The votes have been counted and once again, in Democracy X, it looks like no single party will have an overall majority. One of post-election choices for all parties is the question of coalition; to be or not to be? There’s a very brief breather while the candidates recover from elation and exhaustion. There really isn’t that much time for the party leaders to process the arithmetic, consult with their advisors, float coalition scenarios, negotiate a deal and win over their membership. General cost/benefit considerations apply when it comes to coalition options and some of these can be divided as follows:
The main argument for entering coalition is that any political party serious about change can only make a difference from within. The party has been given a mandate to implement as many of their policies as possible. This is based on the premise of having achieved the best deal possible in terms of policy and ministerial allocation when entering government.
In difficult times, a party can show it has guts by taking on hard tasks. They may even gain some press and electoral support by showing their commitment to getting stuck in. Political courage can be rewarded.
The quality of ministerial personnel can be a huge benefit in maximising electoral support. Having good, hard-working, honest and skilful communicators as cabinet representatives is a boon to the future growth of the party. A good minister can outshine two or three mediocre ones; performance in office is key to growing political market share.
Smaller parties can drive policy in certain preferred areas. They can shift the political centre in their favour and drive long term cultural change. Their strength and legacy can be disproportionate to their representation; a smaller party is all too aware of having to constantly punch above their weight to achieve this.
By entering coalition when the electorate has made a party the second largest electoral bloc, that party forfeits the opportunity to become the alternative leading party of government. Going in may indefinitely postpone the prospect of making that breakthrough; the question of what is better for the country and what is better for the party has to be closely addressed. Opposition may be the preferable option.
The party will be outflanked and will lose support from within. There will be defections, resignations and inevitable backbench and possibly ministerial flare-ups as the ink on the red lines becomes ever more blurred; the party will be forced into decisions against their core values. The leader’s popularity will probably plummet as they are buffeted on all sides.
Smaller parties can become the scapegoat for the policies of their larger coalition partner. When going in as a watchdog, the smaller party has to walk that line unceasingly; if it’s perceived that they’re not, they’ll be punished severely.
What is the media view of policy and personnel? There’s a danger of naivety when it comes to winning over a hostile media. A myopic media might lend their support on a temporary basis, but unless the party’s prepared to junk many of their policies due to media pressure; a smaller party needs to know that they’re going to get a bad press for a lot of, if not most of, their time in government.
All in the Balance
There is risk in adopting both strategies. Any leader considering entering coalition should look to the political history of how junior coalition parties have fared. Any party thinking of going into government should look beyond, as much as is possible in politics, one or two parliamentary terms. They should ask themselves; what is the most likely outcome of going into coalition in these times?