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The Politics of Multiparty Coalition Governments in the Arab World

Session III-08, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of Middle East Law and Governance, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Although mostly associated with governance in fully-fledged democracies, the Arab world is no stranger to multiparty coalitions. In its modern history the region can boast, in fact, a surprisingly large and diverse number of such coalitions in countries ranging from Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia in the Maghreb to Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq in the Mashreq as well as Yemen on the Arab Peninsula. Some of the best known coalition governments include the short-lived Hamas-Fatah unity government in Palestine (2007), the Youssoufi-led administration in Morocco (1998-2002), the post-reunification grand coalition of 1993 between the GPC, the YSP and Islah in Yemen, the fragile coalition governments forged in Iraq ever since 2003 and the Ennahda-led transitional government that emerged in the aftermath of Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution. Comparative in approach, this panel proposes to hone in on the formation and workings of these and similar occurrences of multiparty coalitions in countries across the Arab world. In its investigative scope the panel fuses key themes from the broader coalition literature with some of the distinctive socio-political conditions prevalent in the Arab world. In so doing it explores not only the conditions under which multiparty coalitions are formed, the shape they take, the bargaining strategies/processes that underpin their formation, and when and why they fail, but important questions about the interplay between ascriptive identities (sectarian/tribal/familial), partisan ideologies and coalition governance as well as the nature and utility of multiparty coalitions under authoritarian tutelage.
Political Science
  • Both Lebanon and the Republic of Yemen have witnessed the emergence of coalition government, albeit in very different circumstances. Coalition governments in Lebanon have obeyed to the logic of the politics of sectarianism which devolves power along religious groups. Often times, so-called power-sharing governments have functioned as enforced “marriages of convenience”. In the Yemeni case, coalitions have developed with varying degrees of success in the post-unification period and since the 2011 uprising. While very significant differences characterise both countries, their experiences of coalition government have a surprising amount in common. This paper will present a critical, comparative analysis of coalition government in both which will focus on the role of politicized identity in the trajectory of such governments. The paper will first examine the literature on coalition formation and examine its application to the Middle East with a view to identifying why and how coalitions ‘work’. It will then review the Lebanese and Yemeni experiences of coalition formation with a focus on a number of key questions of relevance to both cases: To what extent have coalitions relied upon the politicisation of sectarianism? What role has been played by external actors? To what extent have coalitions functioned as strategies for the prevention of systemic change? In conclusion the paper will analyse how and why coalition governments have failed in Lebanon and Yemen and will explore the possibility that such failure has been a consequence of what may be understood as ‘adversarial power-sharing’ rather than a positive commitment to shared ideological or political objectives.
  • Power-sharing institutions, including coalition governments, are widely assumed to make democratization more viable and resorting to violence less likely in societies that are prone to developing conflicts because of ethnic, religious, or ideological divides. However, the theoretical discussions of the circumstances that could help prevent coalitions governments from disintegrating during democratization are scarce. To further our understanding of coalition maintenance during democratization, this paper investigates the only two Arab coalition governments springing from domestic efforts at democratization, the Tunisian Troika (2011–2014) and the Yemeni Coalition Government (1993–1994). Both coalitions were tripartite governments comprising political parties whose ideological and policy preferences were not easily reconciled. Yet while the former facilitated Tunisia’s democratization, the latter’s disintegration contributed to the 1994 war and Yemen’s authoritarian backsliding. This paper asks why the coalition government lasted in Tunisia, and not in Yemen. Drawing on the literatures on power-sharing, opposition alliances, and transitions, it detects three sets of actor-centered considerations which travel safely to democratization contexts and appear highly relevant for understanding coalition dynamics in Yemen and Tunisia: the intra-elite relations, the power balance within the coalition, and the motivations that drive partners to coalesce. Building on a variety of sources including primary documents, original interviews with and memoirs by key Tunisian and Yemeni actors, the paper explores the role of these factors for coalition maintenance. It finds that both coalitions’ internal functioning was strained by adverse power configurations and ideological differences. In Yemen, intra-elite relations were further impaired by mutual distrust. Crucially, a history of sustained partnership along with a normative commitment to the idea of power sharing, existent in Tunisia and not in Yemen, explains the Troika’s maintenance and the break-up of its Yemeni counterpart. While these findings corroborate the benefits of coalition governments for democratization and conflict aversion as proposed in the literature, the paper also cautions against assuming an automatic link between coalition maintenance or cancelation and democratic progress.
  • The existing literature on coalition formation and survival has made great strides in furthering our understanding of these processes. However, this literature is based on established democracies, primarily in Western Europe, with proportional representation electoral systems. This chapter examines coalition formation in the MENA, with a goal to understanding failures in the processes of coalition formation and coalition survival. The cases of Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories offer a controlled comparison of most-similar cases, due their shared history of British mandates, government formation under foreign occupation, high levels of corruption in existing governments and histories of identity-based conflict. We seek to expand coalition theory to these cases. A recurrent theme in the literature is how past experience and institutional setting affects coalition negotiations. New democracies lack factors such as political party system institutionalization that is assumed in established democracies. We highlight these factors, along with the role played by foreign actors, in explaining coalition failures in Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These institutional factors, combined with religious-secular divisions (leading to parties that base their success on exploiting these differences), makes it difficult for coalitions to form and once formed, these coalitions are very vulnerable to collapse. Iraq has seen multiple governments form and collapse both under occupation of coalition forces and since the withdrawal of the last US armed brigade in 2010. For example, the most recent attempt to form a government in Iraq collapsed twice before a somewhat stable government formation could be achieved. Eventually, a multi-party coalition took over in 2020 but announced early elections less than a year later for 2021, a clear signal that this coalition will not be able to survive its full term. Palestinians have limited experience coalition building due to the very few parliamentary elections they have conducted (1996 and 2006). Due to the international boycott of Hamas, whose Change and Reform party won the 2006 election, Palestinians struggled to form a government that would be recognized by the international community. Since then, internal divisions and external interference have hampered any efforts by the major Palestinian factions to reach a functional working relationship. The lack of Palestinian elections since 2006 combined with the existence of two rival governments is perhaps the most notable outcome of coalition failure in the Palestinian case.