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Working of Coalition Governments

In Comparative Perspective




            Coalition formation is inherent is organized politics.  It is also a legitimate political activity in a democracy.  It is difficult to imagine political parties or parliaments that can do without coalition formation of some kind or the other.  However, the objective of my proposed research is to study the functioning of coalition governments in a comparative perspective, not coalition politics per se.  In other words, this report examines the phenomenon of inter-party rather than intra-party coalitions for formation and maintenance of governments in (a) parliamentary or parliamentary-federal constitutional contexts, and (b) recourse to presidential-congressional coalitions for bridging the gulf created by separation of powers among governmental organs in the United States-type presidential or presidential-federal systems.


            A coalition situation in a parliamentary setting arises when an election fails to throw up a party with a majority of seats in a parliament and no single party is able to form a government according to the majority decision rule for government formation and maintenance in conformity with the confidence convention of parliamentary government, with the confidence vote tied to the popularly elected house of the Parliament.  What is said above is applicable to parliamentary-federal as well as semi-presidential systems that seek to combine presidentialism with parliamentarism as in France, Sri Lanka, and Russia with some variations.  Only, the U.S.-type presidential system requires a discussion of executive-legislative coalitions with a different conceptual framework from the one used in parliamentary governments with confidence requirement.


            Another caveat is in order here.  Coalition as an ubiquitous political activity also occurs among political parties and groups at electoral level, and there is some degree of connectivity between the electoral, parliamentary, and executive planes.  Electoral coalitions are beyond the scope of the present study and report.


            The discussion in what follows is organized into the following sections.  Part II reviews the major theories of coalition behaviour in the political science literature.  Some of these theories, especially those operationalized at micro-level with the assumptions of methodological individualism, are too abstract and trapped in mathematical model-building to be of much relevance in a study of coalition-behaviour at the macro-level.  Application of theories in this study is also dependent on availability of quantitative and comparable of data on a cross-national basis.  Part III discusses coalition governments in the Commonwealth parliamentary and parliamentary-federal systems.  Part III analyses the subject in the West European parliamentary and parliamentary-federal governments. Part IV is addressed to the examination of coalition governments in some Asian parliamentary or parliamentary-federal systems.  Part V is concerned with the experience of coalition governments in presidential-federal and semi-presidential political systems.  Finally, Part VI offers the concluding remarks meant to serve as an executive summary with policy or reformist implications.


Part I

Theories of Coalition Behaviour


            Theories of political coalitions may be classified into four broad types.  First, there are theorizations that focus on causes of coalition government that go beyond the symptomatic condition of a hung Parliament (without a majority party).  The search of causes may be found in the sociological as well as political factors.  Sociological causal theories postulate that, all other factors being the same, a country with greater cultural and social diversities may be expected to be more likely to have coalition governments than one which is relatively more homogeneous.  The latter are less likely to be deeply divided and can thus be more amenable to political aggregation and democratic governance.  To say it is not, however, to assert that democratic consensus is an impossible proposition in countries with deep and abiding cultural and social cleavages.


John Stuart Mill (1972: 228), conceptualizes “representative government” as one in which “the whole people, or some numerous portion of them, exercise through deputies periodically elected by themselves the ultimate controlling power, which in every constitution must reside somewhere.  This ultimate power they must possess in all its completeness.  They must be masters, whenever they please, of all the operations of government”.  Then he goes on to make the telling statement: “The power of final control is as essentially single, in a mixed and balanced government, as in a pure monarchy or democracy”.  Mill’s conception of the “people” here is as singular as Thomas Hobbes’s conception of the absolute monarch.  Coalitional solutions spring from a more pluralistic conception of the people.  Ironically, in a subsequent phase of democratic theory particular interests came to be conceptualized but they were again merged with a more generalized and abstract notion of interest and its representation in government.  In such a conception, “a representative”, remarks Norberto Bobbio (1987: 48), “means a person with two very specific attributes: someone who (a) enjoys the trust of the electorate by virtue of election and so is responsible to them and therefore cannot be dismissed; and (b) who is not directly answerable to the electorate precisely because he is called upon to safeguard the general interests of civil society and not the particular interests of any one group”.


            More patently political causal theories bearing on coalition government focus on electoral laws and nature of the constitution.  Maurice Duverger (1963) and William Riker (1982) separately professed to have discovered an “iron-law” that plurality or first- past-the-post electoral system produces a two-party system, whereas proportional representation leads to a multi-party system.  And it goes without saying that coalition governments are more strongly correlated with multi-party systems than with two-party systems where one-party majority governments are supposed to be the norm.


            By now we know, however, that the supposed universal law of Duverger and Riker is only probabilistically or statistically true.  For the more recent experiences of Canada and India suggest that even plurality electoral law can possibly yield coalition and/or minority governments.  However, the Duverger-Riker law may still be contextually valid, if not universally.  For in culturally and socially homogeneous settings, in relative terms, plurality electoral system does more often than not produce party systems that are, formally by and large bi-partisan.  But in countries characterized by deeper diversities neither the homogenizing effects of plurality electoral law nor those of the parliamentary system (government-opposition bi-polarization) are sufficient to necessarily engender a two-party system.  Proportional representation elections and federal political systems, of course, set in motion strong political forces causing coalition governments.  In other words, the original relationship between plurality electoral system and party system is intermediated by a “third” factor, namely, socio-cultural and regional diversity which confounds the predicted outcome.


The impact of the form of the constitution on majority, minority, or coalition government is also inter-mediated by the party system.  A parliamentary government tends to encourage a two-party system, or at any rate a bi-coalitional pattern, by demanding government-opposition polarization in the parliament.  And, it goes without saying that coalition/minority governments are typically a feature of multi-party systems.  A federal government – either within parliamentary or presidential setting – encourages multiplicity of parties by creating at least one more domain of party politics, i.e. the regional governments.  Most federal systems end up having more regional parties in addition to the national ones than a parliamentary system.  This makes coalition/minority governments more likely in federal and federal-parliamentary systems than in purely parliamentary systems.


A second set of coalition theories are utility maximization theories that postulate the size principle that predict the minimum winning coalition.  Proceeding from the axiom of the rationality of political actors, these theories deduce the theorem that in any formal coalition situation with the majority decision rule the coalition formation would hover around the minimum winning size, typically around 50 + percentage points.  The smaller the coalition, the larger the quantum of power and patronage to be shared among the winners (Gamson 1961; Ricker 1962).


Third, there are ideological and policy compatibility theories.  Proceeding from the assumption that the maximization of utility must contend with ideological concordance among parties, these theories predict a minimum winning coalition among parties whose policy preferences are least discordant. (Axelrod 1970; De Swaan 1973).


Fourth, there are theories that treat coalitions as sequential episodes that offer opportunities for redistribution of political resources that determine the relative political influence of coalition partners.  The gains and losses in the present round and their implications for ensuing ones primarily guide the competitive demands and concessions made by parties to each other (De Mesquita 1976; Iorio 2007).


The Fifth set of theories deal with the supposed various effects of coalition governments on politics and economy.  In the political domain coalition government is supposed to be conducive to consensual or consociational policy making and governance, though indecisiveness and delays are considered negative effects.  Federal coalition governments are particularly a standard power-sharing mechanism likely to promote national integration.  Coalition governments are commonly unpopular with business and industries circles, but once political conflicts engendered by majoritarian government linger and adversely affect the economy, the perceptions often change.


Part II

Commonwealth Parliamentary and Parliamentary-Federal Systems


            This class of political systems in this study includes the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, and South Africa, among others.  The cases selected here for analysis in relation to coalition government range from highly developed countries in economic and political terms (the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) to fairly developed (India and Malaysia) and developing ones (South Africa).  Applying an interesting typology of seven patterns of political modernization formulated by C.E. Black (1966/1967: chapters 3 and 4) here, we find that Great Britain belongs to the first pattern (with the only other contender, France) where consolidation of modernizing leadership took place between (1649-1832), modernizing economic and social transformation occurred during 1832-1945, and integration of society may be said to have been achieved by 1945.  Canada, Australia, and New Zealand form part of the second pattern (with only other contender, the United States of America) where the three foregoing corresponding analytical tasks of political modernization were accomplished between 1791 to 1907.  India, Malaysia, and South Africa are categorized with the sixth pattern comprising, at Black’s writing in the mid-1960s, 34 independent and 29 dependent societies “with a population of about 1 billion, the traditional cultures of which are sufficiently well developed that they could interact with those of the more modern tutelary societies in their adaptation to modern functions” (Black 1966: 123-24). In Black’s opinion the consolidation of modernizing leadership in South Africa occurred between 1910-1962 and in India between 1919-1947, and in Malaysia it started in 1963. He dates significant economic and social transformation in India back to 1947 and in South Africa to 1962.  One may differ from Black’s assertion about South Africa’s socio-economic transformation as the racial policy of apartheid (euphemistically called “separate development” in official circles) continued through most of the 20th century.  Racial policies were gradually eased during the 1970s and 1980s, but the division of the population into four racial or ethnic communities has continued: Blacks (75.2 percent), Whites (13.6 percent), Cape Coloureds (8.6 percent), and Asians (2.6 percent) (According to the 1998 estimates).

            An overview of cultural cleavages in the category of political systems under study here in the context of sociological bases of coalition governments is presented in Table 1.  The three indicators of cultural difference used here are religion, language, and ethnicity.  The data presented here show that these countries are not exactly monolithic, yet they are not extremely fragmented.  These polities, for all practical purposes, range from being conglomerate to moderately diverse, with India and South Africa partly included and partly excepted.  The numbers of religious groups with 1 percent+ in the total population range from three in the United Kingdom and Australia to six in Canada.  The corresponding data are five in South Africa, four each in India and New Zealand, and three in Australia.  However, the dominant religious in these countries are Christianity (Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) Hinduism (India) and Islam (Malaysia).  This dominance ranges from 88.7 percent of Muslims in Malaysia and 57 percent of Christians in New Zealand.  India, to be sure, had suffered a partition by the British colonial rulers on religious basis in 1947 and is still afflicted by religious conflicts.  But the country may be said to have managed its denominational politics reasonably well through multicultural secularism and federal democratic politics.

Table 1

Major Cultural Cleavages in the Selected British Commonwealth Political Systems (% in Total Population)



No. of Religious Groups (1%+)

No. of Linguistic Groups (1%+)

No. of Ethnic Groups (1%+)

Britain (Population 49,138,831 in 2001)



3(71.60% Christian,

2.7% Muslim)

1 (English de facto national language)

5 (92.1% White, 2% Black)

Canada (Population 31,612,895 in    2006)

6(72.8% Christian,

2% Muslim)

2 (75% English

    25% French)

14(32.22% “Canadian” by response,21% English)


(Population 21,262,641 in 2009)

3(63.8% Christian,

2.1% Buddhism)

1 (English defacto national language)

10(31.65%-English, 37.13% “Australian” by response)

New Zealand (Population 4,143,279 in 2006)

4(57% Christian,

2nd largest)

7(98% English)

4(73% European, 13% Moors)

India (Population 1.17 billion in 2009)

4(80.5%     Hindu, 13.4% Muslim)

12 (43 Hindi, one of the two official languages of the Union and lingua franca

No ethnic category used by census


Malaysia (Population 27,730,000 in 2008)

3(88.7% Islam, 8.9% Christianity, 1.2% Folk religious

Malay dominant and official language

Malay(about half of the population and other Bumiputras regionally concentrated in Sarawak and Sabahs where they form close to 60% and 18% of the population respectively.  Non-Bumiputra ethnic groups include Chinese making up over a quarter of the population and Indians, largely Tamils, who account for 8 percent of the population and are the third largest.

South Africa (Population 47,850,700 in 2007)

5(79.7% Christian,


11(official languages but English lingua franca)

4(75.2% Blacks)

SOURCE:Gleaned from various Internet sources reporting data post-2001, some dating 2006.  Accessed in September 2009.

