Longevity of grand coalitions

In the comments to an earlier post on Germany, Stefan asks a good question about the longevity of “grand coalitions.”

First, some definitional considerations. Some countries are governed by more-or-less permanent “grand coalitions” that incorporate all the major ethnic or religious groups of a divided society. One example would be Lebanon (with a rigid formula that contributed to the civil war in the 1970s and again to the recent polarization). Other so-called consociational demcoracies have variations (usually far less rigid) on this sort of grand coalition.

And then there are the “emergency” grand coalitions, such as when Israeli parties formed a “unity” government as neighboring countries massed troops along the border before the Six-Day War of 1967, or when the two major parties of Canada, Britain, and other parliamentary democracies governed jointly during the World Wars.

But the examples that are relevant to the question about the new German government, as well as the just-dissolved Israeli government, are those “grand coalitions” or “unity governments” that are formed as a result of parliamentary bargaining situations that are not favorable to either a left or right-wing coalition. If elections fail to deliver a clear majority for a right bloc or left bloc (as in Germany’s most recent elections) or if a larger party decides it would be too costly to accede to the demands of a smaller party (or parties) that it needs to form a majority (as in Israel last January or Germany in 1966), the result may be the major left and right parties governing jointly.

Naturally, grand coalitions of this sort are rare. The only one perviously in Germany lasted just three years (1966-69).

Israel had a unity government of Labor and Likud (and other parties) form after the 1984 election. It re-formed after the 1988 election again did not give either party a viable means to form a government without the other. It then broke down in 1990. The current unity government, of course, lasted less than a year, when an internal leadership election in Labor resulted in the victory of a candidate who vowed to lead the party out of the coalition.

There are not very many other examples at the national level, so it is hard to answer the queston of longevity. But Germany’s first such government lasted until the regularly scheduled 1969 elections, which resulted in large gains for the Social Democrats and their forming a coalition with the liberal FDP. (The grand coalition had been formed part way through a parliamentary term when the Christian Democrats and the FDP disagreed over tax policy.) Israel’s first (non-wartime) example lasted through the next elections and included a rotation of the prime ministership midterm between the Labor and Likud leaders, before breaking down halfway into the next term of parliament. (Some German states have considerable experience with grand coalitions, but I do not know much about them.)

I would expect the current formula in Germany to last for most of the Budestag’s term (4 years), especially since it is not easy to dissolve parliament early in Germany. Outgoing Chancellor Schröder managed to do it, but it is not as simple as in some parliamentary systems. The constitutional provisions on dissolution could be changed, though it would require both the left and right to agree, meaning both would have to prefer an early election over retention of the grand coalition.

Grand coalitions tend to be disparaged. They are hardly anyone’s first choice, but as I have argued in several previous posts in the Germany category here, they can be a good solution to short-term situations in which the electorate is conflicted about the direction it wants policy to take.

0 thoughts on “Longevity of grand coalitions

  1. …Although, some in Germany (esp. the media) are already speculating about a new round of elections (or they were when Munteferring and Stoiber quit the proposed cabinet). It seems that now that Merkel has built a cabinet that seems likely to be sworn in without further defectors, doesn’t it seem possible that in a year or so, when public opinion has veered to either the left or right, that Merkel or the new SPD chief Platzeck will bail from the grand coalition and force new elections? I suppose it depends on what they’re able to accomplish until either a) public opinion goes to one side or the other, or b) 4 years from now. Is it possible in Germany to simply pull out of the coalition to force new elections?

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