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Recently, a trend has become much more common in European elections due to shifts in the popularity of populist parties. Many European political parties now rely on building ideologically diverse coalitions to govern or compete in elections. Coalitions are a political strategy to bring political parties together to have a majority of seats in the legislature to govern the country. In Europe, many governments were elected through a parliamentary voting system. In this system, the predominant party or coalition of parties can elect a leader to serve as the head of state, a prime minister, or a president. These two methods have respective issues and perks for allocating power and letting legislation happen. While presidential systems are less common in Europe and give the directly elected president the most power or authority, parliamentary politics in the region have encountered challenges due to the rise of far-right and populist parties. In response to weaker electoral results, coalitions became used to facilitate governance.
Within the past decade, a few notable instances of far-right or populist coalitions have risen, including Poland, Hungary, and Germany. These countries have all faced varying levels of success from different political parties coming together to remove dominant majority parties in their respective countries.
United Against Illiberalism
In 2023, the Civic Coalition in Poland participated in an election with more seats between three parties with varying ideologies. Collectively, these parties earned more votes than the ruling party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS). The PiS has faced significant criticism for its policies, including the restriction of abortion access and the eroding of judicial independence within the courts. The Civic Coalition united on a prearranged agreement centred around reestablishing liberal policies on civic freedoms, ensuring that disagreements over these roles do not hinder the formation of a new governing leadership.
Before this coalition’s electoral victory, a comparable challenge unfolded in Hungary in 2022 — opposition parties’ intent not to support Fizdez policies of replacing the long-established Fizdez party led by Victor Orban, who had been in power for over a decade. Likewise, Hungary shows how hard it is to remove supermajority parties that have been in power for too long and established electoral rules designed to benefit the party in power only.
Part of the reason such coalitions form involving many different ideologies is because they acknowledge the illiberal nature of the governing party dominating elections. Much like in Poland, the parties centred on defending vanishing freedoms for LGTBQ+ equal rights and abortion access; in Hungary, the coalition against Fizdez wanted to reverse decisions that had made Hungary a less free country. This coalition gathered many ideologically diverse supporters but did not galvanize voters with a clear message outside of opposition to Victor Orban and the lack of a popular figurehead to lead the coalition.
Germany’s election in 2021 shows that coalitions can win against long-established parties in power. The Christian Democratic party, in power for most of the 2010s, lost to the “traffic light coalition” with members from left, centre, and right. However, its coalition has not had the easiest time governing since its path to being the party in control of the government with different political goals for each party.
These examples show how recent European elections have centred around coalitions against dominant parties, often on the right. Additionally, far-right parties have eroded stable coalitions, forcing coalitions to become larger and more complicated to have a majority. This trend has been ongoing in Europe with the popularity of populist and far-right parties throughout the region.
How Coalitions Came to Be
Populist or far-right parties are not historically popular with European parliaments. Still, they show how electoral politics have become much more fractured in Europe in recent decades. With an erosion of trust in traditional parties, support for outsider parties has increased, making many parties wishing to stay in power accept demands or lose voters. An increase in coalition formation has occurred due to multiple parties needing to secure a majority. Large establishment parties now must engage in more negotiations for support from smaller parties, requiring compromises on topics unpopular to the broader voting bloc.
For example, in Spain, the majority party requires support from historically separatist parties in the Catalan region to have a majority in parliament, particularly when considering policies on independence or increased autonomy. A contributing factor for so many new political parties emerging is the impact of social media, which allows for an extensive range of ideas to gain popularity and often results in decreased consensus among people on various policies and political ideas.
Populism and Political Fracturing
The political platforms of populist and traditional parties have similarities. However, populist parties often focus on identifying issues where popular support has not yet been established in the majority parties’ policies, making these issues the central platform of populist parties. This tendency arises in response to visible social crises and the perceived failure of traditional parties to address voters’ concerns.
Political parties engage in coalition building to mitigate risks and maintain their position. This political strategy allows them to unite with ideologically similar or like-minded parties in a coalition or a more diverse coalition to appeal to a broader range of people across the political spectrum. However, suppose there is only a slight majority in power; there is a chance of losing a few seats, which could lead to the coalition’s downfall. It points to the vulnerability of coalitions and the necessity of trustworthy parties to avoid surprises and setbacks.
Coalitions are an essential tool and strategy that will likely remain a significant feature of European politics. Member states parties of the European Union compete for different views of their countries and the union, like Poland and Hungary, where there was significant distrust from the EU in the right-wing parties governing those countries.
Coalitions are no guarantee of a successful government, as in Germany, where the three parties have different ideological viewpoints. Pre-election negotiations to establish policy bases are essential to keep legislation and governance moving. It can mean resigning electoral regions to certain parties in the coalition so as not to split votes and have another party win. Coalitions can also face issues from outside, especially if a party outside the coalition also wins many votes, giving it much firmer ground to criticize government policies and to propose them as better suited to govern. A lot of criticism can go toward the coalition for not following the policies of the majority of voters. Nonetheless, there is a tightrope to walk on for most coalition governments.
Significance of Coalitions in Current Politics
Historically, popular parties have had a dilemma of losing support to populist parties that capitalize on public dissatisfaction with a political system that fails to address societal issues affecting people. Parliamentary politics in Europe allows for a more diverse representation of parties in legislatures; however, there has been a noticeable increase in no single party holding a majority, necessitating the formation of coalitions to govern. The current trend of coalition building has raised concerns about the stability of governments since a coalition disagreement could potentially lead to a split, triggering the need for new elections or another party attempting to run the government.
Coalitions have been a part of European legislative politics for quite some time. With more splits in party support, coalitions have become important factors in elections. Its significance stems from the lack of big parties opposing populist and far-right parties that can campaign on hot-topic issues and develop sustainable support away from illiberal politics, as seen throughout Europe. Furthermore, parties with less than a majority in support stay in power due to a lack of support for one opposition party; without a coalition centred on the opposition, it is hard to create electoral change in current elections.
Edited by Gabrielle Andrychuk