Grand Coalition the price of MMP

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 5 September 2014

New Zealand has to wait another three weeks for the result of its elections, in another MMP country they went to the polls last Sunday.

In the German state of Saxony, voters delivered a fractured parliament in which none of the traditional coalitions of the right or the left had a clear and robust majority. That alone makes it worth paying attention to because a similar situation might well arise after September 20 here.

What happened in Saxony was not untypical for Germany’s party-political landscape. After operating under MMP for more than six decades, the political system has moved toward a multi-party system in which it becomes increasingly difficult to form government.

In Saxony’s case, it meant that the right-of-centre Christian Democrats ended up with just under 40% of the vote. The German equivalent of Labour, the Social Democrats, scored 12%. The former East German communists, now labelled “The Left,” reached a 20% share, with the Greens (5.7%) and a new eurosceptical, populist party on 9.7%.

As a result, there are no parliamentary majorities for either a traditional leftwing or a traditional right-wing government. This would make it a hung parliament were it not for willingness of the Christian and Social Democrats to form a so-called Grand Coalition. Admittedly, it is a little misleading to call it “grand” since the two parties combined control just over 52% of the vote and 61% of the seats. But it is a coalition of the two mainstream parties of the left and the right.

The question is: Could such an arrangement work in New Zealand if there are no other options after our elections?

The most obvious objection to the idea of a National/Labour coalition government is simple: There is such deep-seated rivalry between both parties that they would never be able to convince their voters and members to support such a deal. It could tear both parties apart. Though this may be true, it was also true in Germany where not much love used to be lost between Christian and Social Democrats. And yet, they have become used to forming governments together when electoral arithmetic does not leave other realistic options.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now in her third term – and it is already her second Grand Coalition. Only in her second term was she able to govern with a more traditional right-of-centre coalition with the smallish Free Democrat Party (FDP). After the FDP got kicked out of the Bundestag in last year’s election, Merkel quickly and seamlessly got back to work with the Social Democrats, who had first supported her, then fought her in opposition and are now back at the cabinet table.

Before Merkel’s first Grand Coalition, the cultural differences between Christian and Social Democrats in Germany were at least as strong as the tensions between National and Labour in New Zealand. Yet the two German parties came together having realised that none of the alternatives would have been better. A dissolution of Parliament and new elections would have been unpopular – and probably brought about the same result. A minority government would have been weak and unable to govern effectively. Finally, a coalition with a more extreme party such as the post-communists would have resulted in a popular backlash. In the end, the two major parties had to swallow their pride and work together in the interest of the country.

To be fair, it is not the most ideal coalition for democracy since it severely limits the remaining opposition parties in Parliament to properly scrutinise the government. It is not easy to have proper parliamentary debates when 80% of MPs support the government, as is now the case in the German federal parliament. A Grand Coalition is therefore something that should not be undertaken routinely but only when the other options are even less palatable.

If the New Zealand election delivered a parliament in which Labour could only govern with the support of the Greens, Internet/Mana and New Zealand First – or in which National could only govern with help of ACT, United Future, New Zealand First, Maori and the Conservatives – would it really be such a bad idea to consider the option of a National/Labour government for just one term?

A Grand Coalition in New Zealand would not only have the advantage of strong parliamentary support, which would enable effective government even if a number of backbench MPs rebelled on some issues. It would also prevent smallish and more extreme parties dictating the agenda of the new government but instead draw the basis of its agenda from the centre of politics, not from the fringes.

The thought of a formal Grand Coalition arrangement after September 20 may seem outlandish for New Zealanders, who have never been governed this way before. But it was a relatively outlandish thought for Germany too and it still works reasonably well.

Perhaps the occasional Grand Coalition is the price we have to pay for our MMP electoral system. If you want to avoid difficult coalition bargaining and prefer clear parliamentary majorities, then a first-past-the-post system would be better. Since this option is no longer on the table, and with politics in the process of fracturing as much as it has already fractured in Germany, we probably have to get used to the thought that one day we might have a National Prime Minister with a Labour deputy or the other way around. And when it happens, remember you read it here first.

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