NOTE: The Indian census do not use the category of ethnicity, but caste and tribe and varnamay be the Indian equivalents.  No varnacensus has ever been conducted, the last caste census was held in 1931, and presently only Scheduled Castes (SCs) (former untouchables) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) (also called janajatis or adivasis) are enumerated for implementation of reservation policies.  In 2001 SC population was 16 percent and ST proportion in the total population was 8 percent.

The pattern of cultural cleavage in religious terms in these polities more or less replicates on linguistic and ethnic dimensions.  Britain and Australia are virtually unilingual countries where English is de facto national language.  New Zealand census report seven languages spoken by sections of population forming 1 percent or more of the people, yet English speaking population is solidly 98 percent.  Malaysia is predominantly Malay in linguistic term, followed by Chinese dialects and Indian languages.  English is also widely used and is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools in Malaysia.  Canada is linguistically bicultural (75 percent English and 25 percent French), though the country since the early 1970s has proclaimed multiculturalism as the official policy of the federal government.  The French are largely concentrated in the province of Quebec and partly in New Brunswick, though the federal government scrupulously follows a bilingual official language policy.  Quebec separatism surfaced significantly since the 1970s but the country seems to have turned the corner on separatism by a vigorous pursuit of asymmetrical federalism.  India and South Africa are exceptionally diverse in linguistic terms, with 12 linguistic groups accounting for 1 percent or more of the population in India and with 11 official languages in South Africa.  The number of official languages of the Union government in India are two – Hindi and English, with various state governments officially using their regional languages or English.  Yet Hindi and English are the lingua franca of India and South Africa even though numerically it is the fifth language in the latter as is estimated to be spoken by only 2 percent of the population in the former.

On ethnic dimension the dominant ethnic groups in the United Kingdom are the Whites (92.1 percent), and in South Africa the Blacks (75.2 percent).  Europeans constitute 73 percent of the population in New Zealand.  In Canada and Australia interestingly the largest segments of populations in response to the question relating to ethnicity in census enumerations self-styled themselves as “Canadians” (32.22 percent) and “Australians” (37.13 percent), respectively.

The foregoing pattern of cultural cleavages in the selected polities of the Commonwealth would, going by available theories as well as conventional wisdom, prompt one to intuitively expect majority governments in the White countries of the group and coalition governments in India and South Africa.  This expectation is only partly met in the cases concerned, as is discussed in a subsequent section.  In brief, the White Commonwealth polities are more likely than not to have one-party majority governments, especially historically.  But in more recent contemporary times this trend has come under pressure in the United Kingdom, occasionally breached in Canada and Australia, and perhaps irreversibly altered in New Zealand.  In Brown and Black Commonwealth India and South Africa there have either been one-party dominant governments due to special historical circumstances of the national liberation movements and their hangovers or belatedly multi-party coalition/minority governments in India. South Africa may also follow India’s political trajectory when the dominance of the African National Congress, like that of the Indian National Congress, declines in coming decades. Malaysia has been a quasi-democratic dominant party system with coalition in government as well as on the opposition side at the national level.

Now, we turn to political causal factors bearing on coalition governments in the Commonwealth political systems.  We will examine here the impact of three institutional variables in this context, i.e. the system of representation, parliamentary form of government, and parliamentary-federal form of government. These variables in relation to the cases examined here are presented in Table 2.  All these countries, excepting New Zealand and South Africa follow variants of the plurality or first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system for parliament’s popular chamber elections. Even New Zealand followed this system from 1914 to 1996, when it switched over to proportional representation to avoid electoral distortion of the winning party getting more seats even though the runner-up got more votes, as in 1978 and 1981 when the National Party got more seats while the Labour Party    registered    more    votes.   Following   a   Royal   Commission    Report    (1986)

                                                      Table 2

Forms of Government and Systems of Representation in the Commonwealth Polities

Systems of Representation

Forms of Governments



Parliamentary Federal


Britain New Zealand (Pre-1996)

Canada, Australia, India, and  Malaysia


New Zealand(Post-1996)

South Africa

SOURCE:Information on system of representation here and hereafter obtained from IDEA: International Initiative for Democracy and Electoral Assistance,  cfm, accessed on 21 September 2009.

recommending the adoption of mixed member proportional representation (MMP) and a non-binding referendum on electoral reforms in 1992, followed by a binding referendum in 1993, New Zealand adopted the MMP system.  The first election under the new system was held in 1996.  Australia from 1902 to 1983 held elections to the House of Representatives under the plurality electoral laws; in 1983 a modification was introduced which required the House elections to adopt alternative (“preferential” but not proportional) voting in response to the rise of the Country Party following the First World War and the consequent prospect of loss of seats to the Labour Party on account of the split of the non-Labour vote.  The majority preferential variant on the plurality system has helped maintain the prominence of three major parties in the House of Representatives since then.  The first democratic elections based on universal adult franchise were held in South Africa in 1994 under proportional electoral laws preparatory to constitution-making.  The 1996 constitution adopted the list proportional representation for the national legislature.

            Now, we proceed to discuss the type of party systems in the Commonwealth polities under review here.  Reading tables 2 and 3 together, we find that the supposed impact of the representation system on the party system is most clearly borne out in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, though the former since the 1980s has partly deviated from the established pattern.  The use of plurality electoral system in the UK through much of its history is strongly associated with a two-party system in that country, though a third major party, Liberal Democratic Party, has become systemically relevant since the 1980s, a trend that is sustained in the 2005 general election.  New Zealand have had a de facto   two-party    system  for   nearly   a   century  and  a   half,   but   it switched over to

Table 3

Party Systems with Majority/Minority/Coalition Government in Commonwealth Political Systems


Party System Characteristics

United Kingdom

A long-standing two-party + system with a third party since 1980s having a strong tradition of majority one-party governments with National Governments in crises


A de facto two-party + system with a third party until 1993 and thereafter a multi-party system of moderate pluralism with occasional minority governments


A de facto two-party + system with the second and third parties in long-standing electoral and governmental coalitions

New Zealand

From 1952 to 1996 a de facto two-party system and thereafter a multi-party system with coalition governments


From 1947 to 1989 one-party dominant system and thereafter multi-party system of polarized pluralism with coalition/minority governments


A hegemonic party system with greater space for competition at the state level

South Africa

One-party dominant system practicing voluntary coalition governments since 1994

mixed-member proportional representation  in 1996 and overnight turned into a multi-party system with coalition governments.  Plurality election system in Australia has not produced the same effect as clearly as in the foregoing two cases.  Australia is a de facto two-party system, but with the complication that the second and the third parties have had a long-standing tradition of electoral as well as governmental coalition.  The effect of plurality electoral law is diluted even more in Canada as its de facto two-party system have had to contend with a third party in the Parliament and a number of regional parties in several provinces. Since 1993 House of Commons election in Canada, the parliamentary party system there has become a multi-party affair. Canadians are averse to coalition governments but minority governments are not uncommon there.  The hypothesized relationship between plurality representation and party system is flagrantly vitiated in India, where it produced one-party dominant system from 1952 to 1989 and a multi-party system with polarized pluralism since 1989 without a change of the electoral law.  In a similar vein, the hypothesized relationship between proportional representation and party system is clearly negated by the South African instance where right since the first democratic elections in 1994 todate (September 2009) a one-party dominant system has prevailed with a mandatory coalition government in 1994 and  voluntary coalition with the major opposition party since 1996.  South Africa in all probability will follow the Indian political trajectory from a one-party dominance to a multi-party system in course of time.

            Malaysia is quasi-democratic and quasi-federal, and its dominant party system has not developed into a truly competitive framework.  It is rather “a hegemonic party system, centered on the dominant Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) coalition, although the system does allow greater space for competition at the state level than would a comparable framework in a unitary state.  In addition, democratic legitimacy is higher for specific parties than for the competitive electoral authoritarian state as a whole, as contention is more vibrant and determinative within certain parties than between them” (Weiss 2009: 2).  The 12th general election in Malaysia held in March 2008, however, may turn out to be a major democratic advance towards a competitive democratic and federal Malaysia.  The National Front, BN, government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi based on a coalition made up of 14 national parties that had been in power since its formation in 1973 found its three-decade old two-thirds majority in the national parliament drastically reduced to a simple majority.  The informal three-party opposition alliance quadrupled its parliamentary presence from 20 to 82 seats in the 222-seat Parliament. The Barisan Nasional coalition also suffered heavily at the state level losing control in four industrialized states of Penang, Perak, Kedah, and Selangor, while failing to dislodge the opposition government in Kelantan (Preston 2009; Singh 2009).

The United Kingdom began as a multi-party system, but since the 1920s the major parties were only two: the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, though a third party has always maintained a presence in the Parliament.  The third party occasionally also played a role in delivering a working majority to one of the major parties forming the government.  The two major parties in the nineteenth century were the Liberals and the Conservatives, but by the first decade of the 20th century Liberals were surpassed by the Labour.  Since the mid-1970s a fourth party, the Social Democratic Party, also entered the House of Commons.  In 1988 the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party merged to produce the Liberal Democratic Party, the third largest party presently.  In addition, there are regional parties – called ‘Nationalist’ parties – in Scotland and Wales.  The Scottish ‘Nationalists’ got a Scottish subparliament established under the Scotland Act (1998).  Besides, there are some regional parties in Northern Ireland as well, including the largest pro-Belfast Agreement party, Sinn Fein.  A major reform agenda of the Liberal Democrats is to replace the plurality electoral laws by some variant of proportional representation to address the disproportionate dominance of the Conservative Party and Labour Party.  Coalition governments, typically called “national governments” have been formed in the U.K. to deal with national crisis like the Great Economic Depression of 1929-30s and wars.  Great Britain was governed by multi-party coalitions during both world wars.  Moreover, in hung Commons minority governments have also been formed with one or more opposition parties agreeing to bail out the government on votes on legislations and budgets.  Nevertheless the hope that the historical bipartisan trend in Great Britain may, after all, be restored dies hard.  Pulzer (1976) believes that “a new election may reinstate a government, or series of governments, with a firm electoral base and a clear working majority, so that mid-seventies may slip into place as one of the adjustments, like those of the 1920’s and the 1980’s, that the system seems to need from time to time”.

            Historically, party system in Canada may be seen as either a one-party dominant system in a short-range view or a de facto two-party system with a third party at the national level and several regional parties at the provincial level in a long-range view.  The Conservative Party dominated party politics over much of the nineteenth century while the Liberal Party dominated for most of the twentieth.  The 1993 House of Commons elections ushered Canada into a multi-party system of moderate pluralism.  This pattern is maintained in the latest Commons elections in October 2008.  Four systemically relevant parties continue to maintain appreciable parliamentary presence: Conservatives (vote share 37.65 percent and seat share 46.4 percent), Liberals (26.26 percent and 25.0 percent), Bloc Quebecois (9.98 percent and 15.9 percent), New Democrats (18.18 percent and 12.0 percent), and Greens (6.78 percent and 0.0 percent).  Since the founding of the federation in 1867 there has been only one coalition government, the so-called Union government (1917-20).  The coalition was aimed at broadening the support for the government of Robert Borden (Conservative) and its controversial conscription policy during the World War I.  The Conservatives prizing the British connection announced conscription, while the Liberals led by the French Canadian Wilfrid Laurier disagreed.  The policy was opposed by many Canadians, especially the French Canadians in Quebec and rural farmers generally.  Many English-speaking rebel Liberals broke ranks and joined the Union government which also won the general election of 1917 and pushed the conscription policy through Parliament.  At the provincial level coalition governments have occurred in Western Canada: in Manitoba the Liberal-Progressive combine in 1931 and the non-partisan all-party government in 1940 to meet the wartime demands, and in British Columbia the Liberal-Conservative wartime coalition to keep the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) at bay.  Having become wary of the divisive coalition governments, Canadians now prefer to form minority governments in hung Parliaments.  The examples are the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the early 1970s, the Conservative government of Joe Clark (1979-80), and the minority government following the three back-to-back electoral victories of Liberals led by Jean Chretien until 2000.  Minority governments in Canada have not always been unstable .

