Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

How they build their coalition governments

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/09/2009

lebanon-cartoon-which-diretcionLet’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).

3 Responses to “How they build their coalition governments”

  1. lirun said

    its fascinating that you perceive our government formation process to be relatively efficient.. we ourselves are very frustrated by it and have over the years constantly sought reform.. then again when we compare ourselves to lebanon its normally a scare tactic.. we fear becoming a second lebanon like u cant imagine.. ie very pretty but so messed up🙂

    • Truth to tell, the Israeli government formation process is widely considered to be one of the most efficient, considering the number of parties that are engaged in it. I believe it is even faster than the German one. What seems to bother the Israeli establishment and analysts is the huge number of parties. But their growth in number doesn’t seem to be effecting the process that much.
      I didn’t know about this scare tactic that you mentioned. Interesting. What about South Africanization?

  2. lirun said

    the fact that 1.5 million arabs live amongst jewish israelis with access to education health care and other essential services and at least comparatively enjoy have a high standard of living andf the fact that ethnically many of us are arab-ish enables israel to distinguish itself from the apartheid regime.. the notion is considered laughable when discussed over here..

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