Coalition governments are not “undemocratic”!

Liberal Stephane DionI’ll get the disclaimer out of the way:

I live in Canada, but I’m not a Canadian voter as I’m not a Canadian citizen – I’m a Danish citizen. In fact as long as I live here I can’t even vote for elections in my native country Denmark because it has a residency requirement. I usually don’t keep my own political opinions a secret and I won’t do so here either: I’m usually left-of-center on most issues. However this article isn’t about left vs. right party politics (or indeed about East Canada vs. West Canada power distribution), it’s about democracy and playing by the rules of that democracy.

Parliamentary crisis in Canada

There’s a parliamentary crisis in Canada this week, only six weeks after the most recent national election. The minority single-party government is in danger of falling as two other parties are planning to combine forces and form a coalition government. For more details, please see David Megginson’s great primer on the current situation and an explanation of the Canadian political system as compared with the American ditto.

Bloc Quebecois Gile DuceppeMany conservative Canadians are now crying foul and calling this idea of a coalition government an abomination. Here’s a sample of the statements I’ve seen presented as facts in the last couple of days in emails, Tweets, Facebook notes and on political protest websites (e.g. "Rally for Canada" and ”Canadians for Democracy” – cute US-style, pretend-wholesome political naming schemes):

  1. "Canada didn’t vote for [Liberal] Dion, they voted for [Conservative] Harper"
  2. "This isn’t the United States; leaders here are elected!"
  3. "[The coalition and its backers] will pay for this deceit in the next election"
  4. "This would overturn the results of the last election without seeking consent from the Canadian voters"
  5. "Approval of this coalition opens a ‘Pandora’s Box’ and most importantly sends a clear message to our youth that their vote DOES NOT count"
  6. "Canadians have the democratic right to choose who will govern them and not have a surprise Prime Minister chosen through an unseemly and undemocratic backroom deal"

Debunking the bunk

Conservative Stephen HarperThe most straightforward misunderstanding here is item 1. Each member of the Canadian parliament is elected in a particular riding. Unless you happen to be a voter living in Harper’s riding in Calgary, you couldn’t possibly have voted for him.

This ties directly into item 2. The writer here has it exactly backward. Americans first elect their major parties’ respective candidates for presidency through an endless progression of “primaries”, and then they elect which one of those candidates should become the president. The US president is "twice elected". The Canadian PM is not elected like that at all. In Canada the parliament elects the PM, thus the PM is indirectly elected by the voters.

Liberal Stephane DionItem 3 is pure name calling: The coalition partners didn’t promise their voters that they’d support the current PM (their political opponent) and then go back on their promise. They’ve always wanted to dethrone the current PM, and now they’ve spotted a chance to do so. I’m not aware of any deceptions that have taken place. [Liberal leader] Dion did say immediately after the election that he didn’t want to try to topple the government. He has obviously changed his mind since then… or he would probably say that his mind was changed for him this week by the current PM’s recent political stunt (see David Megginson’s write-up again). That’s not deception.

Items 4, 5 and 6 are representative of many incensed (but only vaguely argued) statements the last few days amounting to an apparent belief that coalition governments are (somehow) undemocratic.

Coalition governments are not undemocratic!

Politics is the art of the possible. If a party doesn’t have an absolute majority, then cooperation is the name of the game. Harper’s own government has always been forced to find support for its initiatives among the other parties in the parliament because it didn’t have a majority. Now it looks like it has a majority against it, and if that’s the case, then it’s time for another government.

Coalition government have been the norm rather than the exception in many countries, including Denmark where we’ve had two or three-party governments throughout most of my lifetime, I think. Canadians are only unfamiliar with coalition governments because the Canadian election system itself is outdated, skewed and undemocratic.

More on that tomorrow.

7 Comments to “Coalition governments are not “undemocratic”!”

  1. Brian J. 4 December 2008 at 1:13 #

    Best summary I’ve seen yet! You’re right. We’ve enjoyed many many majority governments in Canada, especially as far as we can remember. But when you don’t have the numbers, back room dealing and informal coalitions are the norm. Like you said, that’s how the minority Conservative government had to operate in its last term.

    Of note as well is the fact that in the eyes of the constitution, political parties don’t exist. They are simply marketable and strategic coalitions between individual MP candidates — strength in numbers, right?

    Maybe parties should be banned — can you imagine? Everyone is an independent candidate, and the house is a complete free-for-all after an election where newly-elected MP’s scramble to gain enough support to be chosen as the PM.

    Now THAT would be democracy!

  2. Jan Karlsbjerg 4 December 2008 at 11:15 #

    Well, it would certainly be a KIND of democracy.

    In practice the US system works a little like that. Party discipline is weak and in every election the “voting record” of individual politicians are considered, because the two parties are really coalitions of politicians with many different opinions and interests and pet causes and election promises.

    I’m a big fan of representative democracy, and I think parties helps organize discussions and decisions. But the (British modeled) Canadian system sucks because it’s not a fair proportional representational democracy. Same goes for the US variant of democracy. That’s what my next post is about.

    Another system that kinda fails the representational democracy idea is the Swiss where lots of issues at national, province and city level are sent to referendums.

  3. nancy (aka money coach) 5 December 2008 at 0:38 #

    It’s “tomorrow”! your audience awaits!

  4. Jan Karlsbjerg 5 December 2008 at 7:40 #

    Well, there’s always “tomorrow”, isn’t there? 🙂

    Sorry Ms. Audience, I had a busy day Thursday. Maybe today? Also, yesterday’s suspension of parliament for six weeks makes a lot of things less urgent.

  5. Marc 5 December 2008 at 12:44 #

    70% of English speaking Canadians are AGAINST a ‘coalition’.

    Nuff said.

    Are you Danish or Canadian?

  6. Jan Karlsbjerg 5 December 2008 at 14:05 #

    Interesting figure, Marc. Please provide a source for it or some other way of convincing me that you didn’t just pull it out of your hat.

    I’m Danish — as I stated very clearly in the first sentence of the disclaimer in this post (and several other places on the site).

  7. […] the comments to my post Wednesday about coalition governments and democracy, different types of democracy came up. Forbidding political parties and electing only individuals, […]


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