Governmental Politics and the Dynamics of Multiparty Competition

By Laver, Michael | Political Research Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Governmental Politics and the Dynamics of Multiparty Competition


Laver, Michael, Political Research Quarterly


The politics of coalition government is a phase in a never-ending dynamic process of multiparty political competition. Most models of coalition government are static and focus on the making or the breaking of governments, ignoring or at least holding constant all other aspects of party competition. Here, the author considers some issues that are raised by locating the politics of coalition government in a more dynamic setting.

Keywords: government formation; coalitions; dynamic models; party competition

Real political competition is a complex dynamic process. Most formal models of political competition are static. While these models are often complicated, they are rarely complex in the formal sense. Most modelers of political competition know full well these are grave shortcomings. But it is difficult to remedy such shortcomings in a rigorous way, to make models of political competition reflect the reality we all know is out there.

Paying particular attention to the politics of government in parliamentary democracies, most formal models deal with the making and breaking of governments in the institutional environment of a single postelectoral legislature with perfect party discipline. In a nutshell, the conventional modeling wisdom is that there is an (in this context unmodeled) election that generates a legislature, there is a modeled government formation process that generates an equilibrium government, and the government equilibrium remains in place until the next scheduled election, unless it is destabilized by random events that perturb model parameters. Most extant models thereby characterize a simple time slice of part of a complex dynamic process. Other articles in this symposium take steps toward modeling dynamic aspects of this process. In order to figure out where these steps might lead us, and map the intellectual landscape in which they are set, it may be useful to consider the rough sketch of governmental politics in Figure 1.

This shows a never-ending process. We must start somewhere if we want to discuss this, and we start with an election. Analyzing the electoral process is obviously a giant project at the heart of political science. However, elections often figure only implicitly in models of the making and breaking of governments. Elections trigger government formation, but what triggers elections? The trigger may be a constitutional or legal automaton, specifying a maximum period between elections. In real parliamentary democracies, however, most elections are not triggered when governments run into the buffers at the end of their constitutional term. They are typically triggered for strategic reasons by some politician or other (Smith 2004). Elections are endogenous to governmental politics in parliamentary democracies. The election campaign itself is rarely included in models of government formation, however, though an exception to this can be found in recent work by Carroll and Cox (2007), dealing with the impact of preelectoral coalition deals between party leaders. There is a lurking sense in some models that elite behavior in the interelectoral period is in part motivated by fear of what might happen at the next election, but this is rarely formalized.

Once polling booths have closed and votes have been counted, there is a partition of electors between political parties, including the nonvoters' party. This partition is mapped by an electoral system into a legislature, seen as a partition of elected legislators between parties. The electoral system is rarely considered explicitly in models of the making and breaking of governments. The typical implicit assumption is that multiparty legislatures arise in the institutional context of proportional representation electoral systems. Clearly, if the electoral system is very disproportional, the feedback effect of elections on government formation would be quite different.

Most theoretical accounts of governmental politics take up the story of this complex dynamic process at the creation of a new legislature, treated as a gift from Nature and modeled as a partition of legislators into an exogenously given set of perfectly disciplined political parties. …

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