What Is a Coalition Government?

Alliance, cooperation and collaboration in politics
Alliance, cooperation and collaboration in politics.

Cagkansayin / Getty Images

A coalition government is a form of government in which two or more political parties cooperate to form a government.

Key takeaways: Coalition Government

  • A coalition government is formed when no one party in a proportional representative electoral system holds enough seats to dominate the legislature.
  • Coalition governments can occur under the electoral system but are more common under proportional systems.
  • In some European countries, coalition governments are the norm.
  • The main reasons for a coalition government are proportional voting systems, a need for power, and national crisis situations.
  • Coalitions are beneficial because they provide a wider range of representation, increase negotiation and consensus, and encourage conflict resolution through compromise.
  • However, they may be viewed negatively as they can be dissolved at any time, can result in a weakened mandate, and may fail to implement key electoral promises, causing the electorate to doubt the legitimacy of elections.

How Coalition Governments Work

Coalition governments are usually formed when no party holds an absolute majority in the nation’s parliament or legislative body after an election. Rarely necessary in countries with majoritarian electoral systems, under which a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast to be elected, coalition governments are more common in countries with proportional representation systems where citizens vote for political parties instead of individual candidates.

While the United States is typical of a country with a majoritarian electoral system, the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system is a democratic form of representative government in which the party—or a coalition of parties—with the greatest number of elected representatives in the legislature—the parliament—forms the government. The leader of the majority party automatically becomes the prime minister or chancellor. Executive functions of the government are exercised by members of the parliament appointed by the prime minister to a cabinet. The parties in the minority serve in “loyal opposition” to the majority party and have the constitutional duty to challenge its policies regularly. Prime ministers may be removed from power whenever they lose the confidence of a majority of the ruling party or of the parliament.

In proportional representation electoral systems like the United Kingdom, coalition governments tend to endure until a new general election result in one party gaining a majority in the legislative body.

Although the formation of a coalition government reduces the dominance of any single political party, power is one of the main motivations parties have for forming a coalition government. Despite having to compromise on policies, a political party would rather have some power than none at all. Furthermore, coalition-based systems encourage the diffusion of decision-making and influence in countries where power has been historically centralized by authoritarian regimes.

Regardless of their electoral system, coalition governments may also be formed in countries experiencing a time of national difficulty or crisis such as a war or economic depression. Typically more temporary in nature, coalition governments in such instances are formed in hopes of giving the government a high perceived degree of stability, unity, or political legitimacy. In a similar context, coalition governments can also play a role in reducing extreme internal political unrest. For example, the United Kingdom was led by multi-party coalition governments during both world wars. When no party held a majority, minority governments were normally formed with one or more opposition parties agreeing to vote in favor of legislation deemed necessary for the government to function normally.

In parliamentary democracies, the executive branch of government is elected by and accountable to the legislative branch, typically the parliament. The government needs to be supported by the majority of the legislators to be installed and remain in power. When no single party controls the majority, parties negotiate to form coalition governments that can gain the support of the legislature. Most literature suggests that to function efficiently, coalition governments should be made up of no more than the minimum number of parties needed to secure the majority vote in the legislature. 

To be successful in remaining in power, coalition governments must be beneficial to all of their constituent parties—there must be something in it for everyone. There must be mutual respect and understanding.  Each party must demonstrate an ability to understand the others’ point of view, even when there is disagreement. All parties must be open to compromise. Finally, there must be a sense of partnership, even if member parties are different in size.  A partnership does not mean that all responsibilities and positions are divided evenly within the coalition, but that each party is respected for the unique attributes it brings to the coalition and is given a fair and equitable say in how decisions are made and benefits and resources are shared.

Though all forms of goal-oriented political cooperation, coalition governments can be contrasted with alliances and networks. An alliance suggests a healthy partnership of at least medium-term duration, as compared with the more tenuous and temporary coalition government. Networks are a more informal but potentially broader grouping of actors organized for a specific purpose, problem, or task. In coalitions, alliances, and networks, the actors involved—whether nations in wartime, political parties in government, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in political movements—each retain their distinctive identity and interests, but the purpose of all three is ultimately to aggregate the actors’ strengths to achieve some shared goal that none could achieve individually—the strength in numbers theory. However, the coalition is the most short-lived of the three.

