When does a coalition partner have a veto?

Does entering into a coalition government imply that a political party is a “veto player”? Some scholars would say yes, while others raise cautions about such a generalization. I would side with those who sound the caution and say that it depends.

The issue arises because in Israel, the Otzma Yehudit party leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, has issued another demand that is gumming up the process of forming what in theory should be a highly compact minimum winning coalition of the right–orthodox bloc in Israel.

According to the Times of Israel, Ben Gvir said “We want a deputy in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation” and without this, “we can’t form a government.” The news update notes that a spokesman has clarified that he means that veto power is his intention with this demand.

As the article notes, the rules of procedure for the Ministerial Committee for Legislation are subject to each government’s internal agreements. It is not as if law specifies who sits on this committee and what each member’s powers are. The issue raises the more general point in the questions at the top of this entry. Does a coalition partner possess a veto by the very nature of coalition government or must it be agreed to explicitly?

Tsebelis, in his work on “veto players” would say that in a unicameral (or effectively so) parliamentary system like Israel’s, the veto players are the parties in the government. The implication is that no policy is changed without the consent of all veto players–all cabinet parties. Let’s leave aside cases of minority governments, which complicate the discussion (but are important to understand!) or oversize cabinets.1 I will focus on the simplest case of coalition–one in which there are two or more parties whose personnel populate the cabinet, the parties together command a majority, and there are no extra parties beyond what is needed for that majority. This is essentially what the emerging coalition in Israel will exemplify.2

In the situation resulting from the election and the bargaining positions of the various parties, each party that is expected to enter the incoming cabinet indeed would appear to be a veto player. There would seem to be little need to codify this in the operating procedures of a key cabinet committee. Nonetheless, I do not believe it is by definition the case that any cabinet coalition partner has a veto. It depends on the circumstances, and those can vary across governments within a country and could even vary across time within a government. The latter, of course, is a reason a party leader with extreme policy demands (like Ben Gvir) might insist on both personnel (a deputy chair of a key cabinet committee) and rules to codify the veto.

As a general rule, however, cabinet membership should not automatically make a party a veto player. Many cabinets will let a partner vote no on something without bringing down the government or categorically blocking the passage of a bill. In fact, this is arguably the purest form of “consensus” “majoritarian” democracy–one in which legislative majorities are sufficient to change policy (no minority veto/super-majority rules), but legislative coalitions need not be the same as the cabinet coalition on every piece of legislation. Policy-enacting majorities can “cycle” from one set of majority-holding parties to another, depending on the issue and the bargaining strengths of a wider set of parties than those that comprise the cabinet. See works of McGann & Latner, Li, and others on this point. 3

The reason Otzma is probably a veto player in the emerging government is that there appear to be scant options for the leading party, Likud and leader Benjamin Netanyahu, to construct legislative coalitions that replace one or more of his coalition partners with votes (let alone influential posts) from parties outside the cabinet. The current divide is stark–pro-Netanyahu vs. the rest–such that cross-bloc votes could not be counted on. That could change, of course, depending on various events that change the incentives of various parties. (Benny Gantz, Defense Minister in the outgoing government who is currently ticketed for opposition, hinted as much yesterday.)

Thus the veto player potential of a coalition partner depends on the degree of fluidity of blocs in parliament. It should not, it seems to me, be assumed from the mere role as a coalition partner. I doubt Ben Gvir has read much political science, but he seems to be learning fast, and to get the basic point. He does not trust Netanyahu and Likud to follow through on policy promises in their coalition agreement: he says that it “may be that they don’t really want to pass what they promised us.” Of course, a deputy committee seat within the cabinet and a codified veto will not help him pass anything that he wants. But it would give him leverage by allowing him to block things Likud might want, and bargain (logroll) for things he wants.

Again, however, if a government decides to change its internal rules it always can. And if Ben Gvir pushes too hard with his vetoes–codified or not–and the PM sees an opportunity to strike a more flexible deal with another party initially outside the government, such options remain at least potentially open. The veto is only conditional, not guaranteed by cabinet partnership or even by specific deals struck at the government’s formation.

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1. A minority government is one whose component parties (whether one or more) do not collectively have a majority in parliament. An oversize coalition is one that has at least one party that could leave without depriving the rest of the government of a majority in parliament. The former may give vetoes to parties lacking cabinet-level posts, and the latter may or may not give vetoes to all cabinet-member parties, depending on factors discussed here, as well as others that may be specific to that type of coalition or to institutional settings in which they commonly occur.

2. Essentially, because there is one mathematically superfluous party that has signed an agreement with Likud–the very unpleasant one-man band that is Noam, which won a seat on the same alliance list as Otzma Yehudit and the Religious Zionism party. Technically, Noam will not be a cabinet party, as its member’s post will be only a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s office.