        The historic model of a “stable two-and-a-half party system” in Canada has been shattered in which the two “”Parties of Consensus” (Liberals and Conservatives) accounted for over three quarters of vote and the remainder (under 20 percent) going to a “third party” (The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation earlier, but lately New Democrats), The veteran analyst of the party system in Canada Hugh Thorburn (2001:8) expresses the puzzle “Whither Canada?” 


In Australia since the founding of the federation in 1901, two national parties have dominated politics: the Labour Party representing the organized working class and a coalition of non-Labour political interests into two other parties that may be viewed for all practical purposes as a single party.  The latter is “a centre-right party that has been predominantly socially conservative and with a base in business and middle class, now the Liberal Party of Australia; and a rural or agrarian conservative party, now the National Party of Australia”.  These three parties or social forces have been systemically relevant since the beginning of the 20th century at federal as well as provincial levels “and only on rare (and generally short-lived) occasions have any other parties or independents played a role in formation or maintenance of governments”.  (, accessed on 19.9.2009).  Liberals and Nationals have been in a long-standing coalition federally but not always at the state level nor has the Liberal Party always been the senior partner, e.g. Queensland is dominated by the National Party.  The coalition between these two parties has been consistent though electorally in at least some constituencies the electorate may have an effective choice among three parties.  Intra-party discipline in Australia is extremely high as in other White Commonwealth Parliaments.


New Zealand for well over half a century was governed by single-party majority governments.  Earlier, from 1931 to 1935 there was a coalition government between the two of the three major parties of those days, the Liberal Party and the Reform Party to tackle the Great Economic Depression that began in 1929.  In the aftermath of the depression these two conservative parties merged to obviate the victory of the Labour Party due to split in the anti-Labour vote and carried the day with 55.4 percent of the vote.  Between 1935 and 1993 the winning party won an average of 58.1 percent of parliamentary seats with an average of 46.6 percent of the total vote.  This vote-seat discrepancy averaged 12.0 percent of votes but only 0.1 percent of seats.  In 1993 the Labour Party and the National Party together registered 69.8 percent of votes but 96.0 percent of the seats (McRobie 1997: 331-32).


After the switch-over to proportional representation, the first parliamentary election in New Zealand under the new electoral law was held in 1996.  Commenting on this historic election, Roberts (1997:131) wrote: “Six parties are represented in the new Parliament, each in close accord with share of the votes it won throughout the country as a whole: the system is highly proportional [in terms of parties and ethnic groups]”.  In the latest elections held in 2008 five parties counting only those winning more than one seats are represented in the Parliament: National (electorate vote share 46.6 percent / seat share 47.5 percent), Labour (35.2 percent / 35.2 percent), Green (5.6 percent .7.38 percent), ACT (3.0 percent / 4.11 percent), and Maori (3.3 percent/ 4.11 percent) (Jack Vowles, 2009).


South Africa is a rather recent entrant to multi-party democracy with more than a dozen parties in the National Assembly.  In the wake of the first multi-party elections in 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) emerged as the predominant party with an overwhelming majority of seats in national and provincial legislatures in a tripartite combination of the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).  In a conference of political forces called Convention for Democratic South Africa (CODESA) a deal was agreed upon to proceed for a constitutional provision in favour of a Government of National Unity (GNU) for the first five years to pave the way for wider political participation in reconciliation and transformation of the nation.  A coalition cabinet comprising the ANC, the National Party (NP), and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) was formed after the 1994 election.  It was called a compulsory constitutionally mandated coalition government politics.  In 1996 the NP decided to withdraw from the GNU coalition government.  The second general election in 1999 led to another coalition government called Democratic Alliance (DA) led by ANC and comprising DP, New National Party (NNP), Federal Alliance (FA) electorally eying specific provinces (Western Cape, Guateng, and Kwa Zulu Natal), where demographic  and political factors appeared to be on their side.  But the DA put up candidates for only 200 local government seats, leaving the rest open for other parties.  No party was able to win an outright majority in Kwa Zulu Natal and Western Cape, and ANC and IFP formed a coalition government in the former province.  The NNP, DP, and FA formed a coalition government in Western Cape, keeping the ANC out (Olaleye 2003:2-3).


The ANC has maintained its decisive dominance in national politics in the 2004 and 2009 general elections with 69.68 percent of registered voters in the former and 65.90 percent in the latter.  This one-party dominance has continued in a multi-party framework, with DA retaining the second party position bagging 12.37 percent of popular vote in 2004 and 16.66 percent in 2009.  With the mandatory coalition government under the 1994 constitutional agreement having been dispensed with in the 1996 constitution, ANC has proceeded to rule with its majority party governments.  It had also largely benefited from a set of the 2002 constitutional amendments allowing elected representatives at  all levels of governments floor-crossing to another party and formation of new political parties.  In the 2009 general election four political parties won double-digit seats in the National Assembly: ANC 264, DA 67, Congress of the People (COPE, a new party) 30, and IFP 18 (South African general election, 2009-Wikipedia: 1-4; accessed on 26 September 2009).


South Africa faces formidable challenges in its second decade of democracy.  The greatest political problem before the pre-democratic regime was to deal with blatant discriminations against the Black majority.  The most serious task before the democratic regime is to tackle the growing alienation among the minorities, White and non-Black-and White as well as sections in the Black majority.  The peaceful transition to democracy and federalism and its maintenance since 1994 is a great achievement.  Also on the asset side is a more active civil society historically and politically.  Nevertheless, there are uncertainties as well.  “The overwhelming political power of South Africa’s dominant party and the risks it poses to both the competitiveness of the multi-party system and authority of the constitution should not be underestimated” (Brooks 2004: 21).  The ANC since democratization has been led by a Black beginning with Nelson R. Mandela and the main opposition party DA by a White, the present leader being Helen Zille (2009).  The democratic future of South Africa lies in a combination of consociational and federal and coalitional governance.


While the problem of South Africa is democratic consolidation, India may be cautiously said to have crossed this threshold.  Its one-party dominant system under the aegis of the Indian National Congress transited to a multiparty system of polarized pluralism in 1989. The number of systemically relevant parties at the national level has increased from over half a dozen in 1989 to one-and-a-half to double this number in the decades that followed besides several regional parties dominating or effectively competing in state politics and playing decisive balancing role in federal coalition governments.  This exercise in federal coalition or minority governments began in 1989 though there was also a brief interlude of de facto coalition government in New Delhi under the Janata Party, a political formation produced by hurried merger of five non-Congress and non-Communist parties on the eve of the 1977 Lok Sabha election following the end of the quasi-democratic emergency regime of Indira Gandhi (1975-77) (Singh 2005; Roy 2005).  Federal coalitions got off to a bumptious start with frequent fall of governments and recourse to fresh mandates from 1989 to 1991 and then again from 1996 to 1999: two governments in the first unstable spell and three in the second.  A minority Congress government led by the veteran P.V. Narasimha Rao governed a full term (1991-96) and so did a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and a Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government stewarded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President and UPA National Advisory Council chairman Sonia Gandhi (2004-09).  The latter was re-elected in 2009 with the increased strength of the leading party in the UPA and the Parliament.


The cynical view of federal coalition governments maintains that they are non-ideological and largely motivated by political and personal opportunism.  This perception is reinforced by the fact that in some vital areas of public policies one looks in vain for different ideological or programmatic thrusts in different sets of coalition governments that have come and gone.  Since the neoliberal shift in the economic policy regime in 1991, for example, at least three sets of coalition governments may be delineated: (a) Janata Dal-led National Front and United Front governments, Congress minority or Congress-led UPA governments, and BJP-led NDA governments.  Going by professed ideology or programme, Janata coalitions have been left-of-centre progressive ruralist, congress-led coalitions have been left-of-centre progressive, and BJP coalitions have been right-of-centre Hindu neo-traditionalist or centrist-secularist.  Once neo-liberal capitalist reforms were embraced under compulsions of an economic crisis in 1991, the direction of economic policies under various coalitional dispensations have hardly changed, notwithstanding some readjustments in the pace of reforms.  Indeed, even diametrically opposed left front state governments in West Bengal and Kerala sooner or later fell in line, reorienting their economic policies in the states under their rule while opposing similar policies in the Parliament! The differences among the various coalition governments in New Delhi have been more sharply reflected in the domain of cultural and regional policies in deference to the ethnic and regional composition of the electoral bases of the leading and supporting parties in the government concerned.  Differences among various coalition governments in New Delhi on foreign and defence policy issues have also been blurred.  For example, it was the BJP-led NDA government that started the strategic dialogue with the US government and the Congress-led UPA-I government finalized the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal in 2009 making the signatories strategic partners if not allies.  Only the communist parties were consistently opposed to this deal; and when the leftwing supporting the Manmohan Singh government from the floor in the Parliament (without jointing the cabinet) deserted on this issue, the Samajwadi Party bailed the government out (Singh 2001, 2004; Chakrabarty 2005; Adeny and Saez 2005).

In the general election of 2009, the UPA-I was able to renew its electoral mandate and formed the UPA-II headed again by Manmohan Singh and assisted by National Advisory Council (NAC) under the chairpersonship of the Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi.


Coalition governments in Indian states started much earlier than at the Union level.  The Congress-Praja Socialist Party coalition government led by Pattom Thanu Pillai in Kerala dates back to the 1950s.  In the wake of the fourth general elections in 1967, the then dominant Indian National Congress ruling in New Delhi as well as in practically all states lost in eight of the then 16 states, even though it was voted back to power with reduced majority at the national level.  Practically all major states of north India were lost by the Congress.  In all these states in the north a hotchpotch set of non-Congress coalition governments came to be formed.  Since the only bond in these formations was their antipathy to the Congress Party, and as they included parties from the right to the left, they turned out to be houses of cards that collapsed under their own internal ideological or programmatic contradictions (Brass 1968).  They were soon elbowed out of their tenancy in state-level power by a rehabilitated Congress Party under Indira Gandhi by 1971-72 and thereabout.


However, by the late 1970s some stable coalition governments of the left front surfaced in West Bengal and Kerala and after a while in Tripura.  The Left Front in West Bengal with a distinct social democratic policy thrust has continuously been in power since 1977 and has developed well-settled norms and procedures of coalition governments, which has elicited appreciative studies by Indian as well as foreign observers.  The CP(M)-led Left Democratic Front and Congress-led United Democratic Front governments have also set a standard of stable and policy-oriented governments. Tripura is also a chip of the same block (Nossiter 1982, 1986; Desai 2007).


The key to the stability of coalition governments lies in the structure of the party system in India and for that matter in any representative and responsible government. Reflecting on the party political processes and governance in parliamentary federal India, Douglas V. Verney (2008: 1) remarks:

“If the trend away from the two largest parties, classified as ‘National Parties’ continues, government will become even more dependent on small so-called ‘State Parties’ nearly all of which are confined  to a particular region. India`s politics could come to resemble the unstable regime of the French Third Republic.”

