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On Democracy (IV): Cohabitation offers important lessons in democracy

By Guenther Baechler*
Friday, March 15
For: THE MESSENGER, Georgian Daily Newspaper in English

Edouard Balladur, Prime Minister of France from 1993 till 1995 is said to be the first who introduced the bio-technical term cohabitation to the realm of politics. During the V Republic there were three phases of cohabitation which lasted all together more than eleven years; in order to end the row of difficult years the National Assembly was dissolved twice by Francois Mitterrand, each time followed by new elections. Cohabitation means that the president and the prime minister belong to different if not polarized political camps whereas the President does not possess a majority in the parliament. Cohabitation is neither intended nor really liked by politicians of all colours: if a president and a prime minister – like two fleeing horses in front of a chariot – run in opposite directions: what a terrible prospect indeed. However, what seems to be rather odd at first glance turns out to be an interesting part of what I would call: “the democracy dilemma”. I count five different dimensions of such dilemma which is constituted of both good and bad sides.

Firstly, if we study the experiences with cohabitation in various democratic countries we learn that the problem is not the cohabitation of two executive leaders representing opposite camps as such. The main issue is fundamentally constitutional: the problem is grounded in the fact that most governmental systems are mixed semi-presidential or semi-parliamentarian systems. As a rule such systems are affected by the coexistence of both presidential as well as parliamentary elements. It is evident from many cases that the coexistence almost naturally leads to a political tug of war about the right mixture, concretely: about which powers exactly go to the parliament and which ones to the president. Hence, the extent of powers and the distribution of them lead not only to a power struggle among individual actors but also to a latent (or manifest) constitutional crisis. Since the executive consists of two power centers (diarchy) both president and parliament share some competences when it comes to form a government. The bad thing is: either new elections or the amendment of the constitution are often the only exits to overcome a stalemate or a situation where neither side can implement far reaching reforms or pledges made during elections.

Secondly, there is an inherent discrepancy between a written constitution and the constitutional reality. In a semi-presidential system the president has powers he or she cannot really make proper use of since the parliamentary majority is de facto powerful enough to either accept or deny propositions made by the president. Quite often so the president de jure has more power than the prime minister (e.g. veto power, right to issue decrees, dissolution of Parliament, foreign relations, etc.) whereas in practical terms just the reverse is the case: the prime minister and his cabinet minimize the influence of the president due to a strong support by the parliamentary majority. There are two observations here: on the one hand, the president may not dare to attack the majority in the parliament because he fears to trigger a political crisis. On the other hand, the political life is defined by the need of permanent negotiations. Since neither side is strong and legitimized enough to rule on its own strength major issues can only be addressed through political negotiations, through bargaining and striking compromises. The good thing is: negotiations as well as the permanent search for a compromise may lead to more sustainable solutions in a democracy than short term single party’s decisions do.

Thirdly, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union a special type of a “presidential-parliamentarian” system took shape. Today we find this system in Russia, in the Ukraine, and in Georgia, too: the president acquired the constitutional power to dismiss the government as a whole even against the will of the parliamentary majority. Hence, with this new type of a mixed system the presidential power is, constitutionally speaking, extremely developed; such authority may lead to extreme situations where the democratic principle of checks and balances is challenged all together. Interestingly, Georgia seems to be a unique case where the majority of voters in the parliamentary elections managed to reverse the trend of assembling more and more authority in the institution of the presidency. Be it intended or not, it is a fact that the results of the elections led to a situation in which a) the President could not but to declare that he refrains from using all his constitutional powers and b) the government is urged to cooperate with the opposition (and the president) in order to strike compromises on major issues and long term orientations. For sure the present situation may not be the final station the democratization train is heading to. However, the good thing is that in a transitional democratization process cohabitation may not be the worst outcome either. This holds true for both collective learning process among and within political parties / coalitions and for the ordinary citizens to get adapted to a more competitive political culture.

