A call for new elections often signals the point where the partners in a coalition prefer going their own separate ways rather than continuing to govern together. A “break-up followed by new elections” scenario is however markedly more common in Western Europe than in Central Eastern Europe. This is an insight gained through a research project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. “In the ten Central and Eastern European EU member states we analysed, such a scenario is rarely seen. In these countries, elections more often result in the governing parties being penalised and sometimes even being ousted from parliament. Elections ahead of time are therefore considered too risky for the parties there and they tend to avoid them,” explains Wolfgang C. Müller, Head of the Department of Government at the University of Vienna and the project’s principal investigator.
Coalition parties in Eastern Europe are held very much to account by the electorate if their governance does not meet the expectations of the population. At the same time, participation in government is a goal in itself and necessary for parties to raise sufficient financial resources to build a party organisation. Accordingly, what the researchers found instead were switches from one coalition partner to another during a single legislative term in the countries under investigation. Compared to coalitions in Western Europe, this often results in shorter lifespans.
Data from ten countries
In coalition research, little has generally been documented about the period of governance. This was the first time that a research project focused on the governing phase of the respective cabinets and the internal mechanisms that shaped their actions. Together with Torbjörn Bergman and Gabriella Ilonszki, as well as with support from experts in ten Central and Eastern European countries, Wolfgang C. Müller reviewed the entire “life cycle” of coalition governments. The theoretical model developed to this end with Müller’s involvement was introduced in 2008 and first applied to Western and now also to Central Eastern Europe. The ten countries in the survey joined the EU between 2005 and 2007, and the period under investigation stretched back to the first democratic elections in the 1990s, a time marked by massive changes and challenges in all areas of society.
The focus on government action also required a methodology capable to identify internal mechanisms. “We succeeded by and large in finding some interview partners for each cabinet in all of the countries concerned and thus obtained first-hand information,” says Müller. Coalition agreements and other documents detailing the principles of cooperation were also included in the data set, as were national media reports on the respective governments. In addition, the researchers took official information into account. The analysis of these data reveals the dynamics and structure of the coalition systems.
Formalities less binding
In their work the researchers found, for example, that coalition agreements are generally less important in Central Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. “In Central Eastern Europe they do exist formally, but they are less binding,” explains the political scientist. Given that party systems are very divergent and parties are under strong competitive pressure, power interests and partisan goals are usually more important than formal mechanisms that regulate interaction with the coalition partner. The researchers were also surprised to learn that the approach on the part of coalition parties of simply dividing up the ministries and then giving the ministers a more or less free rein is “often very evident and demonstrable in practice. Government action is marked by coexistence, rather than cooperation, and instability is a distinct characteristic.” Hungary is an exception with respect to instability. On the other hand, the Hungarian coalition under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a rare example of a coalition acting more or less as a one-party government.
Broad basis for further research
This focus on government action has closed a gap, making it possible now to analyse the entire life cycle of coalitions. In addition, the comprehensive data set permits for the first time well-founded comparisons between Western and Eastern Europe and the identification of country specifics. A book soon to be published provides a systematic account of the life cycles of coalitions in Central Eastern Europe. At the same time, the research team will make the quantitative data publicly available. In any case, the insights obtained in the basic research project contribute significantly to a better understanding of what characterises the behaviour of coalition governments. How good or bad such cooperation is, how conflicts are resolved and decisions are made is consequential and ultimately has an impact on the political stability and performance of a given state.
Wolfgang C. Müller, a political scientist and Professor of Democratic Governance, heads the Department of Government at the University of Vienna. He was director of the Mannheim Center for European Social Research and has led the Vienna Center of Electoral Research (VieCER) since 2017. Coalition policy is one of his main areas of research. Together with Kaare Strøm and Torbjörn Bergman he developed the “Democratic Life Cycle” model in 2008.