3. The title of the McGann and Latner piece says it clearly: “The Calculus of Consensus Democracy: Rethinking Patterns of Democracy Without Veto Players.” The piece it a rejoinder both to the Tsebelis point, and to Lijphart’s definitions of “majoritarian” and “consensus” democracy. Li’s book is about how “cycling” majorities are democracy-preserving, and require majority rule in a dominant legislative assembly.

Additional note: In thinking about these issues, I have benefitted greatly from communication with JD Mussel who frequently comments on, and writes for, this blog. But he bears no responsibility for whatever aspects I am getting wrong!

Further note (19 Dec.): It took me a whole week to realize I had called the cycling majorities possible under parliamentary coalitions the purest form of consensus government. Obviously I should have said majoritarian! That is, majoritarianism can be thought of as a situation in which elected representatives of an actual majority rule–rather than a manufactured one that is typical of Westminster-type systems referred to by Lijphart and others as “majoritarian”–but that majority need not consist of the same set of parties on every bill passed during the tenure of a given government. Lijphart would call any parliamentary system with coalition governments as its norm as tending towards the consensus pattern. Other scholars–including me when not suffering from a brain cramp–would say that multiparty coalition government is–or can be–more meaningfully majoritarian than the sort of system in which the party with the majority of parliamentary seats has been elected by less than half the voters, yet can rule alone.

Stacking vs. checking: Otzma Yehudit in the emerging Israeli coalition

In a recent publication (details below), Reut Itzkovitch-Malka and I investigate when parties “check” partners in coalition governments and when they “stack” via the committee overseeing a ministry. Here’s a clear case of stacking in the incoming Israeli coalition: Otzma Yehudit reportedly will get both the ministry it most wanted as well as the chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing that ministry as part of the new Israeli government.

Broadly put, when coalitions are bargained, the parties forming the government have a choice of “stacking” whereby they agree to give one party full control over certain policy portfolios, or “checking” whereby two parties are given organizational bases from which to check one another in a given portfolio. There is considerable literature in political science on questions such as these, mostly focused on the degree of authority delegated to cabinet ministers. For instance, Laver and Shepsle (1996) famously developed a model to predict which cabinet deals would form, based on the policy preferences of the parties to the deal, and with the theoretical claim that the holder of a portfolio was a “policy dictator” in that policy domain. Within the cabinet coalitions literature, this has been challenged by the observation that often junior ministers are appointed from a different coalition party than the one that gets the (senior) minister in order for one party to “keep tabs” on the other (see Thies 2001). These views of the process are in direct tension with one another. The first assumes that what makes a coalition “work” is that all parties understand they get to do whatever they want in their portfolios and thus the bargain is credible (everyone knows this up front, so they won’t intervene in each others’ domains over the life of the coalition). The second assumes that what makes it work is the parties can have agents monitoring other parties to be sure they stick to compromises reached at formation of the coalition (the junior observes some “ministerial drift” and reports back to his or her own party).

In recent years, more attention has been turned to how parties might use parliamentary committees and their chair positions as part of the overall coalition bargain (e.g., Martin and Vanberg 2004, 2011). The notion of stacking vs. checking can also be applied here. For instance, the coalition agreement could see the party that gets a given ministerial portfolio also get the chair of the parliamentary committee that is charged with overseeing the ministry. That would be stacking. Alternatively, the committee chair could be from a coalition partner, creating an opportunity for checking within the coalition. (A third possibility is that the chair is from an opposition party. Most parliaments in coalition-based systems parcel out the chairs proportionally to all parties, so some committees will be allocated in a way that facilitates “monitoring” by the opposition.) All of these combinations assume chairs have some authority. That is generally true–they have agenda power within the committee. Even though a majority of the committee typically can override decisions of the chair, everyone’s time and attention is limited, and thus chairs should be in a privileged position in terms of hearings to schedule, witnesses to call, etc. And, at least among coalition partners, they may prefer to resolve things quietly rather than let conflicts erupt in the open. The ability of the chairs to acquire information on behalf of their parties serves to keep partners in line, or so the argument goes for checking. For stacking, it’s the opposite: the chair may be able to bury information that would raise the ire of a coalition partner or the opposition.

The deal first reported last week between Likud, the party of incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben Gvir, offers a clear-cut case of stacking. Ben Gvir will be named Minister of National Security, in charge of the national police and various other functions. It is a newly expanded ministry and portfolio, and thus a plum position for the far-right party leader. In addition, a member of his party is expected to be named chair of the Knesset Public Security Committee. Thus Otzma Yehudit gets both the policing ministry and the parliamentary committee chair responsible for domestic security policy and related matters.

