04 Jun 2019 19:45 IST

The mess of coalition governments

Between 1996 and 1999, Indians voted for a record three times, in a hugely expensive poll process

Democracies are of two types: Parliamentary and presidential-style. In parliamentary democracies, voters elect representatives, who then go on and elect a leader, a person who is just like any other representative and is special only in that he/she is chosen to lead the majority caucus. This creates a more collaborative environment to create laws and implement policy. If a leader underperforms, he/she can be removed by the members of the caucus and replaced by another member from within it. The best examples of parliamentary systems are India, the UK, the Commonwealth nations, and Israel.

In presidential democracies, voters directly elect their leader. Only one person can be elected and this creates a near monarch-like status for the winner. It also creates a stable government, because the removal of a president, while in office, is nearly impossible, absent ‘high crimes or misdemeanours attributed to the president, which can trigger an impeachment inquiry. Forty-four nations embrace this form of government, the most prominent being France, Mexico, and the United States.

In the US, the Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach an official, and it makes the Senate the sole court for impeachment trials. The bar is set exceedingly high. While a simple majority in the House can charge a president with a crime, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required to convict — a near impossibility, given that there are only two political parties, which are generally evenly divided in the Senate.

This is why, in 243 years, no president has ever been removed from office. Only eight federal judges, who have lifetime appointments, have been impeached; this is a remarkably small number given that over 870 federal judges hold office today, and tens of thousands of judges have served through time.

Desire for stability

What voters desire most is stability in their governments, even if much doesn’t get accomplished during an elected term. A five-year period is standard for parliamentary systems because a government which fails to win the trust of its voters during this term will, in theory, likely lose during the next election. But theory is one thing. What happens in practice is another.

In a parliamentary democracy, the leader of the government has to demonstrate that a simple majority of representatives supports him/her to stake a claim to form a government, and thereafter, to continue in office. If the leader — as in the case of Prime Minister Modi in both 2014 and 2019 — already has the support of a majority of parliamentarians from his own party, stability is nearly assured. Where things become messy is when the leader, not having sufficient strength, is forced to reach out to other members to join him/her in a ‘coalition government.’

Coalition chaos

Coalition governments are inherently unstable, ineffective, and messy. Members of different political ideologies assemble into a coalition for the sole purpose of being in power, or denying their political enemies a chance to form the government. Every coalition member is a competitor in his or her own right, so trust, the foundation of a democracy, is absent. Each member evaluates every government proposal through a single lens: “Will this advance my career, help me win re-election, and stay in power?”

How messy are coalition governments? Very. Between 1996 and 1999, Indians went to vote a record three times, an unpardonable expense for a relatively poor country. During this period, nothing consequential got implemented at the policy level. Foreign powers saw that the country had a weak centre and, as was proved during the Kargil conflict, tested India’s resolve.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP was the largest parliamentary party in 1996 but was short of a simple majority. He formed a government assuring the president that he would have sufficient support from coalition partners during a vote of confidence to be held 19 days later. The coalition partners baulked and refused support, and Vajpayee’s government resigned.

The failed attempts

A new coalition government of 13 parties was hastily formed under the unlikely Deve Gowda, but he served as PM for fewer than 10 months. IK Gujral then became PM for another 10 months, until his coalition failed too. The parliament was dissolved entirely and early elections were called for again, in 1998, in the hope that there would be more clarity in governing majorities.

In 1998, Vajpayee returned to power but, again, needed a coalition to demonstrate a majority. The coalition performed better, but it collapsed in just 13 months when AIADMK Supremo Jayalalithaa withdrew support. And so, at great expense, Indians went to the polls a third time in just three years.

Since 1999, when Vajpayee was elected with a sound majority, every government has served out its full term in office, a remarkable return to stability.

But if you thought the 19-day administration of Vajpayee’s in 1996 was a record, think again. In Israel, a new parliament was just voted in but the current PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, couldn’t muster a coalition to demonstrate a 61-seat majority (he was one vote short) to form a new government. Rather than have Israel’s president ask Benny Gantz, a political rival of Netanyahu's and a close runner-up, to form a coalition, Netanyahu moved the parliament to call for another election.

Netanyahu was concerned that a Gantz government would deepen investigations into corruption charges against Netanyahu and his family. The vote to hold another election passed with a large majority, showing that many political leaders care more about themselves than they do about the countries they purport to serve. So Israel went to the polls in 2019 to elect a government for five years, never sat a government, and is again going to the polls in 2019 to elect a new government.

This is about as messy as things can get.