flanders or Northern Ireland. A second difficulty might be the ability of minor parties to play “kingmaker” and, particularly in close elections, gain far more for their support than their vote would otherwise indicate.

Coalition governments have also been criticized of sustaining a consensus on issues when dis­agreement and the consequent discussion would be more fruitful. To forge a consensus, the leaders of ruling coalition parties can agree to silence their disagreements on an issue to unify the coalition against the opposition.

The coalition partners, if they control the parliamentary majority, can collude to make the parliamentary discussion on the issue irrelevant by consistently disregarding the arguments of the op­position and voting against the opposition’s proposals – even if there is disagreement within the ruling parties about the issue.

Powerful parties can also act in an oligocratic way to form an alliance to stifle the growth of emerg­ing parties. Of course, such an event is rare in coalition governments when compared to two-party systems, which typically exists because of stifling the growth of emerging parties, often through dis­criminatory ballot access regulations and plurality voting systems, etc.

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A single, more powerful party can shape the policies of the coalition disproportionately. Smaller or less powerful parties can be intimi­dated to not openly disagree. In order to maintain the coalition, they will have to vote against the party’s platform in the parliament. If they do not, the party has to leave the government and loses executive power.

Advantages

1. Coalition government is more democratic, and hence fairer, because it represents a much broader spec­trum of public opinion than government by one party alone. In almost all coalitions, a majority of citizens voted for the parties which form the government and so their views and interests are represented in political decision-making.

2. Coalition government creates a more honest and dynamic political system, allowing voters a clearer choice at election time. In countries where coalition government is very rare, such as the UK or USA, the main parties straddle a wide spectrum of opinion and can be seen as coalitions of competing interest groups and ideologies.

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At elections, however, such parties present themselves, perhaps fraudulently, to voters as united behind particular views and policies, whereas in power their internal divisions may have a serious, and often unseen, impact upon decision-making.In countries with coalition governments the greater number of political parties gives the voter a more honest choice and brings differences of opinion out into the open for debate.

It is also easier for parties to split, or new ones to be formed, as new political issues divide opinion, because new parties still have a chance of a share in political power.

3. Coalitions provide good government because their decisions are made in the interests of a majority of the people. Because a wide consensus of opinion is involved, any policy will be debated thoroughly within the government before it is implemented.

Single-party government is much more likely to impose badly thought-out policies upon parliament and people, perhaps for narrowly ideological reasons (for example, the poll tax in the UK).

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When difficult or historic decisions have to be taken, for example in wartime, or over an issue such as membership of the European Union or NATO, the consent of politicians represent­ing a wide range of interests and opinion is important in committing the country and its people to difficult but necessary courses of action.

4. Coalition government provides more continuity in administration. In countries without a tradition of coalition governments, parties can remain in government or opposition for long periods, and an adversarial political culture develops.

When a change does occur, the members of the new adminis­tration seldom have any experience of government to draw upon, and often embark upon a whole­sale reversal of the previous regime’s policies; neither of these things is in the public interest.

In states with coalition politics, however, there are usually at least some ministers with considerable experience under the previous government. A more consensual style of politics also allows for a more gradual and constructive shift of policy between administrations.

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Disadvantages

1. Coalition government is actually less democratic as the balance of power is inevitably held by the smelt parties who can barter their support for concessions from the main groups within the coalition.

This means that a party with little popular support is able to impose its policies upon the majority by a process of political blackmail. Possible examples of this might include the role of religious parties in Israel, the Greens in Germany and France, and the demand of constitutional reforms by the Liberal Democrats in the UK as their price of coalition support in a future hung parliament.

Democracy may be further under mined if the process of coalition-making is subject to the whim of a monarch or president, able to decide who to ask to attempt to form a government, whether to call new elections, etc.

2. Coalition government is less transparent. Because a party has no real chance of forming a government alone, the manifestos they present to the public become irrelevant and often wildly unrealistic. Real decisions about political programmes are made after the election, in a process of secretive backroom negotiation from which the public is excluded.

This undermines accountability, as voters cannot expect individual parties in a coalition to deliver upon their particular manifesto promises, unlike the single-party governments in the USA and UK.Accountability is also absent when a coalition government falls, either after an election or through the defection of some of its supporters.

Any new administration will tend to include most of the parties and politicians from the previous government, with just a little shuffling of coalition partners and ministerial jobs.

3. Coalitions provide bad government because they are unable to take a long-term view. Sometimes an ideological compass is necessary for governments to navigate in difficult political and economic waters, and coalitions lack such a unifying philosophy.

In addition, planning for the long-term often requires decisions to be made that are unpopular in the short-term. Coalitions often fail such tests because tem­porary unpopularity may encourage one of the parties involved to defect, in search of a populist advan­tage.

It might be agreed that sometimes exceptional circumstances, such as war, require a coalition government (although the USA did not have one in either World War). This does not mean that such governments are better in normal conditions. Major constitutional decisions are better dealt with through referenda.

Coalition governments are very unstable, often collapsing and reforming at frequent intervals – Italy, for example, averages more than one government per year since 1945.

This greatly restricts the ability of governments to deal with major reforms and means that politicians seldom stay in any particular ministerial post for long enough to get to grips with its demands.

At the same time, this squabbling between political parties erodes the confidence of the public in their political system and in their elected representatives.

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