The remedy proposed by Verney (2008) is to offer incentives and encouragement to new National parties based on interstate alliances of smaller parties. These  new  parties could then be classified as National Interstate  parties  and would parallel the two present nation-wide parties -  the Indian National Congress and  the  Bharatiya Janata Party  - , which  in turn may be classified  as National All-India  parties. This would reduce the dependence of federal coalition governments on small regional parties holding the governments to ransom and destabilizing them for petty political opportunism.(Verney 2008: 30).is, however ,  sure that the reform proposed by him “  is not likely to occur unless there is a crisis.”  This crisis obviously means a crisis of acute intractability in formation and maintenance of government.                                                               


Part III

West European Parliamentary, Parliamentary-Federal, and Presidential-Federal Systems


            This class of political systems in this study consists of the Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland.  These West European political systems here discussed in relation to coalition government are all fairly developed both in economic and political terms.  Only Spain was politically less developed until the 1970s when it joined the ranks of democratic countries belatedly as part of Samuel R. Huntington’s (1991)”third wave” of democracy.  In terms of seven patterns of modernization postulated by comparative historian C.E. Black (1966/1967: Chapters 3 and 4) all these countries belong to the third pattern after the first pattern charted by the pioneers (United Kingdom and France) and the second pattern joined by the United States by the United States and the White Commonwealth, i.e. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  The consolidation of the modernizing leadership took place earliest in Belgium and the Netherlands and Luxembourg during 1795 and 1848 (1867 in case of Luxembourg).  Switzerland followed closely on their heels during 1798-1848.  Germany followed suit early with the turn of the century in 1803-1871. Italy was not far behind (1805-1871).  Spain came a little later in 1812-1909.  Austria was the last in this group to experience the consolidation of modernizing leadership during 1848-1918.  Similarly, in accomplishing the task of economic and social transformation Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg were again in the lead in this group of countries. The first two turned this corner between 1795-1848 and Luxembourg between 1867-1948. The corresponding periods for Switzerland were 1798-1848, for Germany 1803-1871, for Spain 1812-1909, and for Austria 1848-1918. This process began in Italy in 1871 and  inconclusively lingered. Likewise, integration of society was begun by Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg by 1948, by Switzerland by 1932, and by Germany by 1933, whereas Italy, Spain and Austria had not crossed this threshold even until the mid-1960s when Black published his book. 


            Table-4 presents an overview of the cultural cleavages in the West and South European polities under review on the basis of their demographic profiles for the present.  Overall, cultural diversities in these countries are patent, but not extreme.


Major Cultural Cleavages in Selected West European Political Systems


(% in Total Population)


No. of Religious Groups (1% +)

No. of Linguistic Groups (1% +)

No. of Ethnic Groups (1% +)

The Netherlands (Population 16,499,084 in 2009)

2(51% Christian, 5.5% Muslim)

3(official language Dutch and several regional languages and dialects)


6(80% Ethnic Dutch, 2.29% Turkish)

Austria (Population 8,210,281 in 2009)

2(78.3% Christian, 4.2% Muslim)

1(94% German+ Bavarian 6% Alemanic. German is the official nation-wide language)

3(91.1% former Yugoslavs, 1.6% Turks, 0.9% Germans)

Germany (Population 82,220,000)

2(62.2% Christian, 4% Muslim, 2% Orthodox)

8(95% German, the only official language, and 7 protected minority regional languages)

No data on ethnic groups provided

Italy (Population 58,126,212)

2(90% Christian, 7% irreligion, 2% Islam)

Italian is common and official language with several officially recognized minority languages in regions

4 (94% Italian, 3% other Europeans, 1.3% North Africans, 1.7% others)

Spain (Population 46,157,822)

2(80.4% Roman Catholic, 2.3% Other)

5(89% Spanish, mother tongue,    9% Catalan MT,   5% Galician MT, 1% Basque,         2% Aranese)

No data on ethnic groups provided

Belgium (Population 10,414,336 in 2009)

2(75% Roman Catholic, 3.5% Muslim, small minorities of Protestant Orthodox Anglican and Jew)

3(60% Dutch, 39% French, less than 1% German.  All three official languages


No data on ethni- city provided



(Population 5,447,084 in 2007)

Above 83 % Lutheran Christian and several other Christian groups and religions are officially recognized as minorities

Danish is the dominant official language and four minority languages are regionally official or co-official


Danes are the dominant ethnic group with half a dozen minority ethnic groups largely based on tribes and nationalities.


Sweden (Population 9,059,651 in 2009)

Above 78% Lutheran Christians +others Christian denominations and other religious minorities

Swedish is the dominant and official language and five officially recognized minority languages in some municipalities

Besides the Swedes, the Sweden Finns are the largest ethnic minority among others.


Norway (Population 9,059,651 in 2009)

90.5% Christians (86% Lutheran ) 2% Islam, among others

Norwegian is the dominant and official langrage and five other languages are official languages in some municipalities


Ethnically predominantly Norwegian among some other ethnic groups


Switzerland (Population 7,593,500 in 2007)

2(79.9% Christian, 4.3% Muslim)

4 (63.7% German, 20.4% French, 6.5% Italian, 0.5% Romansh. All four official languages

No data on ethnic city provided

SOURCE:Gleaned from Wikipedia in September 2009.

NOTE:Percentages in several columns do not add up to 100 as categories ‘Other’ and ‘None’, etc. are omitted.  Some of these categories in some countries may be quite sizeable, e.g. persons “without any region” in Switzerland are as much as 11.1 percent.


All are Christian-majority countries, ranging from 90.5 percentage point in Norway to 51 percent in the Netherlands.  The second religious minority in none of these countries exceeds more than 5.5 percent.  Muslims are largest single minority in Norway and practically all of these nations ranging from 5.5 percent in the Netherlands to 2 percent in Germany (We do not have exact data on this dimensions beyond the information that Luxembourg is predominantly Roman Catholic in population.). Lutheran Christian church is state-supported in Denmark and Norway and was so in Sweden until 2000 when it was formally separated from the state. Religious freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed to all religions, including those whose numbers are small, in all the three Scandinavian countries.


Linguistic diversity is of greater moment in these countries than the religious.  Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are the dominant and official languages in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Though German is the dominant linguistic group in Germany (95 percent) and Austria (94 percent), and in the majority in Switzerland (63.7 percent), there are significant linguistic minorities in all these countries.  German is the only official language in Germany and Austria, but there are seven protected minority regional languages in the former and six Alemanic minority languages in the latter.  The dominant linguistic group in Spain is Spanish (89 percent) and the majority linguistic community in the Netherlands is Dutch.  These are also the sole or the major official languages in these two countries.  There are three official languages each in Belgium (Dutch, French, and German) and four in Switzerland (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). Luxembourgish is the national and official language in Luxembourg, but French and German are also administrative languages. Dominant ethnic groups in the three Scandinavian countries are the Denis, Swedes, and Norwegians, among others in each, though their numbers are not sizeable.


The dominant ethnic groups in Austria are former Yugoslav (91.1 percent) and in the Netherlands, the ethnic Dutch (80 percent).  The four other countries do not provide data of “ethnicity”.  The 1978 Spanish constitution define the “Spanish people” as the nationality of the country, though the preamble to the Constitution also speaks of the “peoples of Spain” and their respective cultures, traditions, languages, and institutions.  The country is still struggling to integrate the official Spanish nation in the midst of strong ethnic regional identities, some also fostering separatist movements.


The existence of moderate to major cultural cleavages in our set of European countries and the prevalent use of proportional representation in all of these cases (see Table-5) creates a strong likelihood of multi-party system and coalition governments.  This expectation is actually met. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the party system fragmentation in these countries is more due to proportional representation than the social and cultural cleavage that is of moderate rather than extreme kind. Coalition or minority governments are a normal state of affairs in all these countries with parliamentary government (the Netherlands and Italy) or parliamentary-federal governments (Germany, Spain, Belgium, Austria).  In presidential-federal Switzerland there has been a four-party power-sharing agreement called “magic formula”.  This has been put under some strain as the rightist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), traditionally the junior partner, more than doubled its vote share from 11.0 percent in 1987 to 22.5 percent in 1999.  The typical pattern of seat sharing in the seven-member cabinet had been 2 for Free Democrats, 2 for Christian Democrats, 2 for Social Democrats, and 1 for Swiss People’s Party.  The last mentioned took one additional position from Christian Democrats in 2004.


Table 5

Forms of Government and Systems of Representation in West

 European Political Systems


System of Representation

Form of Government






The Netherlands (List PR)




Italy(List PR pre-1993 referendum, thereafter Additional Member System largely predicated by a majoritarian electoral system)


Germany (Mixed Member PR)

Denmark(List PR)

Sweden (List PR)

Norway (List PR)

Austria (List PR)


Spain (List PR)


Belgium (List PR)

Switzerland (List PR)

Plurality or FPTP





Europe is largely a continent of multiparty systems.  Colomer (2008:9) remarks that “restrictive, close to two-party systems favouring single-party governments exist [only] in Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, Spain, and the United Kingdom.”


            Table-6 offers a synoptic overview of the party systems and coalitional governance in the polities under review here.  In all the six European polities here the invariant pattern found is of multi-party systems with coalition governments.  We will discuss each of these instances in brief elaboration in turn, and then finally offer some overall generalizations.  In the Netherlands no single party has ever been able to get a majority in Parliament since 1900, necessitating two or often three parties joining hands to form a coalition government.  The head of the state in this parliamentary monarchy sets the ball rolling with secret individual meetings with the presiding officers of the Senate and the House of Representatives.  This is followed by meetings with the leader of each parliamentary party in the House of Representatives. 

Table 6

The Party Systems in West European Polities


Party System Characteristics


A multi-party system comprising 19 parties, with no single party getting absolute majority in the Parliament since the beginning of the 20th century. Mostly minority coalition governments formed.


A multiparty system consisting of 18 parties but the Social Democratic party has historically played the leading role; only the general elections of 1976, 1979, 1991, and 2006 have given the centre-right bloc enough votes to form coalition governments.


A multiparty system comprising 21 parties. Labour Party provided single-party majority government from 1945 to 1961. From 1961 onwards minority and coalition governments until 2005. From 1981 to 1997 alternation in power between minority Labour governments and Conservative-led centre-right minority coalition governments.  After the 2005 general election a historic coalition between the Labour Party, Socialist Left Party, and Centre Party was formed


The Netherlands

A multi-party system with 10 parties (in 2007) with inevitability of coalition governments



A multi-party system with 7-odd parties (in 2005).  Coalition governments are the norm



A multi-party system with five major parties.  Since 1980s four major parties have consistently registered enough votes to win seats in the national Parliament



A multi-party systems since 1959 four major parties have formed the “magic formula” (“Zauberforme”) according to which they share the seven cabinet positions




A one-party dominant system under the aegis of the Christian Democratic Party until the end of the 1980s and a multi-party system since the early 1990s



A de facto multi-party system.  At the national level a party system similar to a two-party system in which the two dominant parties control electoral routes to the Parliament, but regional parties are strong in autonomous communities like Catalonia and the Basque Country whose support is essential for coalition governments


One of the most fragmented party systems in modern democracies.  A multi-party system with a pillarized cartel of party elites that counterveils the centrifugal trends.  The main Belgian political parties, although split into Flemish and Walloon organizations mainly competing at the regional level but still maintaining a national government where regional coalitions are also forged.  The federal dimension still survives as central institutions reinforce themselves and Belgium somehow operates as a single entity in the European Union domain (Pugaciauskas 2000)*.


Multi-party system

*Vykintas Pugaciauskas, “Party System in a Divided Society: The Case of Belgium”,


The constitutional monarch then designates an informateur who explores the possibility of a new cabinet.  Typically the informateur is a retired veteran politician with a background in the largest party in the House of Representatives.  The Queen often directs the informateur to seek a coalition of parties with programmatic compatibility and a majority in the House.  If the first informateur is bogged down then a second is floated.


All the Scandinavian parliamentary systems with constitutional monarchies in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have multiparty systems with an unusually large number of parties attributable more to proportional representation and populist-social democratic tradition than to cultural diversities. Denmark and Norway have been mostly ruled by minority and/or coalition governments, whereas Sweden has mostly been under majority Social Democratic Party governments, expecting the general elections of 1976, 1979, 1991, and 2006 which yielded centre-right coalitional dispensations. The Swedesh Social Democrats have been the leading political force since 1971 when the Refomists wrested control of the party and the Revolutionaries were driven out. This is supposed to be the reason of the post-war Swedish welfare state with government expenditure accounting for slightly more than 50 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).


