Members of Myanmar's parliament arrive for a session at the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw on March 10, 2020. (AFP)
Members of Myanmar's parliament arrive for a session at the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw on March 10, 2020. (AFP)

Why we shouldn’t rule out a coalition government

Global experience shows that coalition governments are far from unusual in presidential systems, particularly where the president lacks a strong veto.

By JASON GELBORT | FRONTIER

A recent op-ed in Frontier, “The myth of ‘coalition government’”, argues that “talk of a post-election ‘coalition’ misrepresents Myanmar’s winner-takes-all electoral system and gives false hope that minority interests can be meaningfully represented without constitutional reform”. I agree that a functioning coalition government appears unlikely to form following this year’s election.

The piece usefully emphasises that Myanmar has a presidential system of government – the president is elected to a fixed term of office and does not rely on parliamentary support to stay in power – with the unusual feature that a plurality of parliament elects the president. (Some scholars refer to this combination of features as an “assembly-independent” system.)

Given the op-ed’s emphasis on understanding the implications of the presidential system on coalition formation, Frontier readers may find additional, fundamental information about this topic of interest. First, coalition governments are common in presidential systems. Second, coalitional dynamics operate differently under presidential systems than parliamentary ones due to the separation of legislative and executive powers, and these characteristics deserve further attention.

A 2004 quantitative study of almost all democracies between 1946 and 1999 found that although coalition governments occur less frequently in presidential systems (including those that could be called “assembly-independent”) than in parliamentary ones, when a president’s party holds a minority of seats in the legislature, coalition governments form more than half of the time.

Political scientists have continued to study coalitional presidentialism, particularly across the Global South and in nascent democracies, to seek answers to questions about factors linked to coalition formation and the behaviour of coalitional politics. Other Southeast Asian presidential countries, namely the Philippines and Indonesia, have used coalitions during their democratic transitions. Indonesia has a particularly extensive and continuing practice of politically diverse cabinets.

Coalition dynamics in presidential systems differ from those associated with parliamentary systems. “The myth of ‘coalition government’” discusses the “kingmaker” dynamic that is often discussed in Myanmar and that arises in parliamentary systems when a coalition can be necessary for government formation and survival.

In presidential systems, however, coalitions tend to form for different reasons. Presidents face a different challenge when they do not control a majority of the legislature. Due to the separation of powers in presidential systems, presidents may be unable to pass their own legislative agenda if their party only controls a minority of the legislature. The writer, Ben Dunant, rightly explains that Myanmar’s president may be elected by fewer than 50 percent of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar’s national legislature. But greater than 50pc is required to pass legislation.

Even though presidents control the executive branch, including key appointments, in many multi-party presidential countries they have chosen to form coalition governments to enjoy a functioning legislative coalition and sometimes also to reduce opposition criticism of government. Among the reasons other parties join such coalitions are to influence the legislative agenda and to enjoy the benefits of heading ministries. The Coalitional Presidentialism Project at the University of Oxford found in a multi-country study that members of parliament viewed cabinet appointment power to be a president’s most effective tool for managing legislative alliances.

Under Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, a simple majority of parliament can overcome the objection of the president and enact legislation (similar to countries like Brazil, where coalitional presidentialism has been a longstanding political feature). A president lacking strong veto powers may be more inclined to seek a coalition government to safeguard control of the legislative agenda. Indeed, a global study of 38 countries between 1974 and 2013 found that the strength of a president’s veto had a significant influence on the decision whether to form a coalition when lacking a parliamentary majority.

The particular institutional structures and current political dynamics in Myanmar certainly make the successful formation of a coalition government highly challenging. But extending the conversation beyond the mechanics of the presidential election to the separation of powers may open up the possibility for more imaginative and pragmatic approaches to Myanmar politics.

All political actors interested in stability or diverse representation could seek lessons found in comparative experiences and the robust political science literature about coalitions under presidential systems as they pursue better political outcomes. Coalitions may turn out to be unnecessary or impractical for the purposes of Myanmar’s presidential election, but one should not dismiss the potential usefulness of coalition government to help manage executive-legislative relations.

Jason Gelbort is an independent legal consultant.

By Frontier

By Frontier

In-depth, unbiased coverage of Myanmar in an era of transition. Our fortnightly English language print magazine is published every other Thursday, with daily news updates online.
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