Friday 28 October 2016

Idea of grand coalition works well elsewhere

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Cartoonist: Ken Lee
Cartoonist: Ken Lee

Much of the talk in the past 24 hours has been about the inconclusive mess that the election has thrown up. There is no clear winner and any number of obvious losers. Commentators have suggested that political compromises and coalitions will lead to economic instability.

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I want to refute the notion that there is something inherently economically unstable about inconclusive election results. In fact, the opposite is the case.

The more political compromises, deals and negotiations a political party has to make, either with real enemies or imagined ones, the more solid it becomes and the less brittle the entire political system is.

In his excellent book 'Anti-fragile', the philosopher Nassim Taleb makes this point about the difference between fragile political entities and robust ones, by comparing post-war Italy with Syria. The fact that he made these points before the Syrian war, not after it, makes them all the more prescient.

Italian politics, with its interminable coalitions, has been for years portrayed as unstable, weak, dissenting and fractious. In contrast, Syria, with its one-party dictatorship, bolstered by a massive military that didn't tolerate any dissent, was portrayed as a bastion of stability in the region. In Italy during the 1990s and early 2000s when small nationalist regional parties emerged demanding that regions secede from Rome, many commentators saw this as the beginning of the end for the Italian state as the squabbles were voiced very publicly in the media and people were forced to take sides. But what happened in the end?

The system compromised, back-room deals were done, someone got a little and others got a bit more, but ultimately the country survived and life went on.

The Italian system, for all its weaknesses, has a core strength - that strength is the ability to compromise, to do deals and to pull back from the brink.

It is essentially a very adult, grown-up country with a very adult political system.

Contrast that with Syria. From the outside, its monolithic, strongman regime was seen as robust but in fact it was very fragile. Without a tradition of doing deals and compromising, the system was unable to deal with negotiations and a small threat to the power ended up destroying the entire country. The same inability to compromise can be seen in all the undemocratic, inflexible Arab countries which saw regimes toppled during the Arab Spring.

These Arab systems that were not used to compromising simply broke apart when faced with big decisions. They were in fact childish, rather than adult.

Italy, on the other hand, with its endless coalitions, is able to deal with its problems in an adult fashion. It makes the necessary compromises to keep the whole show on the road. Italy is an adult country and its political system with all its deals and negotiations is in fact very robust.

This brings me back home to the fall-out from the elections. A 'grand coalition' might not necessarily be a bad thing for the country at all, and indeed any coalition of all the colours of the rainbow if anchored by one of the big two, might work too.

The more compromises a system makes, particularly if that is what the people voted for, the better.

The obvious choice is a coalition of the big two parties. This is what the majority voted for, so why not?

The clear template here is Germany. It seems to have evaded much of the commentariat that although Germany is ruled by Angel Merkel, her government is a grand coalition of the centre right Christian Democrats (CDU, Merkel's party) and the centre left Social Democrats (SPD), and the much smaller, Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU).

Think about it. The two parties that have dominated German politics since World War II, sworn enemies, divided by apparent unbridgeable ideologies, are in bed together. The government is stable and the country works very well. Compromise again. Adult behaviour.

Indeed, a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition might look very much like the present German one without the smaller party.

The CDU controls five ministries in addition to the positions of Chancellor and Chancellery Chief of Staff/Minister for Special Affairs. The SPD controls six ministries and the CSU three.

The six most powerful ministries were divided equally between the CDU and the SPD: the CDU controls the ministries for finance, internal affairs and defence, while the SPD controls the ministries for foreign affairs, economics and energy, and justice and consumer protection.

Inconclusive election results are now the norm in many countries.

Consider the cul de sac the majority Conservative Party in the UK have waltzed themselves up with Brexit?

This is essentially a scrap for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party, which has been allowed to get out of control and presages a once-in-a-generation constitutional crisis in the UK.

Would a coalition with various different parties have ended up with such an all-or-nothing option?

Therefore, rather than agonise about stability based on the false notion that only clear majorities deliver stability, we should look at other examples where grand bargains are struck to the benefit of the majority of the voters.

The majority of Irish people voted for two parties that occupy the middle ground. That is the government that we should get, warts and all.

As well as hoping the politicians will be mature and do what has to be done, people who voted Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have to be equally grown up and realise that the "war is over". It is time for the great compromise.

The funny thing about compromising whether in politics, business or just in life, is that once you compromise, you typically realise that your supposed core values weren't so core after all.

Irish Independent

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