Coalitions: A grand churn of political oceans is underway

The word ‘coalition’ traces its etymological root to the Latin word ‘coalitus,’ which means to grow together. (ANI)
The word ‘coalition’ traces its etymological root to the Latin word ‘coalitus,’ which means to grow together. (ANI)

Summary

  • The process is throwing up new coalitions across the world but its ultimate winners are hard to identify. What’s clear is that divisions run deep between the Left and Right in most democracies.

The year 2024 is notable for the large number of elections being held—in well over 60 countries, representing nearly half of the world’s population. Of course, there are myriad systems and we are only halfway through the year, but as a generalization, it is turning out to be a year of strong majorities for presidential forms of government and coalitions for parliamentary democracies. 

Indonesia and Mexico returned strong majorities for their presidential winners, with Mexico electing its first ever woman to its top office. This happens because presidential systems tend to have tie-breakers, such as a run-off election or legislative vote. Even so, the underlying legislatures in many presidential systems are now very mixed and ‘coalition like,’ such as those in the US and South Korea. 

Parliamentary elections in India, South Africa and Pakistan, and for the European Parliament and South Korean legislature, have resulted in surprisingly mixed results, with multi-party coalitions being the only political way forward in these places.

The word ‘coalition’ traces its etymological root to the Latin word ‘coalitus,’ which means to grow together. It was first used in the political context in the 18th century and has come to mean a coming together of political formations with different backgrounds because they share the same goal.

A coalition government may also be created in times of national crisis, often bringing together rival parties to combat an internal or external threat. These coalitions are called ‘grand coalitions’ or ‘national unity’ governments. Israel has had a history of such governance; for instance, during the Six-Day War in 1967, during the covid pandemic in 2020 and most recently after the Hamas attacks of October 2023. 

There has been no unity government in the US since Abraham Lincoln invited Democrat Andrew Johnson to share power during the US Civil War period in 1864. The UK also has not had a unity government since World War II and the Great Depression. India has never had a unity government since Independence in 1947. 

South Africa formed its first so-called unity government last week, when the African National Congress aligned with a Caucasian-dominated party, the Democratic Alliance. Only time will tell if this seismic shift in political affiliations will endure.

The idea of coalitions has been well studied in Game Theory under the general title of ‘Multi-Agent Games.’ The Nash equilibrium, named after Nobel laureate John Nash, who was immortalized in the movie The Beautiful Mind, is a strategy profile in which no player can improve his payoff by deviating from his prevailing strategy if no other player deviates. Coalitions inherently have a cooperate-or-compete aspect to their very formation. 

This tension between cooperating and competing and the incentives for either embedded in the partnership agreements define how ‘efficient’ the formation is. Economists use the term ‘Pareto optimal’ to describe effective formulations. To most lay observers, the behaviour of politicians can appear whimsical, capricious and not subject to rational study. However, the rigorous study of coalitions give us outcome scenarios that fit most situations.

It is too early to tell whether the worldwide disenchantment with politics and politicians that gave rise to populist-nationalists (pop-nats), starting about 15 years ago , is reaching its own stage of exhaustion. But recent manifestations of it have meant a yo-yoing of power between opposite sides in presidential elections (witness Brazil and the US) and more frequent mixed legislatures in parliamentary systems (such as in the European Parliament, India and Pakistan).

Even in Türkiye, where pop-nat poster-child Recep Erdogan returned to power in 2023, the parliamentary seats of his AK party have dipped well below the majority mark for the first time since he first achieved power two decades ago. In Europe, which has had a long history of coalition politics, the rise of the far right in European parliamentary elections (and to power in Italy earlier) is suggestive of political ‘multi-polarity.’ 

Currently, an attempt to attain the centre-ground is being made by a barbell between parties that pander to a minority and rivals that pamper the majority. The definitions of majorities and minorities vary in each country and context, but confusion reigns over how to drop those extremes.

Large heterogenous democratic countries are best run from the centre. Centrism was in political vogue in countries like the US, UK and India in the 1990s and early 2000s. Beginning about 20 years ago, this centrism has given way to a political churn of the oceans, with political stand-offs on issues of immigration, identity, globalization and alignments.

The recent resurgence of coalitions seems to stem from another big political churn, with no clear winners along different political vectors. The political formations that will arise from the latest churn are still unclear. What’s clear is that there is widespread disenchantment with distributive economics and ‘wokism’ on one side and identitarian authoritarianism on the other. Most democracies are attempting to sort this out.

P.S: “Devas (Gods) and Asuras (demons) churned the primeval ocean at the beginning of time to obtain Amrita, the nectar of immortality," according to the Samudra Manthan story of the Vishnu Purana.

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