The stacking, and evident cession of considerable autonomy to Otzma, in the area of public security grants Ben Gvir one of the aims he most regularly called for during the campaign leading up the recent election. He said repeatedly that he would demand the policing portfolio. And he got it. While this might not quite make him a literal “policy dictator,” that he also has the associated legislative committee surely limits the risk that he gets stymied by Likud or other partners.

In addition some reports had said he, or a member of the party, could obtain the agriculture ministry. I never would have imagined a far-right ultra-nationalist (and, frankly, racist) party being the defender of Israeli famers, but I’ve been informed that this is also related to his public-security interests. Theft of animals and equipment has become a serious issue in parts of rural Israel, and the politics around the problem is often tinged with racism. I wonder if his emphasis on this issue during the campaign actually earned him votes in the farm sector. The agreement does not grant Otzma the agriculture ministry, but it does transfer from that ministry to the new super-ministry Ben Gvir will head certain agencies responsible for the sector.

Ben Gvir is notorious for a history of racist comments and convictions for incitement against Arabs, along with admiration for the late Meir Kahane. In this election, his Otzma faction was part of a joint list with Religious Zionism. Together the RZ alliance list won 14 seats out of 120. Six of those elected from the list were Otzma candidates. The parties had declared their alliance a “technical bloc” and, as planned, formally split shortly after the election. Thus the two parties (plus a third, Noam, with just one of the electoral alliance’s seats) have been bargaining separately with Likud. This has made Shas (the Sephardi Haredi party), with 11 seats, technically the second largest party in the emerging coalition. It also means there will likely be five separate coalition agreements between Likud and a partner (Otzma, RZ, Noam, Shas, and the other Haredi party, UTJ) . It will be interesting to see which of the major ministries each partner gets will be “checked” by a coalition partner and in which portfolios the party will be granted “stacked” control via the committee chairs allocation.

The question of stacking and checking is a major theme of my paper with Itzkovitch-Malka. We find that stacking is quite common in Israel. We suggest that this may be due to the need of parties under conditions of high party fragmentation to make credible commitments that a partner, having been given a privileged position over the portfolio (via the minister) will be more able to deliver by also having the committee chair (given agenda control over proceedings, which Israeli committee chairs definitely have).

An interrelated theme of the paper is the expertise of the Knesset Members who obtain committee seats and chairs (expanding the party personnel research). Expertise is a subordinate, but still important, consideration that Israeli parties use. We do the first–to our knowledge–statistical analysis of any parliamentary system’s committee assignments to combine data on individual member attributes with an indicator of the partisan relation of chairs and ministers. Parties are somewhat more likely to appoint someone with pre-legislative experience to chair a committee when the party also has the associated minister, especially, we show, in “public goods” policy areas (like health and education). We suggest this is a further form of stacking–ensuring that the chair overseeing a co-partisan minister also has expertise in related policies. I am not sure yet which Otzma legislator is getting the Public Security committee chair in the new Knesset; I will take note of whether it is someone with any expertise in the policy area.

As for Ben Gvir himself, I suppose having been arrested and convicted on security matters counts as “expertise” of a sort in policing and public security, although not quite in the way I normally would code it.

The paper mentioned above is:

Committee assignment patterns in fragmented multiparty settings: Party personnel practices and coalition management, by Reut Itzkovitch-Malka and Matthew S. Shugart, Party Politics, 2022. Abstract:

This paper addresses the way parties assign members to parliamentary committees in fragmented multiparty settings. Thus, it analyzes how the two most central institutions of parliamentary politics––political parties and parliamentary committees––interact with one another. To the best of our knowledge, no research into this subject has systematically explored the intersection of considerations based on individual legislator characteristics and coalition management in committee assignment. Using Israel as our case study, we show that legislators’ expertise modestly shapes committee assignment patterns. However, parties in coalition often have another set of considerations to take into account when assigning members to committees. We show that parties in coalition do not only bargain on ministerial positions or committee chairs––they also bargain on their members’ assignment to committees and use this resource to allow (or hinder) each other to augment influence and control in a given policy area, or to perform affective monitoring.

Works cited in this entry:

Laver M and Shepsle KA (1996) Making and Braking Govern- ments: Cabinets and Legislatures in Parliamentary De- mocracies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin LW and Vanberg G (2004) Policing the bargain: coalition government and parliamentary scrutiny. American Journal of Political Science 48(1): 13–27.

Martin LW and Vanberg G (2011) Parliaments and Coalitions: The Role of Legislative Institutions in Multiparty Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thies M (2001) Keeping tabs on partners: The logic of delegation in coalition governments. American Journal of Political Science 45(3): 580–598.

This is a short list of important works in the topic. Many more are cited in the article.