Grand coalition government
Published on February 24, 2008, 12:00 am
By Dennis Onyango
They are never love affairs and they are never about sympathy. You don’t even have to like the man or woman you end up in the Government with.
That is what German ambassador to Kenya Mr Walter Lindner has to say about coalition governments after witnessing his country craft the second one in about 40 years.
Seen to hold the future for fractured societies or those emerging from civil strife where a winner-takes-all-approach never works, coalition governments are hard to craft even as they become inevitable across the world.
Sometimes, coalitions are not about fractures in society. They become inevitable because no party has the clear mandate to govern.
“Grand coalitions are necessary when you have a national challenge that requires social and political cohesion,” Lindner says.
While he emphasised that what worked for his country might not necessarily be what Kenya needs, the ambassador thinks there are elements Kenya could learn from the German experience.
Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) joined hands with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Christian Social Union, (CSU) in November 2005, making Merkel the country’s first female chancellor. She later called it “a coalition of new possibilities.”
“We want to make more of Germany and we, the two big parties, want with these policies to win back people’s trust in the ability of politicians… and show that we can do something for our country. I think this could be a coalition of new possibilities,” she was quoted saying.
The 2005 deal was only the second “grand coalition” in German history.
After 39 years of opposing each other, Merkel declared, the SPD, CDU and CSU wanted to move Germany forward in joint responsibility.
The two top sides were bitter opponents before Germany’s September 18, 2005 election, which gave neither a majority to govern with its preferred smaller partner.
Merkel’s party emerged only just ahead of the Social Democrats — setting the scene for a three-week power struggle in which both she and then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder claimed the right to lead the new government.
In an October 10 deal, Schroeder gave way, but the Social Democrats, his party extracted equal representation in Merkel’s Cabinet and key ministries such as Foreign Affairs and Finance.
“It is never easy, but you have it because you have to. Germany needed to reform its pension and social welfare system. Kenya is bogged down by need for constitutional and land reforms,” Germany’s ambassador in Nairobi said.
“Coalitions are never love affairs or about sympathy. It is about pragmatism and a case of putting the country’s interests above those of the party or the individual. You campaign against one politician as an opponent, then results trickle in and you are forced to be with him in same government,” he added.
One inevitable result of a grand coalition is that it reduces the opposition to a small group, creating an imperfect balance in the House.
In Germany, for instance, Parliament is 70 per cent government and 30 per cent opposition.
The pattern from across the world is that negotiations points are clearer where parties have specific policies they want to pursue and therefore want to influence governance in a specific direction.
In Germany, the ambassador said, negotiations that went on for two months focused on issues of substance, tackling departments and sectors of government, based on an agreement that the party with the most seats would produce the Chancellor.
“They went department by department then put the agreement down in a 120-page agreement. The process involved marrying the manifestos. That took 80 per cent of the negotiations time,” Lindner said.
Departments like Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development were shared equally between the governing parties.
“In Parliament, the party that produced the minister for Foreign Affairs cannot produce the chairperson of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations. For purposes of check and balance, that has to come from another party,” the ambassador said.
In the end, comes the question of whether the party that produces the minister in one ministry should have its appointees fill all the positions in that ministry or the departments should be shared among parties.
“If my party produces the minister, does it also produce the deputy or the permanent secretary? In the 2005 arrangement, we agreed that the party that takes the ministry fills its positions. We foresaw a situation where a minister from one party would be uneasy working with a deputy from another,” the ambassador said.
“The last year of a coalition is tricky because you are in Opposition and government at the same time. Parties part ways to go and campaign against each other while they run the government at the same time.”
In Israel, coalitions have become a way of life. After the 2006 elections, negotiations between Labour Party and Kadima Party centred on the division of Cabinet posts and the policies of the new government.
The trend in Israel also bears out the German ambassador’s position that parties usually join hands when there are challenges that require urgent attention of a stable government with a clear majority in the House.
In Israel’s case, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his main objective was to define Israel’s borders in four years. He was courting parties most likely to back his plan, which would remove tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank.
Olmert’s party, Kadima had won 29 seats in the election, and Labour received 19. The Pensioners’ Party, with seven seats, agreed to join the coalition.
But that still left Olmert six seats short of a majority in Parliament. Two ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Shas, which won 12 seats, and United Torah Judaism, which won six, also agreed to join the coalition. That left three right-wing parties that had opposed Israeli withdrawals to constitute the main opposition.
The partners Olmert teamed up with to form a government in 2006 had emphasised social issues in their campaign.
Their campaign had centred on raising the minimum wage and increasing benefits for the elderly. David Libai, the leader of the Labour Party’s negotiating team, said they needed to be sure the social policies of the new government would seek “a real improvement in the condition of workers, the students, the poor, the pensioners and the sick.”
Olmert agreed to work with his partners on these issues with the expectation they would back his political plans for setting a border.
Dealing with threatening issues
Early this year, one of the parties quit the governing coalition in protest of the revived peace talks with the Palestinians, but the move did not lead to the government’s collapse.
Way back in 1988, leaders of Israel’s two major parties reached agreement on a new coalition government headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir after more than seven weeks of indecisive discussions. The major figures in the emerging government, which featured the Labour and Likud parties, were uniformly determined to deal firmly with the yearlong Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
They were also determined not to yield to Arab demands to return all the lands occupied after the 1967 war. Players in this deal included Shamir, Moshe Arens, a Likud member who would become Foreign Minister, and Yitzhak Rabin, a Labour Party hard-liner who would continue as Defence minister.
They all agreed Palestinians were becoming a problem to Israel and pledged to put down the Palestinian uprising with tough measures.
The parties reached a compromise on building Jewish settlements in the occupied lands, an issue over which they were bitterly divided.
Likud had initially talked of as many as 40 new settlements, while Labour had sought to ban any new ones. They eventually agreed to a maximum of eight a year. Lindner says negotiations that gave birth to Merkel’s government had “a lot to get over,” including how to budget gap while trying to boost a then chronically stagnant economy.
Mid this month, German minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, Gernot Erler, was in Kenya at the invitation of Kofi Annan and gave talks on how to build and sustain a coalition.
Under grand coalition, Erler told journalists on arrival from Kilaguni Lodge where the talks have been going on, the party with a majority in Parliament takes key positions like prime minister and Speaker of National Assembly.
In Germany, he said, there were also deputy prime minister and vice-Speaker positions occupied by the second strongest party.
Other positions, including key ministries, are shared proportionally but only the two strongest parties form a grand coalition.
“If the chairman of Foreign Affairs committee comes from one party, the minister should be from the other party. The most important thing is to have a system where you can balance at all levels. One party should not dominate,” he said.