Policy Proposal: Democratising Coalition-Building with Referenda

This blog entry should be the start of a series I’d like to continue where I discuss ,and argue, on behalf of a a unique policy proposal which I have either heavily modified from existing ones or I have come up with largely independently.

Historical and philosophical background

2021 has given us plenty of high profile demonstrations in the difficulty and strangeness of political party coalitions. In March the Netherlands went to the polls and following quite a divided result (including a record seventeen parties entering parliament) a government has still yet to be formed, that same month Israel had it’s fourth election in two years that eventually resulted in an ideologically incoherent coalition as liberals and nationalists sought to remove the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu from power. Less prominently, Bulgaria also finds itself in a similar deadlock with two elections this year and a third on the horizon as the growth of new parties makes predictable coalition-building very difficult.

The latest challenge yet will come in September when Germans elect a new Bundestag. Rather unusually for a federal election, it has become a highly competitive three way race between the centre-right Christian Democrats led by Merkel’s successor Armin Laschet, the centre-left Social Democrats with finance minister and vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz as their chancellor candidate, and Annalena Baerbock’s surged Greens. The steady position of smaller parties such as the pro-business Free Democrats, the far right Alternative for Germany and the Left party all make the business of coalition formation a high talking point in this election. Whether Germany ends up with a Jamaica, Traffic Light, Kenya or Grand coalition is all under discussion, with even a series of opinion polls on the matter. Curiously however, despite a highly proportional democratic input over the composition of the Bundestag, actual choice of government is a game that is ultimately left up to politicians as they hatch out a coalition with little to no public input whatsoever; in fact, not a single coalition option even commands a majority of public support. Although a so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition is the least unpopular option, even that public preference is not subject to any democratic input beyond the size of each coalition after election day.

Coalitions are a natural consequence of a competitive and proportional electoral system. It remains incredibly hard to obtain over 50% of electoral support, even in electoral systems such as First Past the Post that encourage a two-party duopoly, and therefore if one wants to accurately display the voice of the people when it comes to government formation, one will find that the people often speak with more than one voice. To defenders of the British and North American models, the oligarchic backroom deals that create coalition governments often produce outcomes even more unpopular than the limited choices offered by majoritarian systems. Indeed, a not-infrequent outcome of proportional systems is when quite large and normally opposing parties both enter government in so-called ‘grand coalitions’. These have been arguably dangerous for democracy as parliamentary opposition becomes diminished and more radical extra-parliamentary opposition (such as that in 1960s and 70s Germany) becomes necessary to keep the government to account. More simply put, coalition outcomes (especially fairly unusual ones) are never even on the ballot at all unless pre-arranged before elections begin. Coalitions also require the horse-trading between parties on policies which makes party manifestos look like tradeable wish-lists rather than the cohesive plans for government that you tend to see in a more majoritarian system.

While the merits of majoritarian and proportional systems can be debated at length in terms of solving the problems of coalitions, this is a false dichotomy as the limits of democratic input in coalitions can be seen in both systems. Take, for instance, the 2010 UK general election: while the UK’s First Past the Post electoral system encourages majority governments, the election resulted in no party obtaining a majority of seats in parliament. The largest party, the Conservatives, formed a coalition with the third largest party — the Liberal Democrats. While Liberal Democrat members at the least had a symbolic vote on the coalition in a special party conference months after the coalition was agreed, the public at large could not give its verdict for another five years despite consistent opinion polling from late 2010 showing plummeting support for the Liberal Democrats as a result of the coalition agreement. A year earlier, the Free Democratic Party of Germany suffered by going into coalition with Merkel’s CDU and was then (just) locked-out of parliament four years later after years of polling in about the same diminished position. Here lies a crucial fault with parliamentary systems in general: there is no separation of which party you vote for and which government you vote for; if one wishes to punish a party for going into a coalition, one cannot express that opinion on the outset and must factor that into their general verdict on the government at the next election.

Voters are therefore left not only embittered by their choices at the ballot box but left disenfranchised by the parliament they themselves have elected. Voters need a system that enables them to have some kind of say on not only their legislature but their government too. While to some, that solution would be a presidential system, others, who wish to preserve the more consensus-based and pluralist nature of parliamentary systems, need to think creatively in how to separate these powers effectively to create this alternative. Here is a proposal to do exactly that.

The Policy Proposal

It is uncontroversial to note that legislation almost always follows the majority principle of 50% plus one vote, this also extends to referenda and (in some electoral systems) presidential winners. Referenda on coalitions however, is rare and often only limited to party members who (in the interests of being in government) almost always approve it very easily, but represent only a miniscule part of the electorate at large and are certainly not the exact same electorate that created the parliamentary arithmetic for the coalition to exist in the first place. My solution is instead to create an automatic system of referenda to democratically confirm coalitions to the greater electorate which also avoids the pitfalls of deadlock and incentivises parties to work together in the public interest. In order to do so, I propose the creation of the following legislation:

In the case of a ‘hung’ parliament wherein no single party or pre-election alliance commands a majority in the legislature but a coalition agreement is signed, the new coalition is compelled to provide, within a 30 day timeframe, a confirmatory Yes/No referendum to the electorate in order to govern.

If the coalition agreement is approved by over 50% of valid votes cast then the coalition is considered to have been given assent to proceed with governing.

