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.