How they build their coalition governments
Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/09/2009
Let’s first start by answering three questions:
Why compare? The reason is fairly simple, there are many benefits to it. Comparisons can help us understand the difficulties of cabinet formation (and distinguish structural problems from contextual ones). Comparisons can help us reframe our expectations. Comparisons can help us determine where the problems lie. Comparisons offer us solutions others have figured out to solve similar problems.
Why choose Belgium, Israel and Northern Ireland? These countries have recurrently faced problems in cabinet formation. But the difficulties they encountered are not the same.
In Belgium, their is a deep division between Walloons and Flemish parties. So during the cabinet formation process, you have to please parties belonging to both groups, which isn’t always easy, even when the parties belong to the same ideological family, because the parties’ constituencies are not the same. Each communal group has its priorities and its perspective. Negotiations can take time (in the case of Belgium, it took 196 days in 2007), and they can be facilitated through arbitration (by the King or an appointee of his).
Israel on the other hand is extremely efficient in cabinet formation although all of its governments have recently been coalition governments bringing together parties that have deep disagreements (ex: secularists and religious parties, leftists and rightists…). Some of the parties even have distinct communal constituencies (ex: Shass, Yisrael B’alya, NRP). What helps the process is the absence of polarisation (there are many parties and each party negotiates alone), the absence of communal power-sharing rules (between Jews and non-Jews or between the different sectors of the Jewish community) and an agreement on several basic rules in cabinet formation: proportionality according to parliamentary weight, each party chooses its ministers, no veto power for any party on the inclusion.
Northern Ireland’s example is rather interesting too. In this case, the largest problem was that one of the largest political formations in the country was armed (Sinn Féin-IRA), and had refused to disband because the Irish police force was in the hand of the rival communal group, and it considered that the British Army was in favour of that group. So the United Kingdom brokered a decommissioning plan that was linked to the participation of the political branch of the party to the government of Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland Executive). After this was done, the basic rule for cabinet formation was that of proportionality between government weight and parliamentary weight within a broad and cross-communal “national-unity government”. This being said, tensions are still recurrent and this has lead the British government to suspend the Northern Ireland Executive for several years!
What can we learn from these examples or others? Cabinet formation takes time in plural societies, especially if they are polarised, because the process has to take into account an extremely large number of elements that have to be negotiated, mainly:
- the choice of the Prime minister
- the number and the identity of parties that will partake in the government,
- the government’s program (national priorities),
- allocation of seats,
- distribution of portfolios,
- choice of ministers.
The existence of rules can facilitate or complicate the formation of governments. Rules can be formalised (explicitly by law) or not. Formalised rules can abridge negotiations by limiting their scope. Rules that are not formalised could have the same effect, and they have the advantage of adapting to change. On the hand, opinions can differ on the interpretation of tules. The more there are disagreements on rules, the longer time it will take to get to a consensus. That’s why the existence of an arbitrator is essential. This arbitrator not only breaks the deadlock, but he gives an authoritative interpretation of the rule (formal and informal). It is important for the system to spell out the facilitating rules and to replace or prohibit the complicating rules. Tomorrow, we’ll look into the complicating factors in Lebanon and ways they could be rationalised (we’ll look into Boris Mirkine-Guetzevitch’s approach to how parliamentarism can be rationalised).