If, however, the coalition fails to be approved by over 50% of valid votes cast, an alternative coalition agreement must be reached and face the same confirmatory referendum process as the initial coalition agreement.

If no alternative coalition agreement can be reached within 30 days, a cross-party panel of parliamentarians is compelled, within a renewed 60 day timeframe, to compose a ballot containing multiple coalition options which is to be ranked using the Instant Runoff, or ‘Alternative’ Voting system.

The ballot would consist of a list of coalition options which voters will rank in order of preference. Once a coalition option has over 50% of votes cast, either before or following transfers, it is declared the confirmed option of the electorate.

If, after all first preference votes are counted, no single coalition option commands over 50% of votes cast, the least popular coalition option would be eliminated and its votes redistributed to the rest of the coalition options according to each ballot’s stated preference. This process will continue until one coalition option reaches over 50% of votes cast.

The coalition option that first reaches over 50% of votes cast will then be presented back to the parties in question who will decide amongst themselves whether to adopt or reject the coalition.

If, after another 30 day timeframe, the coalition is not approved by the legislature, then the legislature shall be dissolved and a new general election called.

Advantages

Firstly, this proposal directly provides an extra democratic voice that, as of now, does not exist in any country or territory’s political system. Usually any ‘referendum’ on coalitions comes, as mentioned previously, in an internal vote of party members and affiliates, or informally as selective punishment for certain parties in local, regional or the subsequent general elections while muddied with other political concerns entirely. Coalition Referenda circumvent both of these unsatisfactory options by instead offering direct democratic accountability from the public and on the coalition specifically. It becomes a huge step in enhancing voters’ say on their government (not simply the makeup of their legislature) while avoiding the complicated depths of direct democracy. Voters are still choosing representatives, but they would have more say on which of those representatives actually get to govern them.

Secondly, the proposal is crafted in stages as such to provide ample time for negotiation, campaigning and balloting without allowing for parties to comfortably sit in de-facto coalition governments absent of the consent of the people; it balances practicality with the desire to achieve democratic accountability. The use of the instant run-off mechanism, in particular, allows a selection of the least-worst option while still placing blame on the politicians should another election occur. No longer can politicians blame the public for not electing the right politicians, for now it would be directly on them to make what is given work for their constituents.

Thirdly, incentives for greater and more open cooperation is built in to Coalition Referenda. Political parties would have to be prepared for every coalition eventuality should they risk repeating another election, and will be mindful over what public preferences are. Parties would also be encouraged to go into elections on pre-agreed public alliances to circumvent the legislation’s provisions. This would mean that the public either ends up with fully transparent coalition options before they cast their ballots, or they will have parties which would be incentivised to work with options that the public would actually prefer to see in power, resulting in governments that command much higher public satisfaction and satisfaction from politicians too.

Addressing concerns

The biggest concern one might have to this policy is that of the risk of a loop of constant elections if coalition options are repeatedly rejected by both the public and politicians. However, this already happens in existing democracies as displayed in this article’s introduction, the difference being that, with this new proposal, the public’s preferences creates new informal expectations that encourage cooperation. In most proportional democracies it is commonly expected that the largest party takes the lead on coalition formation in recognition of their public preference (although second placed parties still have their chance to form governments later), similarly, should the public display a willingness to support a particular coalition, that lends both public pressure and a moral expectational weight on that coalition to follow through to government. As seen in the aftermath of the non-binding Brexit referendum, politicians have much to gain by respecting the perceived ‘will of the people’ and referenda on coalition options would do much the same to help cement agreements.

Another problem is the institutionalisation of political parties into the state, as political parties are normally expected to be informal civil society groupings meant to exist semi-independently of government institutions. While Coalition Referenda would bring political parties closer to the general apparatus of the state, political parties already exist on a broad spectrum of state cooperation. In 31 US states and the District of Columbia for instance, voters can be registered affiliated (free of charge) to the Democratic and Republican parties to take part in closed primaries despite not being members. In most Westminster systems political parties gain special significance and funding depending on seats in parliament. Under this proposal, political parties would still maintain their own independent, internal organisation and affairs, but their parliamentary groupings would be subject to the same state control as is considered normal. A slightly closer link between the state and political parties would therefore not be a massive departure from existing policies.

Finally, there remains the concern that voters might simply pick coalition options that are completely unfathomable to representatives and create a never-ending election loop. Fortunately, these election loops, in one way or another, already do reach breaking point with the patience will wear thin eventually. Spain went through many elections before finally resulting in its ruling government, as did Israel as I mentioned previously, but instead of having drawn out backroom deals and a disconnect between the choices of voters and representatives, Coalition Referenda (or at least, the implied threat of its necessity) provides a constant dialogue that offers legitimacy to the choices made when coalitions are formed, thus avoiding repeat elections as the public would be consulted far more frequently throughout the process.

Conclusion

The deadlock and issues of coalition-formation is all too often presented as a price for more proportional and democratic electoral systems, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Coalition formation can be an accountable process that avoids deadlock and disconnect with voters, it can instead be a system that enhances democracy rather than undermining it. For both moral and practical reasons, I hope that something like this proposal has a chance of succeeding some day lest politicians be tempted to scrap coalition-building at all.

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