   The Lipset- Rockken (1967)  thesis on the “freezing of social cleavages” hypothesis offered to explain the stability of western European party systems has been rejected elsewhere in the region (Mair 2009), but it is still supposed to hold in Scandinavia (Sundberg 2002/2009; Berglund and Lindstrom 2006/2009). S.M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan had written in 1967:  “The party systems of the 1960s reflect, with few but significant exceptions, the cleavages structures of the 1920s ….[T]he party alternatives, and in remarkably many cases the party organizations, are older than the majorities of the national electorates” (quoted in Mair November 2003: 1). Sunburg (2002/2009: Abstract) argues that the Scandinavian party systems in large parts are still frozen as the diminishing class voting and electoral instability are unreliable measures of how well cleavages structures are reflected in the party systems as the struggle between three pole party fronts to incorporate new categories of voters is the very essence of an enduring cleavages structure in these countries. Similarly, Berglund and Lindstrom (2006, 2009 : Abstract) in a study of party systems in  Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway conclude: “ The social changes which manifested themselves in the early ‘70s, most notably the decrease in class voting, were not dramatic enough to undermine the class character of the party systems. Even the new arrivals make sense in a left-right perspective. The drop in class voting was an asset to whatever party knew how to make advantage of it; and the realigning elections in the early part of this decade testify to the unwillingness rather than the inability of most parties to do so.”


            In the 2006 Netherlands elections as many as 11 parties maintained parliamentary presence, but the major parties are Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Labour Party (LP) (PvdA), Socialist Party (SP), and People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). These four parties together accounted for 80.67 percents of the House of Representatives seats and 81.33 seats in the Senate in 2006.  This election saw some significant changes in the relative party positions.  The Socialist Party almost tripled its parliamentary strength, while the moderate Labour Party lost a quarter of its seats.  At the other end of the political spectrum LPF lost all its seats and a new anti-immigrant party PVV went from zero to six percent. The negotiations, made difficult by the increased left-right polarization, finally led to the formation of the fourth Social-Christian government by the PvdA, the CDA, and the Christian Union.


The multi-party system with coalition governments has been a long-term feature of Luxembourg politics. Since 1962 there have been some internal changes in the complexity of the party political scene with formation of new parties, and since 1974 the Communist Party suffered steady decline and after 1994 disbanded itself and reformed into the New Left Party. Since 1919 the Christia Social Party (CSV) had led every governing coalition, but in 1974 it lost in an election dominated by abortion rights, women’s rights, and inflation among other issues. It remained the largest party, but reigns of power passed on to a coalition of Socialist Workers’ Party (LSAP) and the Democratic Party (PD) also called the Liberals. However, in the 1979 election the CSV regained its dominance in alliance with PD and remained in the saddle until 1983/84. In 1984, after agreeing to wage indexation without reduction of the 40- hour work week, CSV formed a coalition government with the LSAP and ruled for the next 15 years. Despite the formation of new parties like Action Committee for Democracy (also known as Pensioners’ Party in a country with growing population of the old), Green Alternative Party (GAP/Dei Greng), Green List Ecological Initiative (GLEI), and the New Left, the CSV and LSAP remained partners in the ruling coalition until the 1999 election. “At this point, the inclusion of a party other than the CSV, LSAP, and PD in a governing coalition seems a long way off” (Graubart 200: 1). In the 2000 election these three parties together accounted for 75.6 percent of votes and 80 percent of parliamentary seats.  


            Historically, the Dutch party system in the first half of the twentieth century presented an image of “a pillarized society where two cleavages, one religious and the other socio-economic, acted to determine social and political loyalties”.  Since the 1960s the party system changes have gradually unfrozen the foregoing pattern of the “freezing hypothesis” of the Lipset-Rokkan characterization of the European party system as applied to the Netherlands and weakened the pillarized structure of the polity (A. Tan, n.d.:221) .


            In the first post-World War II election based on universal adult franchise in Italy held in 1948, the Christian Democratic Party won against the United Front of the Communist and Socialist parties and remained the dominant political force for four decades. Yet this dominance was composite one as illustrated by the inclusion of the Socialist Party in the government in the 1960s.  Christian Democrats tried to include the Communist Party as well in the government, but this so-called “historic compromise” failed.  During the 1980s the Communist Party gradually increased its vote, and in the 1984 election the Christian Democrats for the first time failed to emerge as the largest single party.  By the beginning of the 1990s in the midst of extensive corruption in public life the Christian Democratic Party and the Socialist Party disbanded, and the communists under a new name, Democratic Party of the Left, became the main social democratic party of Italy.  Under a new majoritarian electoral law introduced after the 1993 referendum, the 1994 election witnessed rise of new political parties and a massive electoral realignment.  Italy was ruled by a series of centre-right coalitions between 1996 and 2001.  By the late 2000s a centre-right coalition took reigns of power.  The centre-right coalition comprising three parties won again in the 2008 election.


            Competent observers remark that the French political system fuels anxiety “by the fact that the rules of the game, the procedures, the institutions are not fully established.  They are not stable because both the debate concerning which institutions and the attempt to reform them seem to be heading in a partisan rather than systematic direction.  Unless, and until such time as, a single player or coalition of players succeeds in formulating new rules and constructing new institutions, the Italian political system and its democracy will continue to be object of pervasive criticism, and understandably so.  In sum, the proof of the vitality of Italian democracy is that it is still, changing.  The level of citizens’ dissatisfaction with its functioning but not with its principles, is evidence that enough Italians care about improving it”(Pasquino 2008: 171-2).


Germany has a multi-party system with two large parties – Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) and Social Democratic Party – and three substantial smaller parties – free Democratic Party (FDP), the Left Party (formerly the Party of Democratic Socialism), and Alliance ‘90/The Greens. The Christian Democrats (“sister parties” that avoid direct electoral contests in the same regions) are right-of-centre or conservative, Social Democrats are left of centre, Free Democrats are liberal (currently neoliberal), the Left Party is socialist, and the Alliance ’90 are green.  In addition, there are also some minor parties with marginal parliamentary representation.  In Germany coalition governments are the norm as it is rare for either the CDU/CSU or SPD to win a majority of their own.  Thus coalitions are formed with at least one of the substantial smaller parties.  Helmut Kohl’s CDU government ruled for years in coalition with FDP, Gerhard Shroder’s SPD was in power with the Greens, and at this writing (September 2009) the centre-right coalition of CDU and its pro-business ally, the Free Democratic Party, have just been re-elected.  The alliance led by CDU, its Bavarian conservative sister-party, the Christian Social Union, and the FDP won 48.4 percent of the national vote under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel.


            The dynamic stability of the German party system has not escaped the general trend of the decline of membership, appropriation of some of the functions of political parties by other organizations and agencies, “personalization” of the executive, etc. Yet “the durability of the German political parties as collective actors and as dynamic institutions have produced and maintained an evolutionary party system while still producing the space or cushion necessary to prevent sclerosis or disintegration at an institutional level” (Allen n.d.).


            Austria is often considered an exception to the Duverger-Riker law that proportional representation invariably leads to a multi-party system.  Since 1949 party politics in the country has been largely dominated by the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and the Centre-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO).  Effective competition and governance have been largely limited between two parties until the rise of the third party, the Freedom Party in the 1980s and 1990s.  The two largest parties have had a Grand Coalition to keep the parties of the far left and far right out of government, excepting 1966-1973.  In 1983 the Social Democrats lost their thirteen-year long hold on power, and rather than return to the Grand Coalition       days of the 1960s SPO decided to include a third, smaller party in the governing coalition.  1986 represented a return to the Grand Coalition of OVP and SPO, which continued to be in command.  But a new element in politics is that the Green Alternative List Party broke through the stranglehold of the three traditional parties, gaining four percent of seats, a number that steadily rose over the ensuing decade.  Yet 1990 saw the continuation of the SPO-OVP coalition, by and large.  In 1995 the decline of the OVP continued. The FPO gains threatened the OVP on the right flank.  On the other hand, the OVP electoral base was also eroded by the FPO splinter party, the Liberal Forum.  However, the SPO continued to retain the FPO as the junior partner in the coalition government.  In 1999 the SPO had its worst electoral performance in the post-war era, when it lost 25 percent of its parliamentary seats.  Negotiations for government formation between OVP and SPO failed.  An OVP-FPO government was eventually formed, leaving the country’s largest party in the opposition for the first time in over forty years.  When the FPO was first established in 1947 it was considered “a natural home” for ex-Nazis.  The new government faced international stigma and outcries.  In the subsequent elections the support for the Liberal Forum has steadily remained constant and the once minor parties now share roughly twenty percent of popular vote.  “This functioning multi-party environment”, writes Graubart (2000: 2) “is a far cry from the two and a half party system of the Austria of old”.


            Since Spain’s transition to democracy nearly three decades ago following the four decades of authoritarian rule under General Francisco Franco party system has been in transition.  Politics since 1993 has, however, been dominated by two major parties which have alternately been in power: the left-of-centre Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the conservative Partido Popular (PP).  This dominance is a relative term as more often than not neither the PSOE nor the PP has enjoyed absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies.  As a result, the largest party after an election has invariably formed a minority government sustained by agreements with one or more of the various minor parties.  After the collapse of the middle-of-the road Socialist Democratic Centre (CDS, an offshoot of UCD) in 1993, the only nation-wide minor party in the parliament has been the United Left or Izquierda Unida (IU), a combination of the Spanish Communist Party and its cohort parties.  Besides the foregoing three nation-wide parties at the national level, there is a significant number of regionalist or ‘nationalist’ parties that count as small parties nationally but have substantial electoral base in their respective regions.  Catalonia has three ‘nationalist’ parties and the Basque Country has two such parties.  Outside these two regions where linguistic nationalism runs high, Galcia and Canary Islands also have sizeable ‘nationalist’ parties (Alvarez-Rivera 2008). 


            The extremely fragmented nature of modern Belgian politics was polarized in alarming proportions in the aftermath of the June 2007 elections in this parliamentary federal monarchy.  Following these excessively divisive elections, government formation took crisis-and-suspence-ridden nine months through the convention of putting together a governing coalition similar to that in the Netherlands described earlier.  The five-party government took office under the clouds of uncertainty about its survival.  “In most respects”, observes Castle (2008:1), “Belgium has two parallel political systems with different parties fielding candidates from the two biggest populations and appealing to voters through separate newspapers and television channels”.  The new government comprises the Flemish and French-speaking Christian Democrats, the Flemish and French-speaking liberals, and the French-speaking socialists.  The rabidly nationalist Flemish parties are in the opposition, but one of these is expected to support it.  Yves Leterme, the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, almost heads a government of national unity which represents a broad spectrum of political opinion and more of big parties are parts of the coalition than outside (Castle 2008:1-2).


            Table 7 presents some longitudinal aggregate data pertaining to membership in parliamentary cabinets in Western Europe between 1945 and 1999 (1 January).  Counting the first World War II government until the beginning of the year 1999, it is found that coalition governments in Western Europe are far more frequent (69 percent) than single-party governments (30.9 percent).  Indeed, in at least two countries – Luxembourg and the Netherlands – there have been no single-party governments at all.  Such governments are also relatively less likely in Finland, Germany, Belgium, Austria, France, and Italy than in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, and Portugal.  Minority governments in Western Europe are relatively less frequent than single-party governments.  Out of the 13 countries in the table, only four had minority governments with the incidence of 50 percent or above.  The mean number of political parties in party-based governments is relatively low.  It ranges from 1.42 in Sweden to 3.49 in Finland.  The West European mean for all the 13 cases is 2.3.

Table 7

Parliamentary Cabinets in Post-War Western Europe


No. of Party-Based Cabinets

Mean No. of Parties

Minority Cabinets (Percentages)

Single Party Cabinets (Percentages)












































































SOURCE:Wolfgang C. Muller and Kare Strom, eds., 2000:561.


