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The love language of politics: How to decode a coalition agreement

Oliver Hartwich,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Nov 2023, 9:34am

The love language of politics: How to decode a coalition agreement

Oliver Hartwich,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Nov 2023, 9:34am

New Zealand is waiting – for better weather, the next Rugby World Cup, and the formation of our new Government. Not necessarily in that order, but with similar anticipation.

This is a challenging time for political commentators used to analysing even the smallest details of political life. The preliminary coalition talks are still under wraps, so there is little to comment on.

I could end this column here.

However, I have a suggestion for readers when the new Government releases its coalition agreement: Pay attention to the formal structure of this document to indicate the type of government we will have – and how long it will last.

Perhaps you think this sounds like political astrology. But formal analysis of coalition agreements is supported by solid empirical research published in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Politics, volume 78, number 4.

In a fascinating paper titled “Let’s Just Agree to Disagree: Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in Coalition Agreements”, four political scientists from the US and Germany examined all 65 coalition agreements signed in German states between 1990 and 2013.

New Zealanders can certainly relate to this. After all, the Germans also suffer from the same MMP electoral system as us. For reasons that elude me, we copied them when we moved to MMP.

Since 1990, Germany has been a federation of 16 states (or Länder). Most of these states had four-year parliamentary terms over the period the researchers analysed (although that has now been extended to five years in all states but one).

This means that, somewhere in Germany, there is an election every few months. Consequently, a coalition government is formed somewhere in Germany every few months, too.

Putting together coalition governments becomes routine activity if it happens so often. Since the same parties typically operate in all states, it is even more routine for them. That makes for an interesting case study of coalition formation.

So, what did these researchers discover by studying their 65 German coalition agreements? Did they uncover any patterns that could tell us how these coalitions manage their internal disagreements?

For one thing, they found that coalitions of parties with different ideologies were more likely to have special rules for resolving disputes.

You can think of it as setting the ground rules for your flat-sharing arrangement. The more diverse the flatmates, the more rules you need to ensure everyone gets along.

Second, the size and number of parties in a coalition is important. A coalition is usually more tightly managed if one party is significantly larger than the others.

Smaller partners in coalitions often feel the need to protect themselves from being bullied in the future. But if the partners are of equal size, they may believe they can deal with conflict as it arises.

Now for the final result: When a coalition consists of different ideologies and unequal sizes, the need for dispute-resolution mechanisms increases.

The bottom line is that if you have multiple ideologies and a David-and-Goliath situation regarding party size, you need some robust conflict-management rules.

The big takeaway here? Mechanisms for solving disputes are not just filler in coalition agreements. They are crucial governance tools.

Coalition agreements with detailed conflict-resolution rules help keep coalitions ticking along, preventing them from descending into utter chaos. The researchers found that the more attention a coalition pays to these rules, the more stable it tends to be.

Sometimes academic research yields the same results as common sense. But it is good to have this confirmed.

Now, what does all this tell us about our next Government?

Well, once the coalition agreement is released (and I hope it will be released in full), pay attention to how much space is devoted to managing internal disagreements. Will they have a few lines on it or a whole chapter? It could tell us a lot about the sort of coalition we are in for and, crucially, how long it might last.

If the coalition agreement is long and detailed on policy, it might indicate that the coalition partners have much in common. (Conversely, it might also indicate that they trust each other so little that they felt the need to write everything down.)

But pay attention to how much room they dedicate to conflict management. This chapter might be a bit longer If the coalition includes New Zealand First. But longer, in this case, might also mean that the resulting coalition will be more stable.

This is not just political soothsaying. This logical analysis based on evidence gives us a new perspective on the upcoming government.

Take note, New Zealand. Our future governance may well be written in the not-so-fine print

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