Constituent members of government coalitions generally volunteer their services. However, because all members rarely have the same intensity of interest concerning the given goal or goals, some may provide rewards or threats to induce others to participate. As a result, differences in power among potential and actual coalition members matter, in who has the most influence in determining goals, agendas, and tactics. For example, in the 2003 war to oust dictator Ṣaddam Hussein in Iraq, the international coalition may have been a “coalition of the willing” or a “coalition of the coerced and the bribed,” but either way it was not a coalition of the equal, as the United States clearly commanded the effort.

While all government coalitions tend to be temporary, some may persist longer than others. The duration may be a function of power relationships. A particularly dominant coalition member or set of members, for instance, may be able to either dissolve the coalition or maintain ongoing adherence. Long-term participation in a coalition may cause individual members to perceive a broader set of shared interests and beliefs among them, leading them to transform the coalition into a more-integrated and enduring political community For instance, repeated coordination in the wars of the 20th century transformed what was initially a loose coalition among the Western democratic countries into a broader and more powerful Atlantic Alliance, now recognized as NATO.

Notable Examples 

Recent history teems with examples of both frail and enduring coalition governments. Coalition governments are common in European countries such as Finland, Switzerland, and Italy.

Party leaders of the 2011 Moroccan elections Coalition
Party leaders of the 2011 Moroccan elections Coalition.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Finland

Since Finland declared its independence from Russia in 1917, no single political party has held an absolute majority in the parliament. Instead, coalition governments have become the foundation of the Finnish Government. Apart from a few historical exceptions, a government is usually assembled by the representatives of two major parties and a number of smaller parties. In 2019, after the center-left Social Democratic Party made electoral gains in Parliament, they entered a coalition comprised of the Centre Party, Green League, Left Alliance, and Swedish People's Party of Finland. This alliance was formed to keep the right-wing populist Finns Party out of government after they made electoral gains.

Switzerland

Switzerland is currently governed by a coalition of four parties that have remained in power since 1959. The Swiss government is composed of the Free Democratic Party, Social Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party, and the Swiss People's Party. Like Finland, members of the Swiss Parliament are elected according to a proportional system. In Switzerland, this is known as the "magic formula" as its system distributes seven ministerial positions between each of the major parties

Italy

Elections in Italy are more complicated. After the fall of Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime in 1943, an electoral system was developed to encourage coalition governments. This is known as a Mixed Electoral System, which adopts elements of plurality and proportional representation systems. During elections, the first vote takes place in small districts using plurality, with proportional representation used in large electoral districts. Italian nationals living overseas also have their votes included using proportional representation. Italy's electoral system encourages coalition governments, but not stable ones. The average lifespan for Italian coalition governments is less than a year.

Advantages and Disadvantages 

Coalition of Four Cheetah Males on the Hunt at Maasai Mara, Kenya.
Coalition of Four Cheetah Males on the Hunt at Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond/Getty Images

A coalition government is generally seen as an unstable form of government. It needs to reach a balance between all predominate political parties while making a coalition government. The executives of coalition governments must listen to the demands of these parties. To take the majority decision on a topic becomes more difficult due to the different opinions of the political parties and the fear that the government might be dissolved at any time. However, history has shown some specific advantages and disadvantages of coalition governments.

Advantages

Advocates of proportional representation suggest that a coalition government leads to more consensus-based politics, as a government comprising differing parties based on different ideologies needs to compromise about governmental policy. This leads to a greater breadth of representation. In two-party systems, those who support or are involved with smaller parties often feel their voices are not heard. However, coalition governments can act as a remedy to this. A coalition government represents a broader spectrum of people and a wider range of views, therefore making them more democratic and fairer.

Professor of History Richard Vinen from King's College London, for example, says it can be difficult for a single-party majority government to push through tough legislation without causing a backlash from the public and other political parties as often the case in the United States.

In a coalition, he says, a wider range of parties are responsible for those decisions so the electorate is more willing to accept hard-hitting policies like raising taxes vs. cutting public spending.

