Bilateral bargaining in multiparty coalitions

This is just a follow up to the previous planting. As I noted there, the incoming Israeli PM’s party (Likud) will sign separate coalition agreements with each of five partner parties (three of whom ran on a joint list in the election but maintain their separate “faction” status in the Knesset).

I believe this is typical of multiparty coalitions in parliamentary democracies: that when there are multiple partners, each one signs its own bilateral deal with the incoming cabinet head. I know it is the way it has been done in Israel for as long as I have been paying attention. It is also how it has been done in recent bargaining in New Zealand. I actually do not know if other counties with coalitions uniformly do this, or if there are cases where coalition agreements are joint among all the parties entering government. (There are some cases with no public agreements; that seems to be rare nowadays.)

Maybe someone knows of a case.*

The bilateral deals raise the specter for a party that a deal with another partner contradicts something in their own deal. Presumably the government-leading party seeks to avoid contradictions that will only cause headaches later. But some contradictions can’t be avoided, presumably, and some may even be strategic. This is precisely why parties also care about who gets junior ministers and committee chairs–the stacking vs. checking I talked about in the earlier entry. The agreements often contain a clause that they cover only the areas explicitly mentioned in the text, and do not preclude the PM’s party from striking agreements with other parties (presumably on different policy topics, but each party cares about more issues than those it gets in its own agreement). This is also why most coalitions create additional mechanisms, like coalition coordinating committees or inner cabinets, to work out inevitable disagreements.

The alternative agreement strategy would be to do a grand multilateral bargain. But that would be extremely complex and unwieldy to hammer out! But I wonder if there are countries, or specific governments, where that approach is taken.

A humorous (to me, anyway) aside is there was a report during the past weeks that Benjamin Netanyahu proposed having a single agreement with all parties. This was quickly shot down by his proto-partners, and presumably for good reason, from their perspective. He also went so far as to ask them to simply agree to form a right-wing government and delegate to him the personnel decisions for awarding each partner with posts. Naturally, that went over like a lead balloon. Nice try, though.


* I since have been told that in Belgium and the Netherlands, they do multilateral coalition bargaining and agreements.

8 thoughts on “Bilateral bargaining in multiparty coalitions

    • I think you can add Sweden and Germany to that. In fact, I’ve always thought that Israel was rather unusual in that, outside single party minority government contexts.


      • I too was under the impression that multi-party bargaining was the norm across mature democracies, and considered Spain as the main exception that sprang to mind. The PSOE is currently the senior coalition partner to Podemos in the actual executive, but has separate agreements with various small regionalist parties to help get its business and budgets through the Cortes Generales.

        I think I was aware of similar arrangements in New Zealand (though not relevant at the moment of course due to Labour’s absolute majority of seats) but hadn’t noticed Israel was also an outlier until now… which probably means I haven’t been paying proper attention to this particular blog!


        • Ha! Interestingly, even though I forgot to mention it in the post, I also had the current Spanish government in mind as a case of bilateral bargaining.

          Clearly I have not paid enough attention to the processes in a wide set of countries, because it seems that bilateral may not be the norm (except in a possibly biased sample of countries I’ve paid closest attention to!).


      • I thought I recalled bilateral bargaining in Germany. I may be wrong.

        As I mentioned, New Zealand is a bilateral case, at least in the years in which I’ve followed coalition negotiations (which I think is most of them now). Each partner negotiates and signs its own deal with the PM’s party. This perhaps makes more sense in a context in which the PM’s party is typically not that far short of a majority on its own, and each of the partners is quite small.


  1. And I just remembered a very big case of multilateral: The first United Progressive Alliance agreement in India, following the 2004 election. Now it is a rather different case in that most of the partners were pre-electoral allies. But it is still a single agreement on government negotiated by all of the partners, including–crucially for the question at hand–the support alliance (which took no cabinet seats), the Left Front.

    I suppose the pre-election agreements were themselves bilateral, particularly as most of them were relevant only to a specific state (whereby the Congress Party and a local party agreed on which seats each would contest, while the others stand down).


  2. At least in Portugal, was considered polemic that the PS, in 1995, had made 3 parliamentary agreements with the Bloc of Left, the Communists and the Greens instead of only one multi-agreement between the 4 parties (the PS even made an outdoor with a photo-montage showing the signings of the 3 separate agreement as an only joint event). It was speculated that the separate agreements were because an historical bad relation between Communists and the Bloc of Left.

    Besides that, all other post-electoral agreements were between 2 parties only (PS+CDS, PS+PSD, PSD+CDS)


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