The Case For Coalition Government


George Borg Olivier & Sir Paul Boffa formed the last Coalition Government in Malta in the early 50s.

(originally published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 3 February 2008)


Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Malta.

Daphne Caruana Galizia’s article entitled Settle Down and Read this Please focused on a number of issues. However, I wish to address what I believe to be the central argument of the piece. This is her advice to “the chattering classes”, and by this invective I presume she is referring to those floating voters who normally determine the outcome of an election, of the uselessness of voting for a minority party. She believes that our present institutional set-up ultimately renders this act null and void. In her own words: “It’s pointless debating the fairness or otherwise of the situation at this stage; we have to work within the parameters now, and perhaps scream and shout about it later”

In effect, what Daphne is referring to is the present Maltese electoral system, which does not promote the election of small parties. In European countries, to further consensus and ensure democratic behaviour, minority interests and their representation in parliament are encouraged. This is ensured through an electoral device known as a threshold. In certain states, parties that obtain as little as 1.5 per cent of the vote nationally are awarded representation in parliament. The norm however is 5 per cent. This medium is chosen in order to fulfil the two requirements of governance: fair representation and efficiency. In other words, minority parties can more easily contribute to government, while not disrupting its flow by encouraging a fragmentation of interests and the collapse of the legislature.

These structures have ensured that numerous interests are represented in the parliaments of European states. Indeed, today Malta is the only European country where only two political parties are represented in parliament, thus excluding the smaller parties and minority interests. On the continent, the smaller parties play an important role in the political process. They represent and further interests that have been excluded, forgotten or neglected by the major parties. They introduce new issues to the body politic. They also allow a multiplicity of interests to be represented in parliament, thus ensuring a politics of inclusion rather than exclusion. Most importantly, they also ensure that new divisions that occur within the political mainframe are neutralised by according them representation. Thus it has been shown that far right parties with a racist agenda are more ready to compromise when included in the system, and more easily radicalised once excluded.

Small parties, in other words, are an essential prerequisite in the smooth running of a modern democratic state. In Malta, however, despite the numerous discussions and consequent changes to our electoral laws, the threshold common in other democratic states has not been incorporated. The 2007 amendments to electoral law were said to have been incorporated in order to ensure increased proportionality. However, the reality is that the changes were made to service the needs of the two major parties, for our party system is presently categorised, in political terms, as a frozen party system, in that since 1966 it has consisted of only two parties that have persisted in resisting change. Indeed these parties may be characterised as dinosaur parties: parties within a system that are characterised by their longevity, durability and entrenchment, parties that are also able to access and monopolise institutional resources to their benefit, and to the detriment of the political system at large.

This scenario escalates in today’s political climate where, due to globalisation, the parties are constrained in their economic and social policies by the free market, by the independence of central banks and by the emasculation of regulatory policies that are now determined by a higher level of government. The result is parties of government denuded of ideology that act as corporate players rather than political ideologues. Their resources now being largely provided by the corporate world also means that they need rely far less on their grass roots electorate. These parties, known as “cartel parties”, have little to differentiate them from each other and more easily work together to maintain their monopoly through the status quo.

In Europe, what has halted this process is multi-party government or, as it is better known, coalition government. The politics of coalition lie at the heart of government, and in Western Europe roughly three-quarters of all governments formed in the post-war era have been composed of multiple political parties. Indeed, nearly all states have been governed by a coalition at some time or other, because even two-party systems are potential coalition systems, as is evinced by the possibility of a split in the party, and the rise of new parties.

The notion of a coalition government, however, has frequently been discredited, viewed as unstable, short-lived and unable to provide the executive with the support needed to govern. Locally, we look at our nearest neighbour, Italy, as providing evidence of this reality. At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have Germany – in the last 50 years a fine example of a supremely stable democracy, which has been constantly governed under a coalition. For ultimately, a coalition can be more stable than a minority government, or even a one-seat majority – as has been demonstrated locally. It must be remembered that ultimately, like all governments, the partners in a coalition usually prefer to keep that coalition working, instead of splitting and risking the loss of their government power. It is only in exceptional circumstances that a partner abandons a coalition, often when they fear that their core beliefs are being compromised.

For truth to tell, coalitions, though they require finesse to maintain, provide the political system with a mechanism of governance that is in many ways beneficial. Its immediate advantage is of incorporating diverse interests and ensuring that it is not the same one or two parties that dominate the political space and, by extension, access to resources. However, its usefulness goes much further. Maintaining a coalition implies greater respect for the niceties of democracy. Coalitions require that the tools and philosophy of liberal democracies are used and adhered to and that the underlying conflict in any state is resolved through compromise and consensus on a daily basis.

For coalitions have their own equilibrium. This ensures, that from the parties with the largest number of votes, it is the party that occupies the centre of the spectrum that is mostly likely to lead a coalition, making consensus far more possible. This also reinforces the generally held view, that coalition governments have a higher degree of perceived legitimacy, for consensus-building politics also better reflects public opinion. This is demonstrated by the growing importance of parliamentary debate in these states, because one of the central challenges facing multi-party governments in parliamentary democracies is the need for coalition parties to communicate to their constituents that they have not strayed significantly from their electoral commitments when agreeing to policy compromises. These parties normally attempt to “make their case” to constituents through their behaviour in legislative debate. Debate here provides a unique opportunity – tied directly to the policy the government is implementing – to declare party positions on the coalition compromise. This is also tied to the fact that coalitions distribute power rather than centralise it, therefore power is more shared among the partners of an executive.

