by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 14
November 2019

Deadlocked Democracy

The rise of populist, separatist and environmentalist parties is making it harder to form coalition governments
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty Images

The main thing about the rise of populism in Europe is not that populist governments are being elected. For the most part (I’m excluding the former communist countries) they’re not… yet.

However, conventional politics is being disrupted. In country-after-country we see electoral outcomes that impede the formation of stable governments. Examples include Spain which has just had its fourth election in four years. Then there’s Sweden which took four months to form a government after the 2018 general election. The Austrians went to the polls in September, but still don’t have a government. Belgium, too, is in limbo (as per usual).

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In Germany, the poor old social democrats had to be dragged kicking-and-screaming back into coalition with Angela Merkel, after trying to escape. As for the UK, with its supposedly majoritarian electoral system, hung parliaments have become the new normal — contributing to the still unresolved Brexit deadlock.

When politics was restricted to a straightforward Left-Right political spectrum it wasn’t too hard to cobble together a coalition on the centre-left or centre-right. However, the rise of populist, separatist and environmentalist parties has complicated matters.

That maybe because the mainstream parties refuse to deal with the hard Right or hard Left. Or it might be because with so many extra dimensions to politics, parties that could have compromised on economic policy find themselves at opposite ends of a cultural or constitutional divide.

Writing about the new normal for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky warns that moderate parties are running out of time to sort out the mess:

“… politicians should be able to see that democracy works differently now than it did in previous decades. Unless they make changes today, while responsible, traditional parties are still winning pluralities, voter disappointment with ineffective, constantly bickering governments or months-long cabinet formation processes can lead to outright victories by so-called anti-elite forces, often on the far right. Then, it’ll be too late for reasonable forces to unite against them.”
- Leonid Bershidsky

He suggests a number of ways in which countries can achieve effective government in the absence of parliamentary majorities. I’d add another: radical localism. Majorities that don’t exist nationally may well exist locally — especially when government is local enough to allow consensus-based, collaborative decision making.

If it wants to do anything at all, central government must do less.

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