Part IV

Some Asian Parliamentary and Parliamentary-Federal Systems


            We now examine the practice of coalition government in Japan, Israel, and Nepal.  Unlike the previous groups of polities studied in the foregoing, this class of systems is most desperate as they are neither parts of a common institutional heritage (e.g. the British Commonwealth) nor of a common geographical and cultural area (e.g. the Western European Zone).  They are also at different levels of economic development.  While Japan is post-industrial, Nepal is post-traditional, whereas Israel’s position appears to be rather ambiguous on this dimension.  In terms of C.E. Black’s (1966/1967 : Chapter 4) typology of seven patterns of modernization, Japan in the mid-1960s was in the fifth pattern, having consolidated its modernizing leadership during 1868-1945 and begun socio-economic transformation in 1945 inconclusively then.  Integration of its society was yet to be made.  Israel and Nepal were both in the sixth pattern.  The difference between the two was that the former witnessed the consolidation of its modernizing leadership during 1920-1948 and started its economic and social transformation in 1948, whereas Nepal had not reached these thresholds by the mid-1960s.  None of these three polities had accomplished the integration of their societies by then.  By now, all these three polities have traversed a tremendous distance and have seen radical transformations.


            All the three polities in this category are in reality or popular perception relatively homogeneous in cultural terms.  Pure or naturalized Japanese account for 98.6 percent of the total population of Japan and 99 percent of them speak Japanese as their first language.  Israel is somewhat more diverse with 76 percent Jews, 16 percent Muslims, 2.5 percent Arab Christians, among others.  Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel. Though a large number of foreign languages are used, English being most common is also taught on a mandatory basis.  Multilinguality and multicultural texture of the nation largely of immigrants is quite natural.  Nepal’s population is 80.6 percent Hindu, 10.7 percent Buddhist, 4.2 percent Muslim, among others.  In terms of languages, 57 percent of Nepalese are estimated to speak Nepali as their mother tongue; the percentages of other linguistic groups are as follows: Maithili 10 percent, Bhojpuri 7 percent, Tharu 4 percent, and Limbu and Bajjika 1 percent each.  Hindi is widely understood, while many people in government and business are also conversant in English.  Caste or ethnic groups number hundreds, but the two largest among these are Chhetris (15.80 percent) and Bahun (12.74 percent).


            The form of government in all the three countries is presently parliamentary, though the Constituent Assembly of Nepal (elected in 2008) is at this writing (2009) engaged in drafting a parliamentary-federal constitution.  The system of representation followed in Japan is the “parallel system” with ability to vote for both lists of positions grouped politically or according to organization, which, would then be elected proportionately and for individual names.  Israel’s electoral law is based on the list proportional representation.  The election to the Constituent Assembly of Nepal was directly held under a mixed system of representation, part of the seats filled in by plurality system and part of them by proportional representation.


            The federal question in Nepal is fraught with the difficulty that “in most ethnically conceived federal units the dominant [major] ethnic/caste group will be in the minority relative to other ethnic caste groups that make up the total population of the unit”.  Nevertheless, “the primary rationale for federalism in Nepal lies in breaking the shackles of a historically over-centralized state that has by design served the interests of upper-class Bahuns and Chhetris and has imposed their ethos on the rest of the country.  Federalism in this sense should be an exercise in redefining and rediscovering Nepal” (Sharma 2008: 83).


            The combination of cultural texture and form of government prevalent in the three case studies in this section would prompt a theoretical expectation for a two-party system in a common parliamentary set-up.  This is inclusive of Nepal where before the Maoist rebellion and state of emergency that started in 2001 some variants of parliamentary or panchayat democracy was introduced with alternation and interruptions by the absolute monarchy since 1959.  In 2008 Nepal became a republic and held Constituent Assembly elections under a mixed plurality and proportional system of representation.  The new representational system in Nepal and the prevalence of variants of List PR in Japan and Israel set in motion a causation that favours a multi-party system.


            As things really are, Japan and Nepal started with a one-party dominant systems, while Israel has had a multi-party system.  The centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) continuously ruled in Japan from 1955 to 1993, when it was replaced by a minority government and multi-party system.


            The immediate World War II years witnessed fragmentation of parties and a succession of minority governments in Japan.  Under the US influence the governments also tried to suppress communism and followed anti-organized-labour policies.  The conservative political forces, especially the Liberal Party and Democratic Party merged to produce the LDP as the dominant party within a multi-party framework which provided governmental stability until the early 1990s.  In 1993 the LDP was voted out of power after 38 years of one-party dominance. A coalition of new parties and existing opposition parties formed a new government.  The LDP regained political power in 1994 and ruled until 2009. A major turnaround came in Japanese politics in 2009 when the centre-left opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the elections and formed a coalition government with Social Democratic Party and People’s New Party.


            Much more than the pattern of cultural cleavage, the electoral system of Israel, populist pretensions and emphasis on the power of Parliament (Knesset)  make it very difficult to form and maintain governments in a highly fragmented party configuration.  Coalition governments are an inevitable outcome, even these are unstable with average life a government being 22 months.  The factors causing the fall of governments are commonly the issues relating to the peace process with Arab states, role of religion in the Israeli state, intrigues of smaller parties, and political scandals.  Since the foundation of Israel in 1948, there has been only one single-party majority government between 1968-69.  Coalition governments have been led by one of the three major parties.  Since its inception Israel has been ruled until May 1977 by successive coalition governments (with one exception as mentioned above) led by the Labour Alignment (called Mapai before 1967).  Out of this period a national unity government including all the parties was in saddle from 1967 to 1970.  After 1977 the Zionist conservative Likud bloc of parties were in power, followed by a series of other coalition governments, e.g. the predominantly rightwing Benjamin Netanayahu government led by his Likud party (1996-1999), the Ehud Barak government based on an alliance of Labour, Meimad, and Gresher (1999-2001), the national unity coalition government led by Ariel Sharon of the Likud (2001-2006), the centrist Kadima-led Ehud Olmert government (2006-2009).  The Kadima reemerged as the largest party in the Knesset in the 2009 elections (with 22.47% vote share/ 23.33% seat share), followed by Likud (21.61%/ 22.50%), Israel Beiteinu. (11.70% / 12.50%), Labour Party (9.93%/ 10.83%), Shas (8.49% / 9.17%).  The remainder of 21.67 percent of seats are distributed among 7 parties within the range of 5 and 3.


            The turn of the century found the fledgling democracy in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal chartered on an uncertain course.  Palace intrigues, ineffectual non-communist parties (the Nepali Congress Party being the largest among them), and the insurgent Maoist rebels created an extremely volatile political situation.  A state of emergency, inconclusive attempts to end the deadlock by electoral process or military action, and an internationally brokered peace process by the Swiss government culminated in the election of a Constituent Assembly-cum-provisional Parliament in 2008.  A coalition government led by the former Maoist rebel Kamal Dahal Prachanda, whose party won the largest number of seats, took office, with the Nepali Congress going into the opposition.  The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist-led coalition government included Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist, and the ethnic-regional-based Mathesi People’s Right Forum.  In May 2009 Prime Minister Prachanda resigned in protest against “unconstitutional and undemocratic” move by the President, Ram Baran Yadav, to block the sacking of the army Chief.  Communist leader Madhav Kumar Nepal was named the new Prime Minister of the coalition government.  The multi-party provisional Parliament is engaged in drafting a constitution of Nepal.  The available pointers suggest that in all probability it would be a parliamentary-federal constitution similar in principle to that of India.

Part V

Presidential and Semi-Presidential Federations and parliamentary systems


            In the preceding sections we have discussed coalition governments in parliamentary and parliamentary-federal systems in various parts of the world.  This experience is of special relevance for India as it is itself a parliamentary-federal system.  In this last substantive section prior to concluding my study, the coalition experience in a different institutional setting, i.e. presidential and semi-presidential systems and parliamentary systems would be examined.  In the category of presidential systems, the USA, Brazil and Nigeria, have been selected here.  In a way, the USA is a self-selecting case as it is the first presidential system in modern history as well as the only stable and institutionalized system of this kind in the world.  Its institutional transplantation in any other country has invariably suffered instability and authoritarian degeneration.  Another point to keep in mind is that the USA is not only presidential, it is also federal, and the first federal system in fact.  Brazil in Latin America also happens to be a presidential-federal system, much in the US mould.  So has been Nigeria since the revival of democracy there in 1999.


            The USA, Brazil, and Nigeria considerably differ in terms of Black’s (1966/67: chapter 4) seven patterns of modernization.  The former belongs to the second pattern having consolidated its modernizing leadership between 1776 and 1865, crossed the threshold of economic and social transformation by 1865-1933.  Brazil belongs to the fourth pattern, marked out by the consolidation of its modernizing leadership during 1850-1930, and begun the process of economic and social transformation by 1930.   Nigeria is part of the seventh pattern where consolidation of modernizing leadership began inconclusively so far in 1960, neither had it integrated its society when Black (1966/67) formulated his typology of modernization in comparative history and politics.  Whether the task is accomplished todate is also doubtful.           


            Examples of semi-presidential systems included in this study are France and Sri Lanka.  Also known as presidential-parliamentary system, the term was first used by Maurice Duverger (1978) in a work in French to characterize the Fifth Republican constitution in France and subsequently elaborated it in English (Duverger 1980).  It is based in a combination of presidential and parliamentary principles of  government first attempted in France in 1958, following a long but incorrigibly unstable spell of parliamentary government.  It juxtaposes a president directly elected by the people and a prime minister indirectly elected by the Parliament, which in the first instance is directly or popularly elected.  To work the system it is thus necessary for the president and the prime minister to “cohabit” to govern.  Sri Lanka, initially a parliamentary system after independence in 1948, switched over to a variant of semi-presidential system in 1978.  These two cases selected here are prima facie very different in developmental terms.  In terms of Black’s (1966/67: chapter 4) seven patterns of political modernization, France belongs to the first, whereas Sri Lanka to the sixth.  France underwent the consolidation of modernizing leadership during 1789-1848, experienced the economic and social transformation during 1848-1945, and began the process of integration of its society in 1945.  The consolidation of the modernizing leadership took place in Sri Lanka during 1920-1948, the economic and social transformation began in 1948, while the integration of its society had not even begun when Black (1966-67) wrote, and by all available indicators is seriously problematic until now.


Let us now turn to the patterns of cultural cleavages in our cases of presidential and semi-presidential systems in review in this study.  As Table-8 shows, the USA is culturally not all that diverse.  It is predominantly Christian (76 percent) with marginal non-Christian population segments (1.2 percent Jewish and about 1 percent Eastern religions). English is the sole official and spoken language from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts and from the 49th Parallel (the US-Canada border) to the southern end.  Some degree of ethnic diversity is there: 66 percent non-Hispanic White, 15 percent Hispanic White, 14 percent African Blacks, and 5 percent Asian Americans.  The major source of diversity in the USA is geographical or regional.


Cultural Cleavages in the Selected Presidential and Semi-Presidential Systems



No. of Religious Groups (1% +)

No. of Linguistic Groups (1% +)

No. of Ethnic Groups (1% +)

USA (Population in 2009: 305,000,000)

2 (76% Christians, 1.2% Jewish, 0.9% Eastern Religions)

English, the sole official language

4 (66% Non-Hispanic Whites, 15% Hispanics, 14% African Americans, 5% Asian Americans

Brazil (Population in 2008: 186,842,147)

1 (74% Roman Catholics, 15.4% Protestants, 1.3% Spiritism)

1 (Portuguese is the only official language + many Amerindian languages, native ones presently endangered

A single “Brazilian” ethnic group with varied racial types: 53% “White”, 38% “mixed”, 6% “Black”, 1% “other”

Nigeria (Population in 2005: 141,000000)

2 (50% Muslims, 40% Christians among traditional indigenous religions

More than half of a dozen, including English (official), Hausa, Yourba, Igbo, Fulani, and others

More than 250 ethnic groups including Housa and Fulani (29%) Yourba(20%), Igbo (20%), Calabar (10%), Ibibo (4.5%), Annang (3.5%), Efic (20%).

