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British Coalition Governments' Effectiveness Debated


For the first time in almost 70 years Britain has a coalition government and its leaders are calling it a new kind of politics for Britain. Some analysts say it's a democratic move that brings Britain in line with politics elsewhere in the world, but skeptics warn that coalitions can lead to weak and unstable government.

Britain's Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition after the May 6 General Election failed to give any one party an overall majority. It's the first coalition in Britain since WWII and opinions here are mixed over whether it will be a good or a bad thing for Britain.

Jan Meyer-Sahling from the University of Nottingham says Britons don't have to look far to see whether coalitions work.

"I think it's important to recognize that the UK is a bit of an exception in the wider European context," said Meyer-Sahling. "In most of Europe you have actually coalition governments in place rather than single-party majority governments as you have in the UK."

He says most coalitions in Europe have been very effective. New democracies in Eastern Europe, he says, have been headed almost entirely by coalitions and it's been an important way to unite different groups within each country.

"Generally there is a sense for the new member states or for the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe that coalition governments have been important to find compromises between different segments in society," he added.

Richard Vinen from King's College London says it can be difficult for a single-party majority government to push through tough legislation without causing a backlash from other political parties.

In a coalition, he says, a wider range of parties are responsible for those decisions so the electorate is more willing to accept hard-hitting policies like cuts in public spending.

He says coalitions also bring new voices into government that might not otherwise be heard.

"It's often gone with de-radicalization of politics," said Vinen. "It's often gone with quite unexpected groups being brought into the political consensus - so the German Greens collaborating in government, for example, the French Communists in the early 1980s collaborating in government."

But critics of coalition governments say they are often short-lived. Italy has a history of fractious coalition governments and has had over 60 governments in office since 1945.

And they say in coalition governments the lowest common denominator always triumphs, which means strong, but necessary decisions are not made.

Christian Schweiger, from Britain's Durham University, says it's an inefficient form of government. He says this is so even in Germany, which is Europe's largest economy and is widely held up as an example of the benefits of coalitions.

"I would argue that in terms of political efficiency and in terms of efficiency of implementing a coherent agenda, trying to make swift decisions particularly on the economy, it has been very problematic in recent years," note Schweiger.

Rosemary Hollis is a Middle-East specialist at Britain's City University. She says Israel has been led almost entirely by coalitions. She says the result is a failure to resolve two major issues, the economy and the Palestinians. She says each segment of Israel's population has a different plan for how to solve the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

"In the Israeli experience, an accurate reflection of public opinion means inaction on the big issues like peace with the Palestinians," noted Hollis.

In Britain the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats say they will pass legislation that will keep their coalition government in power for five years. That move should steer the country clear of Italy's frequently collapsing governments. But it's yet to be seen whether the two parties will find enough common ground to govern Britain together.

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