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Grand Coalitions: Finland and New Zealand

Pii-Tuulia Nikula

In the aftermath of the 2017 general election, the likely options for a coalition government of New Zealand seem to be narrowed down to only  two main options: a National Party–NZ First or a Labour-Green Party-NZ First governing arrangement. With a more than 20 years history with the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system, why are the options this limited?

Why not a grand coalition between National and Labour? Or a National – Green party government? Based on two recent online polls, the support for a Grand Coalition between National and Labour is thin, at best. In one poll, only around 5 % of respondents rank this coalition as their preferred arrangement and in the other online poll as many as 61 % of respondents consider a National – Labour coalition as ‘absurd’. However, there is precedence for such an outcome in the New Zealand context: the 1931-1935 United-Reform coalition and the 1915-1918 Reform-Liberal coalition. There was more support (15 %) for a hypothetical National–Green Party arrangement, but other combinations including Labour or Green Party in the same coalition with the ACT party seem somewhat far-stretched.

New Zealand’s ‘Labour-or-National duopoly’ (Duncan, 2017, p.6) and unwillingness to consider pairings of ideologically opposed parties such as Labour and Act, narrow coalition possibilities. This is not the case in other countries, such as Germany (Nikula and Smith, 2017; Newsroom, 2017; NZInitiative, 2017), where grand coalitions between the two largest parties have been successfully implemented, and more diverse coalition arrangements (e.g. the ideas of the Green Party and the right-liberal Free Democratic Party in the same coalition) can be considered as realistic options.

A less known example is the Finnish case, demonstrating some similar characteristics to New Zealand such as a small population size and a unitary political system (i.e. there is no federal state layer). Finland has used a variation of the d’Hondt method’ of proportional representation since 1906. In the Finnish system, people choose one candidate to vote for from, usually party-nominated, lists within their electoral districts. The system favours parties with strong support in individual electoral areas rather than overall national support. Parliamentary seats are allocated to parties and candidates depending on the number of votes received by all nominated district candidates. The individual candidate receiving the most votes receives a figure representing all party votes, the second candidate all votes divided by two, the third candidate all votes divided by three and so on, until all seats for the specific district are filled.

In contrast to New Zealand’s five percent minimum requirement, there is no electoral threshold in Finland. Hence, even though the Finnish version of d’Hondt method has been argued to favour larger, established parties or require smaller parties to form electoral alliances, the lack of a minimum threshold requirement can help minor parties to win seats in parliament. For instance, the 2015 election resulted in most of the 200 seats being divided between four major parties (34-49 seats) and between four medium-minor parties (4-15 seats) (Statistics Finland). Finland has been classified as an ‘extreme multiparty systems with a relative balance amongst the parties‘, where co-operation between some of the largest parties is necessary in order to from a majority government.

Also, the Finnish government coalition options are strikingly more diverse than the ones considered realistic in New Zealand. In Finland, a clear majority of all the eight government coalitions since 1987 have been ‘Grand Coalitions’ formed by two of the largest parties (including most of the possible combinations). To go one step further, the most recent election in 2015 resulted in a government coalition between the three largest parties (Centre Party 49 seats; True Finns 38 seats, National Coalition 37 seats). Moreover, almost all coalitions since the late 1980s have included two or three additional medium-minor parties. In certain instances, there have been more parties in the government than in opposition (e.g. in 2011, 6 coalition parties, 3 opposition parties). Some governments have secured as much as 140 out of all 200 seats (Nikula, 2016 p. 78).  From the perspective of forming a majority government, there has been no need to include these many parties in coalitions.

Also, in contrast to the New Zealand model, the ideological representation within the government has been more diverse – there seems to be no coalition arrangements that are perceived ‘absurd’. For instance, four coalitions since 1995 have seen the Finnish Green Party and Left Alliance working together in a coalition with the main Centre-Right party. Kumlin (2007) concludes that the Finnish coalitions have been among the ‘most complex and ideologically wide that Europe ha[s] to offer’ (p. 105).

Is there an opportunity for a more diverse multi-partism in the New Zealand context? Increased partisan co-operation can arguably bring more long-term stability and better responsiveness to the needs of majority of the population. More partisan options would also reduce the negotiation power of smaller parties such as New Zealand First to act as ‘kingmakers’ in coalition talks as larger parties would have the real opportunity to negotiate with multiple possible coalition partners. To improve the likelihood of smaller parties entering parliament, the case of removing or lowering the five percent electorate threshold could be considered (e.g. Electoral Commission Review)

What could be the negative aspects of the Finnish model? There is some evidence of voter apathy arising in part from a lack of real alternatives: some of the larger parties always continue in government, so there are only small changes in government policies following an election (Karvonen, 2014 p. 106). Certainly, voter turnout is lower in Finland than New Zealand.

Another negative aspect mentioned around grand coalitions and consensus mentality among established parties includes the rise of radical populistic parties. An example of this has been argued to be the German case with  ‘Alternative fur Deutschland’ party’s success in the 2017 elections. Similarly, in Finland the populist (but less radical) ‘True Finns’ party gained the second most votes in 2015. However, in the Finnish case the need to form a coalition with at least one other large party is believed to impede the implementation of most radical policy ideas.

Finally, large and diverse coalitions have been perceived to result in inefficiencies in governmental decision making (e.g. Miller and Vowles, 2008). While some of the recent Finnish governments have been criticised for their inability to make decisions, most of the government coalitions since the late 1980s have been fairly efficient with many of the significant changes in the mid-1990s legislated by the ideologically diverse Rainbow Government.

It is, of course, difficult to isolate the effect of elections and government coalition arrangements from other influences and national conditions. However, there seems to be clear differences in the democratic culture and tradition of inter-partisan co-operation that can help us better understand the current formal and informal barriers in New Zealand. The consensus-approach and co-operation in the Finnish context has been to some extent forced – e.g. coalitions necessitate at least two large parties, constitutional amendments require a super majority, and smaller parties need to form election alliances to secure seats in palriament. However, it also has a strong voluntary nature as evidenced by the surplus majorities and the frequent use of cross-parliamentary working groups to discuss major national policy issues.

It should be noted that the current consensus seeking nature and wide diversity in realistic coalition arrangements have not always been part of the Finnish political system. Finland’s experience with proporational representation dates back more than hundred years, compared to New Zealand’s mere twenty-one year’s of MMP.  Even though some aspects in New Zealand (such as the electorate threshold) can be fairly easily altered to strengthen multi-partism, changes in the underlying democratic culture and people’s mindsets take a long time to build.

Categories: #election2017, Democracy

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Pii-Tuulia Nikula
About the author

Pii-Tuulia Nikula

Pii-Tuulia Nikula is an education and public policy expert with a special interest in issues related to contemporary education systems and social policy initiatives in New Zealand and Finland. Pii-Tuulia holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Auckland. She is currently working as a lecturer at EIT in Napier.