France (Population in 2009:65,073,482)

? (65% Roman Catholic, 12% some other religions, 27% consider themselves atheists)

1 (100% French with rapidly declining regional languages

No official classification by ethnicity

Sri Lanka (Population: 19,238,575)

4 (69.30% Buddhist, 15.48% Hindu, 7.56% Muslim, 7.62% Christian)

2 (Sinhala and Tamil are both official languages accounting for 74% and 18% of population respectively; English is commonly used in government and spoken well by 40% the population)

3 (73.8% Sinhalese, 3.9% Sri Lankan Tamil, 4.6% Indian Tamil, 7.2% Sri Lankan Moors, 10% unspecified

NOTES:The US religious data are form a survey, not census. The French religious data are form a study by the CSA Institute based on a 2003 sample survey.


            Brazil down south in Latin America is again predominantly Christian (89.4 percent), it is indeed the largest Roman Catholic country in the world.  It is entirely Portuguese linguistically, with several non-official Amerindian languages that are presently endangered, especially the native ones.  Ethnically, the country is supposed to be the home of a single “Brazilian” ethnic group, though with varied racial types: 53 percent “white”, 38 percent “mixed” and 6 percent “Black”.  Like in the USA, the major source diversity in Brazil is the vast geographical size of the country.  Given the absence of major cultural divisions, the USA and Brazil could opt for a government of executive presidency with the singular political focus on the chief executive in the government as contrasted with the collegial cabinet government in a parliamentary system or collegial presidency in Switzerland.  But regional diversity of these countries prompted them to go for a federal constitution.


Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is culturally very heterogeneous. Besides the Muslims and Christians, who account for about half and nearly 40 percent of the population, there are other religious groups including “ethnoreligionists” and traditional religious faiths. More than half a dozen African languages are prevalent, but English is the sole official language of Nigeria. The ethnic diversity is even more complex with over 250 ethnic groups based on tribal origins.


            France is a country without any major cultural contradictions, notwithstanding the recent violent religious protests perpetrated by immigrant workers of Muslim background.  The country is predominantly Roman Catholic (65 percent, with 12 percent of the population professing faith in some other religions.  The country is 100 percent French in linguistic terms, with rapidly declining regional languages.  The French census does not use any ethnic classification in its decennial enumeration.


            Historically, France was the first home of the European absolutist state as England was the first home of the moderate absolutism and gradual evolution of the parliamentary cabinet system.  The absolutist state in France was destroyed by the Revolution in 1789, which was subsequently overtaken by the Bonapartist authoritarian state.  Eventually, France went through a long spell of extremely unstable Assembly form of government subscribing to the principles of popular and parliamentary sovereignties.  It was to contain these parliamentarist excesses that the De Gaulle constitution of 1958 was devised that designed what Maurice Duverger (1980) has conceptualized as the “semi-presidential system”, a new political system model.


            In the group of countries being examined in this section, Sri Lanka is culturally the most diverse despite its considerably smaller size.  Four major religious communities form the national community in the island republic in the Indian ocean adjacent to the Indian landmass across the Gulf of Mannar.  These are: Buddhist 69.30 percent, Hindu 15.48 percent, Christian 7.62 percent, and Muslim 7.56 percent.  Sinhala and Tamil are the two major linguistic communities accounting for 74 percent and 18 percent of population.  Both are official languages, nationally and regionally, and English is commonly used as a functional medium by 40 percent of the Sri Lankans.  There are at least three major ethnic groups in the country: 73.8 percent Sinhalese, 8.5 percent Tamils, and 7.2 percent Sri Lankan Moors.  With this diversity and emerging from the British colonial tradition, Sri Lanka first began its career as an independent entity with a parliamentary form of government with considerable administrative thought favouring devolution and political pressure for federalism.  In 1978 the country switched over to the semi-presidential system that indeed contributed to the excessive centralization of powers dominated by the executive presidency stamping out the tendency towards federalism and considerably whittling down devolution of powers to the “provincial” government that for all practical purposes are no more than weak local governments.  This is the major political cause of the acute ethnic conflict and civil war since 1983 that ended in 2009 in the military repression of the Tamil militant separatists.


            Table 9 presents a synoptic view of the forms of governments and systems of representation in the group of countries under review here.  The USA, the first presidential-federal system in the world, uses the type of electoral system that may be broadly called plurality/majority: it elects its national legislature by the plurality or the first-past-the-post voting system and elects the Presidents by a variant of plurality-majority system.  This system of representation reduces the political diversity in the resulting elected institutions in a society that is not very diverse in cultural terms, which the US more or less happens to be.  However, the regional diversity expressed in federalism is a factor that contributes to political pluralism and regional political diversity.



Forms of Government and System of Representation in the USA, Brazil, Nigeria, France, and Sri Lanka


System of Representation

Form of Government




USA (Since 1787)


France (Vth Republic  1958-todate)


Brazil (Since 1988)

Sri Lanka (1978-todate)


            Culturally Brazil is moderately pluralistic, but regional diversity is considerable in this geographically large country.  This diversity is further encouraged by a federal constitution and use of list proportional representation in electing the Chamber of Deputies, though the members of the Senate are elected by the majority electoral system.  The President is elected by majority vote with run-off election (second round if the first round fails to yield majority).


The cultural diversity of Nigeria is easily manifested politically in the 36-state federal union (plus a federal capital territory ) and 50 political parties at some points in time, despite the use of plurality-majority electoral system with open rather than secret balloting for parliamentary as well as presidential elections. Linguistic diversity of Nigeria papered over by the use of English as the role official language of the government(s). Recurrent ethnic violence and clashes over economic issues including gas pipelines and oil facilities are regular features of Nigerian politics. So were military coups prior to the 1999 revival of democracy


            The French culture is fairly homogeneous.  This trait is reinforced politically by a parliamentary constitution since 1958, which replaced the parliamentary form of government by a semi-presidential one.  Both the National Assembly and the President are directly elected under the TRS system of representation.  This system of election tends to moderate political pluralization and fragmentation. 


            The cultural diversely of Sri Lanka is replicated politically by the use of the list proportional representation in the national legislature.  The President is elected under the SV system. However, the unitary nature of the constitution has a moderating effect on political diversity.


            In terms of party system characteristics, the two presidential systems in our study in this section are different in that the USA has developed a two-party system, whereas Brazil has got a multi-party system.  Both the semi-presidential systems here – France and Sri Lanka – have evolved into multi-party systems of polarized pluralism in terms of Giovanni Sartori’s (1976:131-145) typology of party systems.


            We will discuss each of these party systems with special reference to coalition governments in turn. A point of clarification is in order here, however.  Presidential systems, especially with two-party systems, preclude coalition governments in the sense in which we have been discussing the term in the foregoing.  For coalition government is by definition a multi-party affair, barring the two parties in a bi-party system joining hands in a crisis or national emergency.  Even in that eventuality, the solitary nature of the presidency forecloses a coalition government, unless the president himself is elected by a bi-partisan electoral platform.  This is especially true of the USA where there is a long-established tradition of a two-party system of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party or their predecessors.  Moreover, the US President is not constitutionally constrained to select his/her ministers from the Congress nor is the cabinet collectively dependent on the majority of the House of Representatives.  In multi-party presidential systems, such for example as Brazil, the President may probably be elected by a multi-party coalitional electoral platform, and the President even otherwise elected on a single party platform may appoint a multi-party cabinet.  The President in Brazil, incidentally, must appoint members of the cabinet from amongst the members of the Congress.  In semi-presidential systems there is a greater probability of a Prime Minister heading a coalition government, especially if such a system is characterized by a multi-party system.  Both France and Sri Lanka in this study happen to be characterized by multi-party systems.


            The American two-party system comprising the Democratic Party and the Republican Party is more consistently bi-partisan both historically and spatially than the party system in any other country of the world.  The two major parties generally account for all the Presidents and almost all the Congressmen bicamerally.  But the formal two-party mould of the American politics conceals an extremely pluralistic and regionally diverse political universe nation-wide, both federally and regionally.  There are different sets of presidential and congressional party systems.  This diversity is also replicated at the state level.  So also at the local level.  The three strata of party networks and organizations are not organizationally or hierarchically integrated beyond a formal and minimal sense, resulting in a situation in which higher level leadership has practically no control over party leaders down the line.  Thus, the American parties are uniquely decentralized in organizational terms.  Parties are also marked by low cohesion in the legislative chambers and weak discipline in falling in line behind the presidential policies and strategies even among the party cohorts of the person in the White House.  These characteristics of the American parties may be understood sociologically in terms of the “Frontier spirit” in American political culture historically and exceptional economic prosperity and greater equality in industrial and post-industrial America as compared to the rest of the world.  These features of American parties are also a product of a constitutional design marked by the principles of separation of powers among the three major organs of governments horizontally and division of powers between the federal and state governments vertically.  An exceptionally complex institutional setting of checks and balances is the outcome of this type of constitutional engineering. 


            The enterprise of government and governance in such a context demands a continuous process of making coalitions across  the executive and the legislative branches and among federal and state governments.  These shifting coalitions are imperative to break the institutional and policy deadlocks.  As Austin Ranney (2004: 773) aptly observes:

“The main coalition builders have included public officials of all kinds, including presidents and their chief political aides in the Cabinet and the Executive Office of the President: members of Congress and their professional staffs; political heads and permanent civil servants in the executive departments and independent agencies; and federal judges and their clerks”. 

Ranney goes on to say:

“At least as active and often as powerful as these inside players are the outside players, especially the lobbyists representing the major organized interest groups that feel they have major stakes in the policy outcomes”.


            The process has winners and losers, but the diverse and complex institutional landscapes offers opportunities to those who lose in one site to turn to other sites, including finally to the courts.


            With a more or less similar presidential-federal constitution, if coupled with political instability, the task of presidential and congressional coalition building in Brazil is also compelling and inescapable, especially when the country is not ruled by a military dictatorship.  The point is illustrated by the experience of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva whose Workers’ Party won a landslide victory in the presidential election of October, 2002.  Despite his great personal popularity, Lula’s party could only win less than 20 percent of total seats in the National Congress and only 14 of 81 seats in the Senate.  The party won the election in only three of the lesser states out of the 26.  However, President Lula, an ex-union leader, through an appropriate economic policy and pragmatic political strategy has been able to build workable political coalitions bridging his party’s left wing and the conservative political forces in the country (Costa 2005: 99-102).


Despite attempts in the past by a military regime to introduce two-party systems by legal fiat (Bamgbose 2008), Nigerian party system continues to be a multi-partisan dispensation. The 2007 presidential election was contested by 18 parties, though Umrace Yar’Aduba of People’s Democratic Party registered 69.82 percent of votes, with the runner up Mohannadu Buhari of All Nigeria People’s Party trailing behind with 18.72 %. Parliamentary elections for the House Representatives and the Senate (both directly electable)  also featured  the same two parties as the winner and the runner-up, among five other parties. As in the case of the USA, the informal coalition-building across organs and level of governments in Nigeria falls mainly on the president and the leaders of the legislative branch as well as on the governors. However, federal democracy in Nigeria has still a long way to go. Commenting on the recent political dynamics in the country, Nze (2005: 235) raises the question “Whether inter-party competition is being replaced by the emergence of one ‘super party’ and intra party competition.”


The 1999 constitution in Nigeria dispensed with the earlier parliamentary federal arrangement and adopted a presidential-federal dispensation complete with separation of powers among the legislative executive, and judicial organs of governments and the division of powers between the federal and state governments with residual powers left with the latter.  


Despite attempts in the past by a military regime to introduce a two-party system by legal fiat (Bamgbose 2008), Nigerian party system continues to be a multi-partisan dispensation. The 2007 presidential  election was contested  by 18 parties, though  Umrau Yar’Aduba of People’s Democratic Party registered 69.82 percent of vote, with the runner up Mohammadu Buhari of All Nigeria People’s Party trailing behind with 18.72 percent. Parliamentary elections for the House Representatives and the Senate (both directly electabel ) also featured the same two parties as the winner and the runner-up, among five other parties. As in the case of the USA, the informal coalition-building across organs and levels governments in Nigeria falls mainly on the President and the leaders of the legislative branch as well as on the Governors. However, federal democracy in Nigeria has still a long way to go. Commenting on the recent political dynamics in the country, Nze (2005: 235) raises the question as to “whether inter-party competition is being replaced by emergence of one ‘super party’ and intra-party competition”?  


