Coalitions of the unwilling. Or who needs a government in Belgium, Lebanon, Bosnia or Iraq?

A few countries around Europe and the Middle East have been having a harder time forming a government than most. If most Brits got nervous that there was no government formed for a few days following last years’ election, such a scenario sounds like a remote dream for Belgium, Bosnia, Lebanon and Iraq.

It took Iraq around nine months to form a government following parliamentary elections in March 2010, Lebanon had a change of premier in January, but the new premier Najib Mikati only was able to form a new cabinet a few days ago (based on support from Hizbollah and its allies). Belgium is “celebrating” a year since the parliament elections without a government and Bosnia is slowly catching up (emphasis on slowly) with Belgium, having held elections in October 2010 and only a few days ago the three member state presidency held a straw poll who might be the best candidate for the post—it looks likely that the government will not be formed before the fall. Of course, all four countries share a key feature: They are power-sharing systems, which require coalitions of the unwilling. Coalitions are between parties which have campaign against one another and which have often antagonistic views over the future of the country, not to mention its policies. Thus, coalitions are not based on securing “just” a majority, but rather on including parties representing the often deep divisions in society. With fractious and unstable party systems, forming a government is not an easy task.

It might be tempting to conclude that power sharing system which allocate power to parties claiming to represent these different ethnic, linguistic or religious groups should be done away with. Simple majority rule is, however, no alternative in the three countries. In Lebanon, Hizbollah would be able to take over the country, in Belgium Flemish nationalists would be able to dismantle the state with not consideration of the Walloon community, in Bosnia, a Bosniak parties might govern over a state that can’t govern of half of it, the Serb Republic (or alternatively, a Croat-Serb coalition would dominate at the expense of the largest population group), etc. A different alternative is the system used in Northern Ireland. Instead of lengthy coalition negotiations between parties which in all probability anyhow have to end up in government with each other, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 just does away with complicated government formation altogether. Here the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are elected by a double majority of both unionists and nationalists, all subsequent ministers are chosen by the D’Hondt system, which allows parties to pick ministerial posts according to their size and means that there is no need for negation between parties and all have a stake in the government. Of course, this also means that no party will be in opposition, but voting largely determines the dominance in the executive, rather than who is represented at all.

If such a solution is not possible, the question arises, does one really need a government? In Belgium, there have been protests in favor of any government (probably a first in history), a senator calling for a sex strike of the wives of Belgian’s politicians and the initiative G1000 which seeks to bring together 1000 citizens to demonstrate than in a few days of popular debate more feasible solutions and compromises can be found than after more than a year of talks among parties. Despite all the civic activism for a government, Belgium managed to hold the EU presidency, reduce its budget deficit and generally have a working country with only a caretaker government. The others’ are less lucky. Without a proper government and a budget, Bosnia was unable to draw further loans from IMF, is unable to move forward with EU integration, whereas Lebanon and Iraq were similarly paralyzed without a fully acting government. The secret to Belgium’s ‘non-governmental’ success despite its difficulties is simple, it is called the European Union and its regions and communities to which many powers are devolved. Granted, the EU lacks clear decision making structures and much of what one would expect from a government, but the Belgium experience demonstrates that it can be a crucial proxy for having a government. Monetary policy, no need. Foreign and security policy, not a big deal for a small EU member. Most laws and regulations come from the EU. What is not done by the EU in terms of everyday life is organized by the regions or communities. This leaves Belgium in the absence of a legitimate government much less exposed than Lebanon, Bosnia or Iraq. Now, of course, the problem is that some ethnic, linguistic or religious parties actually want to demonstrate just that—namely that the state is unnecessary. If citizens don’t feel the pinch of having a government, they might become less attached to the state. This is of course a fundamental dilemma, who much government does there need to be to make it worthwhile for citizens to have a state and what is the maximum of government and state some citizens can take before they support some alternative. Whatever the specific answer maybe, there are times when a country can work, even if there is no government.

First published on Nationalities Blog

University Cafeterias as breeding ground of revolutions from Kosovo to Lebanon

Beware of university cafeterias. More than once in recent history have they been the source of protest and unrest. The mention that the confrontation between supporters of Hizbollah and other opposition groups and government followers began in the cafeteria of the Beirut Arab University. This reminds me of the 1981 demonstrations and riots in Kosovo which also began in the university cafeteria over bad food and later demanded the status of republic for Kosovo.
Solution: Close down university cafeteria in troubled times… or maybe serve such good food that nobody can complain.

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