Grand Coalitions and Their Discontents

Saturday, April 16, 2016
Symphony Ballroom (DoubleTree by Hilton Philadelphia Center City)
Wade Jacoby , Brigham Young University
Why has the Grand Coalition nearly disappeared as a mathematical possibility in Austria – where it has long been used – just as it seems to be gaining adherents in Germany –where it has long been the object of suspicion? Multiple bodies of theory predict various kinds of ‘minimal winning coalitions’ (Riker 1962; Axelrod 1970: 165-87; Leiserson 1970). It has long been understood, however, that such theories can only be first approximations (and, often, not very good ones at that) since there is clear evidence that oversize coalitions are quite common in comparative democratic empirics (see Lijphart 2012, 86-87). Taking a less mathematical approach to cabinet seats, other theories link coalition formation to parties that are ideologically close to one another (e.g., Laver and Schofield 1990). By contrast, there has been little work on the specific phenomenon of so-called ‘Grand Coalitions,’ which bring together the two largest parties in parliament. This paper attempts to link the German and Austrian practice of Grand Coalitions with certain democratic outcomes, including the increased success of extremist parties, declining satisfaction of voters, and the capacity of elected officials to make and sustain compromise. Finally, the paper asks whether Grand Coalitions – because they undermine the kind of electoral alternation often held to keep corruption in check – tend to erode voter confidence in political institutions over time.