Coalition government: Precedents from around the world

While coalition and minority governments are the exception in Britain and Canada, in many other countries, they are more the rule.
Newly minted British PM David Cameron, right, has entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg, who becomes deputy PM. (Reuters)

As it became clear that British voters were not going to give any one party a majority of seats in Parliament in the country's recent national election, the mainstream media began running stories explaining minority and coalition governments. In The Guardian the day after the vote, columnist Simon Tisdall explained  how such governments work, and his prime example was … Canada.

Canada has had many examples of minority government, but Tisdall also wrote about the 2008 attempt by Canada's opposition parties to form a coalition and replace Stephen Harper's Conservatives. That attempt failed — but not before Canadian media had carried stories explaining coalition government to Canadians. 

While coalition and minority governments are the exception in Britain and Canada, in many other countries, they are more the rule.

Europe's long coalition trip

Since Finland gained independence in 1917, it has been governed by coalitions. In the last election, in 2007, the two most popular parties each won about a quarter of the seats. A coalition of those two parties plus two smaller parties governs Finland.

Ride from Finland through Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and then Italy, and the entire trip will be through coalition country.

A few trip notes: When Germany's two biggest parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, formed a government in 2005 it was called a "grand coalition." It lasted until 2009, but the current coalition government is not "grand" because the Social Democrats are now in opposition. Chancellor Angela Merkel headed both coalitions.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Balkenende, a Christian Democrat, has headed four coalition governments since 2002, but none lasted a full term. ((Fred Ernst/Associated Press))

In the Netherlands, coalitions have governed since 1918. And until 1994, all those coalition governments included the Christian Democrats. Then the Purple Coalition took over (so named because it blended socialist red with liberal blue) until 2002. Since then, Christian Democrat Jan Peter Balkenende has headed four coalition governments, but none lasted a full term. His last government fell in February over the issue of extending the Dutch mission in Afghanistan. Elections take place June 9.

In Switzerland, a coalition of four parties has governed since 1959. They share power by an agreement know as the "magic formula." 

Italy is famous for its short-lived coalition governments. Since 1945, Italy's squabbling politicians have formed 61 governments.

India, Pakistan, Brazil, Israel and Japan are a few examples of coalition governments outside of Europe.

But the British do not need to look so far to see a coalition government in action. Across the Irish Sea is a country ruled, since 1989, by coalitions headed by one or the other of the two big parties, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. Since 1997, Fianna Fail has headed Ireland's ruling coalition, currently with the Greens as their major partner.

U.K.'s coalition history

The British can also look back in time to their own coalition governments. In 1915, during the First World War, an all-party coalition was formed, first under prime minister Herbert Asquith and a year later under David Lloyd George. The 1915 coalition replaced the last Liberal government in British history.

Lloyd George's coalition met its end in 1922, when the Conservatives, the largest party in the group, decided to leave. The Conservative Party secessionists were led by New Brunswick-born statesman Andrew Bonar Law, who took the keys to No. 10 Downing St. when Lloyd George resigned.

Then in 1924, Britain had a nine-month experience with minority government under the country's first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald.  Another coalition came to power in 1931, and like the government of newly minted British PM David Cameron, it faced an economic crisis. It was the Great Depression, and Britain's Labour government had been split on how to deal with it. MacDonald, in his second stint as prime minister, resigned as Labour leader and formed the "National Government," which included "men from all parties." In the general election two months later, and again in 1935, voters clearly expressed their support for coalition. 

British prime minister Winston Churchill, left, welcomes Canadian PM William Lyon Mackenzie King in London on Sept. 1, 1941. Churchill was then leading a coalition government. King headed minority governments in the 1920s. (Library and Archives Canada/Canadian Press)

Conservatives Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain followed as prime ministers at the head of the National Government, which ended in 1940. It was replaced by another coalition, this one an all-party variant under Winston Churchill, following Chamberlain's resignation after Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg.

In 1974, Britain again had a brief taste of minority government. Conservative prime minister Edward Heath had lost the election to Labour's Harold Wilson, but the result was a hung Parliament. Heath tried to form a coalition with the Liberals but failed. Wilson headed a minority government for eight months and then won a majority at the polls.

Canada's coalition experience

Coalition governments are less common in Westminster-style, first-past-the-post electoral systems than in legislatures with proportional representation, but they do happen.

In Australia, National-Liberal coalition governments have been in office for most of the last half-century. New Zealand also had experience with coalition governments before going to a mixed-member proportional electoral system in 1996.

What about Canada? 

Coalition government created Canada. The pre-Confederation Province of Canada had coalitions, most importantly the "Great Coalition" from 1864 to 1867. Politicians formed the coalition for the express purpose of creating a "federal union of British North America." 

John A. Macdonald became prime minister of Canada's first post-Confederation government and, "in Macdonald's view, the government had begun as a bona fide coalition in 1867," his biographer Donald Creighton wrote.

Robert Borden, a Tory, was prime minister of Canada from 1911 to 1920 and for a while during the First World War had Liberals in his government. This photo is undated. (Library and Archives Canada)

In discussions of coalitions, Canada's first government is frequently forgotten. "Certainly his first government from 1867 to '72 was formally a coalition government," Canadian historian Michael Bliss told CBC News.

In 1917, during the First World War, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden sought a coalition with the opposition Liberals to bring in conscription. Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier rejected the coalition proposal, but some Liberals left the party caucus and joined Borden's ensuing Unionist government. 

Although that government is often called a coalition, University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman argues that the Unionists do not fit the definition because there was no formal agreement between political parties to govern together and the Liberals who joined "did so without the sanction of their party."

There have been coalition governments at the provincial level in Canada, too.