Nor is it necessarily true, as is often argued, that this power sharing inherently weakens the political efficiency of the government, as is illustrated by the competent performance of the Nordic states, which are constantly ruled by coalition governments. This is because a coalition government has a wider background than a one-party government, which it can use to its advantage. In this case, its effectiveness may actually increase, surpassing that of a one-party government. Indeed, one-party governments may have their own troubles, as a consequence of competition between leading politicians or factions in the government party, which may in turn reduce their own efficiency.

Coalition parties undoubtedly are often more practiced at managing one of the most delicate problems of participating in government – reconciling the tension between the need to compromise on policy and the need to maintain the party’s public profile with respect to certain policy commitments. For coalitions also provide the parties of government with some room for manoeuvre in dealing with their more conservative recalcitrant elements, or ultra liberals, while providing them with a valid reason for adopting policies that may not always be popular with their grass roots electorate. Ultimately, however, coalitions are constant sum games. Like any other type of democratic government, they can succeed or fail. Some parties may split under the experience, others may grow stronger. Coalitions may further certain policies and constrain others. Some parties and political systems are more attuned to the politics of coalition than others. Having said this, it has been shown that the legislative behaviour of European parties in coalitions is disciplined and the majority of coalitions survive their term of office.

Could this arguably also be the case for Malta? The island had two cases of coalition government in the 1950s that did not prove very successful. However, the underlying conditions also need to be considered. In the first place, an external actor, the British, also impacted on the policy process, often derailing it. Indeed, this also happened under one-party government. In the second place, coalition government needs a certain level of competence and expertise, rarely found in newly democratising states, where one-party government is recommended. In 2008, however, I believe that the state of Malta and its governing institutions have reached a certain level of maturity and, indeed, could claim to be a consolidated democracy. This, one may plausibly argue, will produce the mature and responsible actors required to conduct the sophisticated game of understanding, bargaining, and compromise necessary in coalition government, and the institutional mechanisms necessary to play this game – that is the establishment of disciplined mechanisms for decision-making and conflict resolution.

Our present party structures also make coalition government a feasible enterprise. Three parties in parliament, leading to what is know as a system of pivotality, is seen as an optimal formula to support coalition government. This system in Germany, known as the two-and-a-half party system, has resulted in a strong executive and governments of longevity. In this scenario. the smaller party plays a pivotal role in sustaining, diversifying, and legitimising government policies. Undoubtedly, at the coalition stage, this party does have power that exceeds its status. However, once the bargaining phase is over, the larger party reasserts its dominance. Indeed, the smaller party must then struggle to retain its stance on policy and may suffer electoral decline as a consequence.

The reality in Malta, however, is that a fear of competition, of a multi-party system and of coalitions has retarded and constrained our political forum. Further development and democratisation proves impossible as long as a plurality of interests remains absent from parliament. Indeed, this becomes all the more urgent as Maltese society becomes more multi-faceted, with diverging views and different visions of the state that must be respected and incorporated in order to reinforce the social contract. This impoverishment of our political system is seen everywhere, but I will limit myself to two cases.

The first one is that of parliament that has increasingly become a rubber stamp for government, with poor attendance records and often low levels of parliamentary debate. The outcome of a parliamentary vote is foreseen and indeed discussion, let alone the passing of a private member bill, is an unknown phenomenon. The presence of more parties in parliament, and indeed of a coalition government, would rehabilitate the status of parliament. Parties will use this forum to explain to their electorate changes in policy, essential for small parties made to deviate from their programme. Under coalitions, legislation going through parliament is also often altered quite drastically to reflect divergent views on the policy area. The second example is that of the departure of our human resources, a situation we cannot afford on the island. If our institutions do not allow the participation of a multiplicity of views, views that enrich the body politic, then those who hold them will flee. Deprived of the opportunity to serve the state, they must seek this honour elsewhere, where they are more appreciated. The state of Malta is left all the poorer and we, the citizens, are the losers in such a short-sighted policy. One such case is that of Arnold Cassola.

A third party in parliament will provide resources to the party system as yet absent. It may provide a minority government with the opportunity to govern. It may provide to a government with a one-seat majority the possibility to survive in the event of a defection. It may provide a government with a slim majority a more comfortable and workable majority. It may provide a party of government with greater legitimacy, a wider vision and additional resources. Above all, it will ensure a government that truly reflects the wishes and will of the people, for parties and governments forget all too often that they govern to serve the people!

Let me conclude by referring once again to Daphne’s article, and beg to differ with her advice to the “the chattering people” that: “It’s pointless debating the fairness or otherwise of the situation at this stage; we have to work within the parameters now, and perhaps scream and shout about it later.” Politicians have one aim above all others, and that is to govern. Parties that profit from a system are loath to change it, and this has been well illustrated by the recent electoral changes. When this situation occurs, than change must come from outside, it must come from the people. This, I assure you, is feasible. I would be loath to tell anyone how to vote – that is not my job and I leave it to the politicians. However, I must add that statistically it is very possible for AD to win one seat on first count votes. As Daphne very accurately indicated, it is in the 9th and 10th districts where most AD voters are found and they are therefore spatially contained. In this scenario, 3,500 first-count votes is a viable and realistic undertaking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s