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What does the new British coalition have to tell us about models of coalition formation?

- May 14, 2010

In the wake of the exceedingly quick wrap up of “coalition talks in Britain”:http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2010/05/the_british_political_system_w.html, I asked Professor “Anna Bassi”:http://www.unc.edu/~abassi/ for her thoughts on the relationship between what had transpired there and formal models of coalition formation. Here is her response:

bq. The new British coalition represents an intriguing case study of government formation, not just because the UK did not witness a coalition government since WWII, but because it seems to contradict common assumptions and – consequently- theoretical predictions in the field.

bq. First, it is usually assumed that the formation process unfolds in three steps: first, a formateur (a designated prime-minister to be) is selected by the head of state; second, the formateur engages in negotiations with other parties to try to form a government; third, a government proposal (the list of members who are going to form the Cabinet) is voted by the legislature. Looking at the political events which occurred from the end of the general election on May 6th to the first Cabinet meeting on May 13th (see the “Guardian’s blog”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/series/general-election-2010-live-with-andrew-sparrow), it seems that the order of the first two steps has been switched: first, parties negotiated to form a coalition, then, after a clear deal was sealed among Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the Queen asked the leader of the Conservatives to form the government. The selection of the formateur becomes therefore uninfluential and redundant in the government formation process, since it is merely the ratification of what has been already agreed upon by the parties.

bq. Second, theoretical models of government formation predict that, if parties are policy pursuing (as the negotiations between the parties suggest), parties will coalesce with policy-adjacent parties. Again, this does not seem to be the case, since the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party are center left parties, extremely close on several stances, with the former more radical and more leaning on the left than the latter. The Conservative Party is instead farther from both on the right. Thus, among the three major parties, Liberal Democrats, Tories, and Labour, a coalition between the first two seems to exclude the moderate – or median- party.

bq. Third, if instead parties are not policy pursuing, but just office seekers, a coalition between the Liberals and the Conservative is –theoretically- not the best coalition to seek. The Liberal Democrats(57 seats) could have coalesced with Labour (258 seats), SDLP (3 seats), Plaid Cymru (3 seats), Alliance(1 seat), and either SNP or Green which would very likely agree on coalescing in the left wing government and get just the required majority (SinnFein does not take any seats, thus the quota required is 323). In this coalition, the relative weight of the Liberal Democrats would be larger, and therefore they could get away with a larger share of offices.

bq. Taken together, the recent events in the UK offer important insights about how the coalition formation process should be analyzed as an endogenous free-style negotiation process among parties, rather than as formalized by specific rules concerning the selection of a formatuer. They also provide questions about what could happen in other parliamentary legislatures. If coalitions among extreme parties can form and survive despite the popular belief, intra-party politics may harshen, leading to possible parties’ splits in search of new coalition agreements. Take Italy. Gianfranco Fini, the former leader of the most extreme right party, and the second in chief of the Italian majority party (People of Freedom) has been trying for month to break free of Silvio Berlusconi and form a distinct faction. Shall UK’s events inspire him to find an agreement with left wing parties (like the Democratic Party and the Italy of Values)?