            Despite the absence of major cultural contradictions and the electoral system of the Fifth Republic that simplifies political divisions by plurality-majority representation as well as run-off presidential elections that polarize the winner and runner-up, France has been endowed with a fragmented and fractionated multi-party system.  This is presumably the effect of the revolutionary tradition and penchant for popular sovereignty.  The political spectrum is divided among the right and centre, far right, and left.  Unlike several other West European countries, the social democratic political forces on the left are not that strong and united in France.  The main parties today are the Rally for the Republic (RPR) and the Union for French Democracy (UDF) on the right, the National Front (FN) on the far right, the Socialist Party (PS), and the French Communist Party (PCF) on the left.  The rise of the far right National Front is a development since the mid-1980s.  Its influence waned since 1998, but it got a shot in the arm in 2002.


            The RPR is a direct inheritor of the Gaullist party of Charles De Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic in 1958.  From 1958 to 1975, the Gaullists controlled both the presidency and the premiership.  1986 marked a political as well as economic turning point in French politics.  The year witnessed the routinization of charismatic nationalist right-wing domination of the republic and transition to a more competitive politics under divided governments (with the presidency and prime ministership controlled by different sets of parties) and “cohabitation” of the President and the Prime Minister, in other words, coalition between the head of the state and the head of the government.  It was also in 1986 that the government embraced neoliberal economic reforms and initiated privatization of nationalized industries.


            The French political system displays a complex pattern of triple coalitions: firstly, among the parties of the right-centre, left (socialists, communists, and Greens), and far right (FN/MNR) in electoral politics; secondly, among party families joining a government; and thirdly, the cohabitation coalition between the President and the Prime Minister.


            During the concordant common control of the Presidency and the government by the winning coalition of parties, the French system “resembled that of the cabinet in a presidential regime such as the United States, rather than that of a government in a parliamentary system such as Britain and the earlier French republics” (Schain 2004: 244).  The relationship in the double-headed executive changes during periods of cohabitation (from 1986 to 1988, between 1993 and 1995, and between 1997 and 2002).  During these periods either a conservative majority controlled parliament and the President was a socialist, or the parliament was controlled by the left and the President was from a conservative party.  During such periods of cohabitation, the President tends to “occupy the foreground in foreign and military affairs, in accordance with his interpretation of his mandate under the constitution” and the prime minister becomes “the effective leader of the executive and pursue[s] government objectives, but avoids interfering with presidential prerogatives” (Schain 2004: 245).


            The multi-party system in Sri Lanka has made coalitional formations among parties necessary for both the presidential and the parliamentary elections.  For example, the 2005 presidential election was contested by 13 coalitional or single party candidates, but only two contestants accounted for 98.72 percent of votes.  These were Mahinda Rajpakse of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (50.29 percent) and Ranil Wickremsinghe of the United National Party (48.43 percent).  The 2004 parliamentary election was contested by three coalitions of parties and a large number of other coalitions and parties.  The 8-party United People’s Freedom Alliance won the polls with 45.60 percent of votes and 46.67 percent of seats.  The 2-party United National Front got 37.83 percent of votes and (36.44 percent of seats, trailed by the 4-party Tamil National Alliance (Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi) with 6.84 percent of votes and 9.78 percent seats.  Only four other parties or alliances got more than one seat in the unicameral Parliament, ranging between 9 to 1 seats.  Both the President and the Prime Minister thus came from the same coalition of parties, i.e. United People’s Freedom Alliance.  The multi-party system of the country has been dominated by the socialist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the conservative United National Party (UNP), both subscribing to democracy, encouragement to Sinhalese culture, and nonalignment in international relations.  The party system includes anti-systemic organizations like the separatist Liberation Tiger Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern and eastern provinces widely assumed to be proxied in the Parliament by the Tamil National Alliance.  Another such party is the Sinhalese ethnic Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which was behind both of Sri Lanka’s southern insurgencies in the 1970s and 1980s.  It has become established as a mainstream party and is currently part of the ruling UPFA coalition.


            There have been proposals to abolish the semi-presidential constitution in Sri Lanka and go back to the parliamentary system.  With the Tamil separatist movement leading to the emergency and civil war since 1983 having been militarily crushed in 2009, these proposals may perhaps be seriously taken up and implemented along with the devolutionary scheme under the 13th constitutional amendment suspended in a limbo for long.  Sri Lanka has survived “the destructive effects of prolonged ethnic conflict” and “it remains a functioning democracy and one of the few postcolonial states with an unbroken record of democratic rule” (De Silva 1997).  The challenge of devolutionary and eventually federal democracy and multicultural and multi-party coalitional governance made messy by intolerance and majoritarianism reflected both in the government and the opposition since the 1970s still lies ahead.  The developing coalitional framework of governance augurs well for the consolidation of democracy in the country.




Part VI

Concluding Observations


Like democracy and federalism generally coalitional governance may not be the most stable and effective form of rule, but it is more representative and accountable, other factors being the same.  This point hardly needs an elaboration as an institutionalized multi-party coalitional framework of government, especially in a federal context, is a device of consensual rather than majoritarian governance.  Almost by definition, a coalition situation “dictates an accommodative politics of compromise and conciliation in which smaller parties and less powerful interests potentially get to have a say in government and public policy.  A greater part of the electorate can get representation in government than [had] been typical in India, where all Congress majority governments [had] won a majority of seats on the basis of only a plurality of votes, the collective majority of voters thus finding themselves unrepresented in government” (Sridharan1997 : 2).  However, this greater representativeness of coalition governments is maximized under proportional representation system.  Under single-member constituency plurality or first-past-the-post representation law, the vote-seat share disproportionality invariably reduces the greater representativeness of coalition governments “primarily with regard to legislatures and only distantly to the electorate and society at large” (Sridharan 1997:2).  However, the complex diversities of India blunt the supposed effect of plurality electoral system on the number of parties.  India since 1989 has thus been witness to the emergence of a multi-party system even without a proportional representation system.


For reasons of stability and flexibility of operation, national political and administrative elites and top industrialists prefer single-party majority governments to coalition governments.  Majority one-party governments are also considered the norm in Anglo-American-influenced and British Commonwealth political systems, and coalition governments are seen as an aberration and a passing phase.  Yet single-party majority governments are not always available on wish list, and coalition governments are a much more recurrent feature in these polities than they may appear prima facie.  This much is clear from the survey of these political systems in the foregoing parts of this paper.  Practically all Commonwealth parliamentary-federal systems have had at least some phases of coalitional governance.  A typical Commonwealth model of such political systems may be said to be marked by a multicultural and/or multinational society, plurality-majority representation system, a multi-party system with federal coalitional governance, and constitutional courts with the power of judicial review, in some cases tending to judicial activism.


Western  Europe is almost unique in the most widely prevalent use of proportional representation, multi-party systems, coalition governments, direct democracy or at any rate referendum, principle of parliamentary supremacy and Kelsenian constitutional courts, and supranational confederal institutions of the European Union (EU) including the European charter of rights and the European Court of Justice whose case law is commonly honoured by national courts despite national judicial sensibilities especially in the United Kingdom.  A large majority of EU member-states have also joined the Euro currency and the Schenzen visa system.  There are a European Parliament, a European Council, and a European Commission.  If the Lisbon Treaty is ratified by a few remaining 27 member-states, pretty soon there will be the European President and Foreign Minister.  All in all, Europe offers a new model of government and governance, in which the culture of coalitional and consensual political decision making has become institutionalized nationally and supranationally.


In our selected comparative study of some Asian parliamentary systems (Japan, Israel, and Nepal), some presidential systems (the USA, Brazil and Nigeria), and some semi-presidential systems (France and Sri Lanka), we find that inter-party parliamentary coalition governments, presidential-congressional coalition-building, and President-Prime Minister cohabitation are the basic stuff of the enterprise of government and governance, the latter going beyond the formal structures of government.


The case against coalition government premised on instability and its dialatory and ineffective nature cannot also be accepted at its face value.  It must be subjected to discursive scrutiny and empirical investigation.  A decisive and effective government that leads to overcentralization or systematic exclusion of some regions or communities or their under-representation in the power structure may in the long run lead to political instability of much more disastrous consequences than mere governmental instability that can be more easily managed or compensated by structural or functional substitutes, e.g. bureaucracy, independent regulatory authorities, judicialization of politics, etc.


Traditionally considered unstable, recent studies of coalition governments in comparative settings have shown that this is not necessarily true of all types of coalition governments.  Kaare Strom (1987: 109) observes: “Minimal winning coalitions exhibit substantially greater stability than minority coalitions and oversized governments, and can prove as stable as single-party governments”.  Evidence from India is also differential and  complex.  While large and heterogeneous coalition governments in Indian states between 1967-71 were very unstable, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led left front coalition governments in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura since 1977 have been remarkably stable.  So have been the Congress-led United Democratic Front governments in Kerala since the late 1970s.  The early federal coalition governments led by Janata Dal since 1989 in India were extremely unstable.  However, the Congress minority government headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-1996), the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004), and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government steered by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi (2004-2009) creditably completed their five-year mandates.  The last mentioned government was reelected in 2009 with reinforced electoral strength, and in all probability will be stable. However, if the problem of party system fragmentation continues and worsens, Verney (2008) proposes party system reforms through incentives to smaller parties to coalesce into federative national parties via inter-state alliances of smaller parties, as discussed earlier.


This exploration of the theory and practice of coalition and/or minority governments in comparative as well as Indian perspectives suggests that oversize and ideologically incoherent/opportunistic parliamentary coalition governments(support from outside) have a high probability of instability.  Executive coalition governments (parties extending parliamentary support plus directly joining the government) have a somewhat greater likelihood of stability. Optimum size, substantive programmatic consensus, and procedural agreement as to the “Dos” and “Don’ts” are some essential prerequisites of durable political and governmental coalitions.  Formal coalition pacts negotiated in details in terms of policy issues and mutual obligations have contributed to considerable durability of coalition governments in Germany and Scandinavian countries.  “The European model of coalition pacts,” writes Sridharan (1997-20), “tends to implicitly assume clearly articulated party positions along the ideological spectrum as well as agreements (among the non-communist parties, at least) on the fundamentals of the political system”.  New Zealand offers additional evidence in favour of formal coalitional pacts. The Indian experience, at least better and evolved parts of it, does not contradict this experience.


Besides the usual dissatisfaction of coalition governments on account of delays and ineffectiveness of government, the first flush of federal coalition governments in India have thrown up two other institutional concerns.  These are instability and lack of proper reconciliation between the parliamentary and federal principles of government underlying the constitutional scheme.  Early on, the practice of government in India showed that parliamentary component of the government with a prime ministerial (rather than Cabinet) domination overshadowed, rather stifled, the federal parts of the constitution.  Since the 1990s, things have gone to the other extreme, i.e. the federal forces have practically undermined the autonomy of the parliamentary wing.  This effect, rather distortion, has resulted due to the decline of the previously dominant or majority Congress Party and the failure of other national parties to grow to the majority mark, plus the rise of powerful and often opportunistic regional parties demanding their pound of flesh for their balancing support to make up a majority in the Lok Sabha.  The casuality have been the cabinet cohesion, the authority of the Prime Minister crucial for initiation and coordination of policies, individual responsibility of ministers to the Prime Minister and collective responsibility of the cabinet to the Lok Sabha.  This collective responsibility is stretched beyond to the powerful regional satraps who stay in state politics, nominate their protégés over the head of the Prime Minister and remote-control them.  Coalition partners in the government try to build “empires” in the ministries parceled out to them.  This tendency undermines the autonomy and integrity of parliamentary government.  Both the state governments and the Union government are entitled to enjoy autonomy from each other under the Indian parliamentary-federal constitution.










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