Home > News > More and more, presidents govern with a coalition. Here are the pluses and minuses.
164 views 9 min 0 Comment

More and more, presidents govern with a coalition. Here are the pluses and minuses.

- March 17, 2016
Demonstrators demand the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff during a rally where a large inflatable doll depicts former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in prison garb in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 13. The corruption scandal at the state-run oil giant Petrobras has ensnared key figures from Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, including her predecessor and mentor, Lula da Silva, as well as members of opposition parties. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

Across the world, presidents who govern without their party having a majority in the legislature – what we call “minority presidents” — are battling with those legislatures in acute political crises.

In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff is threatened with impeachment following a massive corruption scandal and the country’s worst recession for 25 years.

In Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko is in conflict with the largest party in the assembly over who controls the government – paralyzing policy at a time when the country faces a dire economic situation and a Russian occupation and war in the east.

In Kenya, the need to keep all of the factions of his coalition happy appears to be undermining President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ability to push through anti-corruption policies.

In each case, presidents who don’t have legislative majorities are struggling to manage the cross-party coalitions that they need to govern. More and more often, presidents face this problem of managing coalitions,  particularly in young democracies.

Our major new research program, the Coalitional Presidentialism Project, finds that the bargaining that creates a coalition has good and bad effects. On the one hand, the bargaining itself promotes decisive and inclusive governance in new democracies. This is because coalition governments secure more seats compared to their minority counterparts, and so can more easily push through their policies; they also tend to feature a broader range of leaders, so that they accommodate a greater variety of social interests.

On the other hand, that bargaining makes it harder for the legislative opposition to scrutinize policies and hold the government to account. This trade-off between being able to govern versus holding political figures accountable poses serious challenges to the consolidation and strengthening of new democracies.

The rise of minority presidents

The growing prevalence of presidential coalitions has its roots in three trends that have reshaped the balance of power between the executive and the legislature in recent decades.

First, the world is becoming increasingly presidential. In the 1980s, half of the world’s democracies were run by parliaments. Today, two-thirds of democracies feature directly elected presidents. In most cases, that’s because presidential systems are in place in countries that only recently introduced multiparty politics; in a smaller number, existing democracies have shifted from a parliamentary to a presidential model. The result: In an increasing number of countries the executive is not a prime minister who sits within the legislature, but a president who operates – and gains his legitimacy – outside of it.

Second, political parties have proliferated. With the obvious exception of the United States, party systems are becoming more fragmented, with new parties appearing and old parties splintering. That’s because of the growing personalization of politics combined with the emergence of parties that represent specific ethnic, religious and regional groups. Increasingly, no party holds a majority in many of the world’s legislatures.

The combined effect of presidentialism and fragmented party systems means that countries are more likely to be governed by leaders whose parties are the minority within legislative assemblies. More than half of all directly elected presidents can now be classified as “minority presidents.”

In turn, this has driven a third trend: The rise of presidential coalitions as leaders seek to build multi-party alliances in order to execute their policy agendas. Today, most minority presidents rule with cross-party coalitions.

The costs and benefits of presidential coalitions

To get a better understanding of how “coalitional presidentialism” plays out, we interviewed 350 members of parliament (MPs) across nine countries – Armenia, Benin, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Kenya, Malawi, Russia and Ukraine. These interviews, which were conducted between 2011 and 2014, focused on specific periods in each country when presidents had to govern with a legislative coalition.

In certain respects, MPs considered the growth in coalitions to be a good thing. The vast majority of MPs (80 percent) agreed that coalitions had promoted political stability. In all cases except Russia, which was of historical interest (2000-03), most MPs (70 percent) also praised coalitions for greater inclusion of diverse social interests. Moreover, in every country except Brazil, a clear majority of MPs (70 percent) also agreed that coalitions made lawmaking more decisive and improved the quality of public policies.

However, there is also a broad consensus on some of the downsides of presidential coalitions. More than 60 percent of MPs in every country believed that such alliances have undermined the legislature’s ability to hold the president accountable, for example by vetting and vetoing presidential policies. This increased to as high as 92 percent in Brazil.

Similarly, MPs in all countries except Chile agreed that alliance politics has led to opportunistic support for the government of the day, as when small parties join the president’s coalition in order to reap the benefits of office, with little thought for the policy consequences. This feeling was particularly pronounced in Brazil (98 percent) and Malawi (85 percent).

As a result of these more negative features, MPs tended to be cautious about the overall impact of alliances on the quality of democracy. Less than half of MPs (48 percent) agreed that coalition politics improved the quality of democracy. This figure was particularly low in some of the countries in which coalitions have enabled the president to take greater control of the policy process, despite the supposed separation of powers, such as Brazil, Malawi, Russia and Ukraine. It was also low in countries where coalitions are seen to have promoted the “exchange of favors” – informal mechanisms of presidential influence such as clientelism and the exchange of legislative support in return for the assistance of the executive during future election campaigns, as in, once again, Brazil and Malawi.

Thus, legislators around the world are well aware that presidential coalitions involve a tradeoff. On the one hand, forming alliances makes it easier to govern by enabling them to establish a legislative majority, allowing presidents to respond to pressing policy issues. On the other, it threatens to undermine legislative scrutiny and accountability. Policymakers and those involved in promoting democracy need to pay greater attention to how coalitions influence presidencies.

Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman and Timothy Power are lead investigators of the Coalitional Presidentialism Project, which is run out of the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies at Oxford University and is funded by the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The project’s findings will appear in their forthcoming Oxford University Press book “Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective: Minority Executives in Multiparty Systems.”