He also says coalitions bring new voices into government with opinions and ideas that might not otherwise be heard. The ability to include a variety of voices from different regions, when implemented properly, can help to build democracy in countries where doing so has been historically difficult. When voters believe smaller parties might form a part of the government and might have a chance for political power, they may be more likely to vote for a party they feel accurately represents them rather than just choosing between the two main parties.

"It's often gone with de-radicalization of politics," said Vinen. "It's often gone with quite unexpected groups being brought into the political consensus—so the German Greens collaborating in government, for example, and the French Communists in the early 1980s collaborating in government."

Coalition governments must focus much more on compromise, negotiation, and developing a cross-party consensus than majority governments. Coalitions are based on post-election deals between parties that formulate legislative programs that draw on the policy commitments of two or more parties. In this way, they provide greater opportunities for conflict resolution. Tending to represent a wider set of views, thus reducing the risk of adversarial politics developing, coalition governments can also have smoother continuity in administration.

Disadvantages

Since smaller parties can barter for more support than they have achieved proportionally at the ballot box, coalition governments can occasionally function less democratically. When a party with little popular support is offered positions of power they have not achieved through the electoral process, it could impose its views and policies on the majority. Minority parties may try to play "kingmaker" and, particularly in close elections, gain far more power in exchange for their support than the size of their vote would otherwise justify.

Presentation of the coalition agreement during the Dutch cabinet formation on December 15, 2021 in The Hague, Netherlands.
Presentation of the coalition agreement during the Dutch cabinet formation on December 15, 2021 in The Hague, Netherlands.

BSR Agency / Getty Images

Another issue with coalition governments is that party platforms and promises presented during the campaigns are often little more than the basis for earning people’s votes in the first place and are rendered mostly irrelevant and unrealistic after the government is assembled. During the post-election deals which are negotiated between potential coalition partners, parties often abandon certain manifesto promises they have made. Coalitions generally take a short-term point of view as they cannot count on being re-elected in the same form again. These disadvantages may lead to a weakened faith in elections and an increase in voter apathy.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of coalition governments is that they are unstable and can trudge along without achieving very much as political partners may fundamentally disagree with each other ideologically. Coalition governments may develop into a situation where the constituent parties aim to “please everyone,” both their coalition partners and the voters. In coalition governments “the lowest common denominator always wins,” meaning strong, but necessary decisions may not be made. In this context of chaos over compromise, coalition governments may be dissolved at any time. Italy, for example, has a history of fractious coalition governments with over 60 in power since 1945.

Critics of coalition governments say “the lowest common denominator always wins,” meaning strong, but necessary decisions may not be made.

Professor of government and international affairs Christian Schweiger, from Britain’s Durham University, says coalitions are an inefficient form of government. He says this is so even in Germany, which is Europe's largest economy and is widely held up as an example of the benefits of coalitions.

"I would argue that in terms of political efficiency and in terms of efficiency of implementing a coherent agenda, trying to make swift decisions particularly on the economy, it has been very problematic in recent years," noted Schweiger.

Sources

  • Matas Dalmases, Jordi. “Guide to forming a coalition government.” Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona; April 30, 2021; ISBN-10: ‎8491686010.
  • Evans, Matt. “Coalition Government as a Reflection of a Nation’s Politics and Society.” Routledge; November 12, 2019; ISBN-10: ‎1138392111.
  • Müller, Wolfgang C. (Ed), “Coalition Governments in Western Europe.” Oxford University Press; December 28, 2000; ISBN-10: ‎0198297602.
  • Schwartz, Daniel. “Coalition government: Precedents from around the world.” CBC News, May 13, 2010, https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/coalition-government-precedents-from-around-the-world-1.876563.
  • Conti, Nicolò (Ed.), “The Challenge of Coalition Government: The Italian Case.” Routledge; December 15, 2014; ISBN-10: ‎1138815101.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is a Coalition Government?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 9, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-coalition-government-6832794. Longley, Robert. (2023, January 9). What Is a Coalition Government? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-coalition-government-6832794 Longley, Robert. "What Is a Coalition Government?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-coalition-government-6832794 (accessed February 9, 2023).