Grand coalitions are not so grand anymore

What do recent elections in Austria, Luxembourg and Germany mean for scholars of power-sharing in divided societies? At first glance, seemingly little. Neither is a particularly divided society, and identity politics is not a defining feature of political choices. Yet, there is a significance in the results: When Arend Lijphart and other scholars first wrote about consociationalism  in the late 1960s and 1970s, the main examples for countries governed by this form of democracy where in the Benelux, Switzerland and Austria. Lijphart observed that unlike larger countries that had alternating large parties in power, these countries had fairly stable grand coalitions governing the country, usually including socialists and christian democrats. His writings challenged the idea that consolidated stable democracies have majoritarian systems with one large parties (alone or in coalition with smaller parties) governing. Not only are these consociational systems equally viable democracies, but the scholarship on these systems argued that they provided for democracy in societies that had deep cleavages. These were less based on ethnicity or language, but on political families and elections usually did not shift power-relations profoundly.

Now times have changed since these observations. While in Belgium, grand coalitions still remain strong (but increasingly difficult, see the more than one year long coalition talks following the 2010 elections) due to the linguistic divide.The Netherlands, Lijphart’s first case study, grand coalitions have fallen out of favor by the 1990s. Austria has been governing for half of the 68 years since 1945 by grand coalitions (1945-1966, 1987-2000 and since 2007). Elections in September have led to a drop in support for both ruling parties, Social democrats and the conservative Austrian People’s Party, but both still hold a slight majority and are likely to govern together. Luxembourg had a similar experience as Austria, governed by a grand coalition for most of the post-war period (1945-1969, 1984-1999 and since 2004). Yet after elections in October, the so-called “Gambia coalition” between Socialists, Greens and Liberals seems most likely.  Grand coalitions are on the retreat in classic consociational countries. This has happened before, but earlier, this was based on the strength of one of the large parties (social democrats or conservatives), now it is based on their weakness. Furthermore, the underlying structure that propped up these grand coalitions has eroded.

Ironically, a grand coalition is most likely and also according to voters most desired in Germany that saw only few episodes of grand coalitions since 1945 (1966-1969 and 2005-2009). Thus, the elections confirm that the classic divide between larger more majoritarian and smaller consociational democracies no longer seems to be true. Of course, the fact that grand coalitions loose support and consociationalism abolishes itself might be true in some of the original cases scholars looked at, but this does not mean the same will be true in “harder cases” like Lebanon or Bosnia. However, some of the reasons why citizens turn their backs on established consociational arrangements are similar to those why dissatisfaction runs high in others. Blurring the line between countries that are governed by grand coalitions and those that are not highlights that this might be a useful temporary constellation, but in the long run, it creates dissatisfaction with citizens who feel unable to effect change.  Certainly the continuous decline of consociationalism in the original core countries of this form of democracy should give room for reflection on its challenges in divided societies around the world.


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