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How other countries deal with the horror of a hung parliament

How other countries deal with the horror of a hung parliament

🕔17.Jun 2017

In amongst all the election results and analysis on the Friday morning after the night before, there was a widely reported quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission: “I do strongly hope that Britain will stay ready to open Brexit negotiations. As far as the Commission is concerned, we can open negotiations tomorrow morning at half-past-nine.”

My first reaction was quite defensive, writes Chris Game. While kicking someone when so obviously down may not be all that un-British, surely we should be allowed time to have first go. Besides, Juncker’s own prime ministerial career hardly ended in glory, so I thought I’d make it the peg for this blog about how some other EU countries, starting with Juncker’s Luxembourg, might handle May’s little parliamentary arithmetic problem.

During the Brexit negotiation period up to March 2019, several EU states will hold parliamentary elections, any of which could result in changes of government – though not necessarily instantly or overnight, as Juncker’s jibe seemed to imply he expected of us.

Luxembourg’s elections are due next October – five years after those held prematurely in 2013, which were prompted by Juncker being forced to step down from his record-length 18-year premiership, having lost parliament’s support for presiding either unknowingly or untellingly over years of illegal activities by the state intelligence (spying) agency.

His Christian Social People’s Party (CSV) had been in government since 1979, until earlier in 2013 in coalition with the Socialist Workers Party (LSAP). Once again, the CSV won comfortably the most seats. But the government that emerged was what we might call a rainbow coalition, or a ‘minimum winning coalition’ – of the smallest number of parties able between them to form a majority.

In this case, it was popularly labelled the ‘Gambia coalition’, with the red (LSAP), blue (Democratic Party) and green (Green Party) colours of the participating parties matching those of the Gambian national flag. More relevant, though, is how the coalition was negotiated.

After a few days of election recovery and exploratory inter-party talks, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg nominated Xavier Bettel, Democratic Party leader, as formateur – literally the person judged most likely, and now with official responsibility, to form a viable coalition government.

The whole process, as Juncker knew better than almost anyone, took over five weeks – and that with a parliament a sixth the size of the Commons. The politicians weren’t grey with campaigning exhaustion, the country didn’t grind to a halt, and a so far stable government was formed.

Juncker also knew, though, how very different governmentally the UK is from the great majority of EU countries, particularly those with proportional representation electoral systems, for whom coalitions and the prospect of working collaboratively with one or even more ‘other’ parties are seen as natural and even positive.

We, by contrast, regard anything short of a stonking, wildly disproportional one-party majority as some fearful systemic failure, to be somehow papered over at the earliest possible opportunity in a kind of pretence that, as Kevin Johnson put it, nothing had changed, the embarrassment never happened.

So, for what it’s worth, my guess is that the Commission President’s Friday morning remarks were gently mocking the political frenzy he knew May had unleashed almost as much as the PM herself.

And that was probably before he knew the best bit. How this of all PMs – whose inability to share any decision with even her own Cabinet had created this potential constitutional crisis – was about to make a desperate, unplanned, ill-considered lunge for some, any, kind of voting support from the Democratic Unionists (DUP).

And to do so, moreover, before she even knew the final total of her own MPs, and with nothing remotely to match the DUP’s 12-page plan of 45 priority demands fully prepared and waiting.

The formateur system, with its institutionalised recognition of the importance of the inter-party negotiations required to form a sound and lasting coalition, seems a sensible one, which explains why it’s used quite widely, by, among others, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Israel.

And it’s significant that a 14-day period – short by continental standards, but a political æon to us – is written into the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to allow for similar negotiations following a no-confidence defeat. Following an election, though, frenetic secretiveness is the modus operandi – and an unedifying spectacle it’s proved.

Despite providing the term, the French themselves don’t use formateurs, because the combination of their strong presidential system and their two-round elections aims, like our first-past-the-post ones, to render post-election fixes unnecessary.

This weekend, then, we have the second, or run-off, round of National Assembly elections, within a month of Emmanuel Macron being elected President, the constitutional aim being to give the new President and his government a ‘double mandate’ – which, after the large majority gained by Macron’s new centrist party candidates in last Sunday’s first round, seems very likely.

Last time, in 2012, support for newly elected Socialist President Hollande wasn’t as great, in which circumstances the French way is – to adapt the rugby retaliation tactic – to get your negotiation in first.

It’s a kind of effective version of what the Progressive Alliance was trying for in our election – an agreement among the supposedly ‘progressive’ Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties that their candidates would stand aside for another progressive candidate with an apparently better chance of winning that particular constituency.

They’re claiming they had “an enormous impact” on the election, but actual candidate withdrawals were limited, outside Brighton, almost entirely to the Greens, both the bigger parties refusing to play – most extraordinarily the Lib Dems, sinking while glorying in their isolation: “No deal, No pact, No coalition”.

In France, Left, Right, and this time Centre parliamentary party groupings were negotiated and publicised in advance of the elections. Candidates will withdraw prior to the second-round vote in favour of another in the same grouping more likely to win, while voters know in advance who their candidates, in the absence of one of the big parties achieving an overall majority, will ally themselves with.

In 2012, the Socialist Party’s 280 seats did fall short of the 289 majority figure by almost precisely the same distance as Theresa May’s Conservatives. Hollande’s party, however, already had a Left grouping negotiated with the Greens and several other smaller parties, holding an additional 48 seats. Majority effectively secured.

Across Europe as a whole, though, this approach and its speed is very much the exception. Take Germany, the next big player to have national legislative elections, in October.

Last time, in September 2013, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic/Social Union (CDU/CSU) achieved its best result since 1990, with close to 42% of the vote, and just five seats short of the 316 required for an overall majority – sound familiar?

There was an apparently minor hitch, with the CDU/CSU’s traditional coalition partners, the Free Democratic Party, falling short of the 5% of votes required to receive its usual bundle of party list seats. But how difficult can finding five votes be?

To which the answer is 3 months-difficult. Most Social Democrats (SPD) didn’t fancy a Merkel-led ‘Grand Coalition’, the Bavarian CSU didn’t fancy the Greens, but eventually talks were started with the SPD, a deal was negotiated, approved in a ballot of party members, and the new ‘Grand Coalition’ Government was finally sworn in on … 17th December.

That’s the European way, as Jean-Claude Juncker well knows. No wonder they look with a mixture of amusement and amazement at our way of doing things.

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