Expert engagement series: Are coalitions undermining democracy?

By Alex Stevenson

Any organization involved in parliamentary strengthening or broader governance issues will be interested in the findings of Oxford University’s latest research on presidential coalitions – and their troubling implications for democracy.

The way new democracies are governed is changing. In the 1980s, well over half of the world’s democracies were run by parliaments. Today, two-thirds are presidential systems. This trend is accompanied by a rise in the number of political parties, up from an average of 2.4 per parliament in 1974 to 3.04 in 2013. The result, unsurprisingly, is more coalitions.

After Dr Richard Youngs kicked off Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s expert engagement series with his thoughts about The Puzzle Of Non-Western Democracy, our latest event saw Professor Nic Cheeseman of Oxford University offer his thoughts on the implications of these coalitions on democracy.

There is some good news. Coalitions offer countries more political stability, tend to prompt more socially inclusive governments, and help make decisions stick. But they come at a cost.

The problem’s been revealed by Prof Cheeseman’s research among 350 MPs (in nine different languages and six different alphabets, no less). He and his team have found that coalitions tend to lead to a form of politics based on ‘exchange of favours’ – a phrase which essentially means ‘corruption’. Informal processes of exchange – negotiations resulting in the granting of political power in exchange for specific personal favours – do not exactly lead to good governance. Under presidential coalitions, Prof Cheeseman suggests, they are more likely to occur.

Corruption is unwelcome in itself, but there is more to it than that. All parliaments rely on the presence of a strong, robust opposition which is capable of challenging the government. Prof Cheeseman’s findings show that under presidential coalitions, the odds are you’re less likely to encounter this. Parties are lured to sign up to support the president’s party because of the temptations of power, and often end up splintering if they can’t all agree on whether they should do so. Others find themselves toning down the intensity of their attacks on the government because, at some stage or another, they too were part of the same administration. In some instances, around three-quarters of party leaders will have shared a platform with the president on one issue or another during the course of a single parliament. That’s not good for fostering healthy opposition politics.

“Coalitions bring a governability-accountability trade-off,” Prof Cheeseman explains. “On the one hand you get political stability, decisive governance and better policy… but that isn’t possible without weaker accountability, the breaking-down of opposition parties and greater exposure of higher numbers of parties to informal practices.”

The emergence of presidential coalitions presents a challenge to WFD. It’s not that it makes the UK less relevant; Britain has plenty of experience of coalitions. The UK was governed by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance from 2010 to 2015, and both the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have plenty of experience of minority governments. Instead the real headache for WFD lies in the implications of Prof Cheeseman’s argument – the existence of a vicious circle of fragmentation. Coalitions weaken parties, which in turn weaken parties’ ability to win overall majorities – necessitating more coalitions. Parliaments can only be as effective as the parties that operate within them.

More work is needed to properly understand the true depth of the implications for those who want parliaments to succeed. Should organizations like WFD, for example, decide to avoid operating in countries where presidents are staying in power thanks to coalitions? Probably not. Our focus is always going to be on what we can do to support those who want a more democratic future for their country. Fully understanding the political context in which a parliament functions is a big part of our work, though – it’s our politically astute, strategically-minded presence in countries around the world which marks us out from others, after all. What Prof Cheeseman’s research underlines is that we need to understand this trend.

“This research raises a lot of important questions for WFD,” says Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation. “We look forward to exploring them through our new research partnership with Prof Cheeseman and the University of Oxford.”

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