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A coalition government is a cabinet of a parliamentary government in which several parties cooperate. The usual reason given for this arrangement is that no party on its own can achieve a majority in the parliament. A coalition government might also be created in a time of national difficulty or crisis, for example during wartime, to give a government the high degree of perceived political legitimacy it desires whilst also playing a role in diminishing internal political strife. In such times, parties have formed all-party coalitions (national unity governments, grand coalitions). If a coalition collapses a confidence vote is held or a motion of no confidence is taken.
To deal with a situation in which no clear majorities appear through general elections, parties either form coalition cabinets, supported by a parliamentary majority, or minority cabinets which may consist of one or more parties. Cabinets based on a coalition with majority in a parliament, ideally, are more stable and long-lived than minority cabinets. While the former are prone to internal struggles, they have less reason to fear votes of non-confidence. Majority governments based on a single party are typically even more stable, as long as their majority can be maintained.
Coalition cabinets are common in countries in which a parliament is proportionally representative, with several organized political parties represented. It usually does not appear in countries in which the cabinet is chosen by the executive rather than by a lower house, such as in the United States (however, coalition cabinets are common in Brazil). In semi-presidential systems such as France, where the president formally appoints a prime minister but the government itself must still maintain the confidence of parliament, coalition governments occur quite regularly.
Countries which often operate with coalition cabinets include: the Nordic countries, the Austria, Benelux countries, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Turkey, Israel, New Zealand, Kosovo, Pakistan, Kenya, and India. Switzerland has been ruled by a coalition of the four strongest parties in parliament from 1959 to 2008, called the "Magic Formula."
In Germany, for instance, coalition government is the norm, as it is rare for either the Christian-Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CDU/CSU) or the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) to win an unqualified majority in a national election. Thus, at the federal level, governments are formed with at least one of the smaller parties. For example, Helmut Kohl's CDU governed for years in coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and from 1998 to 2005 Gerhard Schröder's SPD was in power with the Greens.
In both countries, grand coalitions of the two large parties also occur, but these are relatively rare and large parties usually prefer to associate with small ones. However, if none of the larger parties can receive enough votes to form their preferred coalition, a grand coalition might be their only choice for forming a government. This is the current situation in Germany: in early elections, the CDU/CSU did not garner enough votes to form a majority coalition with the FDP; similarly the SPD and Greens did not have enough votes to continue on with their formerly ruling coalition. A grand coalition government was subsequently forged between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Partnerships like these typically involve carefully structured cabinets. The CDU/CSU ended up holding the Chancellory while, the SPD took the majority of cabinet posts.
In Ireland, coalition governments are quite common with a single party not having ruled since 1989. Coalitions are typically formed of two or more parties always consisting of one of the two biggest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and one or more smaller parties or independent members of parliament. The current government consists of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, supported by independents.
A coalition government may consist of any number of parties. In Germany, the coalitions rarely consist of more than two parties (where CDU and CSU, two non-competing parties which always form a single caucus, are in this regard considered a single party), while in Belgium, where there are separate Dutch speaking and French speaking parties for each political grouping, coalition cabinets of up to six parties are quite common.
India's present governing coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, consists of 13 separate parties. In Finland, no party has had an absolute majority in the parliament since independence, and multi-party coalitions have been the norm. Finland experienced its most stable government (Lipponen I and II) since independence with a five-party governing coalition, so called "rainbow government". The Lipponen cabinets set the stability record, and were unusual in the respect that both moderate (SDP) and extreme left wing (Left Alliance) sat in the government with the major right-wing party (National Coalition). The current government (Vanhanen II) is a four-party coalition.
A similar situation exists in Israel, which has dozens of different parties with representation in the Knesset. The only faction to ever gain a majority of Knesset seats was Alignment, an alliance of the Labor Party and Mapam that held an absolute majority for a brief period from 1968-1969. Historically, control of the Israeli government has alternated between periods of rule by the center-right Likud in coalition with several right-wing and religious parties and periods of rule by the center-left Labor in coalition with several left-wing parties. Arial Sharon's formation of the centrist Kadima party in 2006 drew support from former Labor and Kadima members, and Kadima ruled in coalition with Labor and several other parties.
Post-World War II Japan has historically been dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party but there was a brief coalition government formed after the 1993 election following LDP's first and only loss of its overall House of Representatives majority since 1955.
In Australia, the conservative Liberal and National parties are united in an effectively permanent coalition. This coalition has become so stable, at least at the federal level, that the lower house of parliament has become a two-party house.
In the United Kingdom, coalition governments (sometimes known as national governments) have been appointed only in times of national crisis. The most prominent was the National Government of 1931 to 1940. There were multi-party coalitions during both world wars. Apart from this, when no party has had a majority, minority governments have been formed with one or more opposition parties agreeing to vote for the legislation governments need to function.
The only time Canada has had something like a coalition government was during World War I to broaden support for controversial conscription legislation. Known as the Unionist Party, it was really a new party created out of the governing Conservative Party with some Opposition members crossing the floor. It was disbanded after the end of the war. Great Coalition existed from 1864-1867, the year of Canada's Confederation. It consisted of the Clear Grits, Parti bleu, and Liberal-Conservative Party. During the 2008 Canadian parliamentary dispute, three of Canada's opposition parties announced they had signed an agreement to form what would become the country's second coalition government since confederation if they defeat the Conservative minority government in a vote of non-confidence; unseating Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. The agreement outlined a formal coalition consisting of two opposition parties, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party. The Bloc Québécois agreed to support the proposed coalition on confidence matters for 18 months.
Advocates of proportional representation suggest that a coalition government leads to more consensus-based politics, in that a government comprising differing parties (often based on different ideologies) would need to concur in regard to governmental policy. Another stated advantage is that a coalition government better reflects the popular opinion of the electorate within a country.
Those who disapprove of coalition governments believe that such governments have a tendency to be fractious and prone to disharmony. This is because coalitions would necessarily include different parties with differing beliefs and who, therefore, may not always agree on the correct path for governmental policy. Sometimes the results of an election are such that the coalitions which are mathematically most probable are ideologically infeasible, such as in Flanders or Northern Ireland. A second difficulty might be the ability of minor parties to play "kingmaker" and, particularly in close elections, gain far more for their support than their vote would otherwise indicate.
Coalition governments have also been criticized for sustaining a consensus on issues when disagreement and the consequent discussion would be more fruitful. To forge a consensus, the leaders of ruling coalition parties can agree to silence their disagreements on an issue to unify the coalition against the opposition. The coalition partners, if they control the parliamentary majority, can collude to make the parliamentary discussion on the issue irrelevant by consistently disregarding the arguments of the opposition and voting against the opposition's proposals — even if there is disagreement within the ruling parties about the issue.
Powerful parties can also act in an oligocratic way to form an alliance to stifle the growth of emerging parties. Of course, such an event is rare in coalition governments when compared to two-party systems, which typically exists because of stifling the growth of emerging parties, often through discriminatory nomination rules regulations and plurality voting systems, etc.
A single, more powerful party can shape the policies of the coalition disproportionately. Smaller or less powerful parties can be intimidated to not openly disagree. In order to maintain the coalition, they will have to vote against the party's platform in the parliament. If they do not, the party has to leave the government and loses executive power.