Fourthly, nowadays there is a clear trend in existing democracies that citizens vote intuitively against the winner-takes-it-all principle. This phenomenon which can also be observed in established two-party systems is based on various trends in modern democratic societies. Trend number one: electorates are highly differentiated entities composed of different generations, accentuated urban – rural divides, societal strata linked to education and professional orientations, large scale immigration, various religious groups, etc. Elections therefore quite often lead to either divided political camps with two parties that are more or less equally strong and that tend to block each other or, to a plurality of dozens of parties with sometimes bizarre programs and not able to enter a coalition of likeminded, let alone to win significant voters’ support. Against this, electorates do not deliver stable majorities for one and the same winning party over a long period of time. Trend number two: educated and socially mobilized individuals in modern societies distrust the accumulation of power in the hands of one group or a powerful individual leader. A popular saying among such urban dwellers and white collars reads as follows: “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As a consequence people in London, Paris, Athens, Moscow and Tbilisi aim at participating more in the political process; they want to express their opinion freely; they manage to form political unions, run for local elections, or be responsible for their own affairs at the decentralized and local levels of the state. In some states people favor federal systems and subsidiary levels of governance; in unitary states people struggle for regional autonomy, decentralized structures and the like. Plebiscites become more and more popular all over Europe. Switzerland is famous for the culture of political consent where winner-takes-it-all mentalities have no chance what so ever. At the same time Switzerland is internally differentiated as any other country, too. In the last 150 years or so the country was always divided among liberal-democratic orientations on the one hand and social-democratic orientations on the other. If one of the camps would have won over the other and would have taken all power at all levels of the federal state the rather successful Swiss model would have faded away like the snow under the March sun in Gudauri. Hence, political (not ethnic or religious) divisions, pluralism of world views, and a multitude of ways of life transform into pluralism of political parties as well as a plurality of power centers that are controlled by both checks and balances, different political unions and associations, and in some cases: the right for plebiscites, too. One may conclude on a positive tone: cohabitation is a barrier against winner-takes-it-all tendencies.

Fifthly, if the political system and the constitutional reality allow for more local democracy, extended local self-governance, decentralized or even federalized structures with a multitude of layers of elected bodies (such as municipality councils and majors, regional Parliaments, executive bodies of regions (e.g. the kraj in the Czech Republic), and governors then, cohabitation between two more or less hostile political individuals on top of the pyramid is being mitigated by dynamic pluralism, by societal participation in the political process, by a variety of smaller powers centers, by a sound and variable opposition at various levels, by a constructive and problem solving orientated competition of local bodies which may be ruled by different parties. Thus, under stable conditions cohabitation may not last forever; however it may periodically contribute to a level playing field for actors in order to transform a monopolistic political culture into a more participatory one. In particular, professional staff in ministries, parliamentarians, and academic advisers may perfectly cooperate in order to find sound solutions to political problems.

The discussion of the five dimensions has shown that cohabitation does have its difficult traits. At the same time it may also trigger a learning process and help create a more competitive, participatory, and pluralistic political culture. Cohabitation as such is a particular expression of the democracy dilemma in more general terms: the permanent struggle between the interest of politicians to monopolize power on the one hand and the structural necessity to share power on the other. The democratic order therefore permanently – from election date to election date – oscillates between the poles of producing eagles and of transforming them into lame ducks; if the electorate wishes to do so. One may argue that this is the reason why democracies are less efficient and effective than authoritarian regimes are. Of course, in pure presidential systems with strong institutions based on sound democratic legitimacy and a reliable majority in the parliament the need to compromise or periods with cohabitation may never occur. The problem is however that such ideal situation may less and less occur in reality just because the trends described above come overwhelmingly true. As has been pointed out the process of societal differentiation and mobilization linked with widespread mistrust against tiny and isolated elites seems to be unstoppable in modern societies. This leads to the assumption that parliamentary systems or mixed systems with relatively strong parliamentary powers respond more adequately to the requests of modern electorates.

A good case in point is Germany: during last year’s political process in Berlin it had been shown that even if the President belongs to a party other than the Government’s party such situation does not embark in a diachronic system with its self-constraining tendencies. To the contrary: Chancellor Angela Merkel dared to accept the nomination of a presidential candidate by the minority faction in the German Bundestag that finally got elected with the consent of the ruling coalition, the Social Democrats and the Green Party. Obviously the candidate, Joachim Gauck, had to be a well respected and credible personality that stands beyond individual political camps and ditches.

As we have seen in France and in many other countries: at a certain point of time cohabitation came to an end. The interesting question is how did it happen? Was the situation transformed through elections or constitutional amendments or both? Was the situation after the termination of cohabitation more stable than before? Was it part of a transparent and widely accepted process? Such questions are not only of academic interest; they should concern the democratic forces all together as well as the electorate and the civil society at large. Cohabitation in the parliamentary system of Germany could be avoided by reducing the power of the president with electing him or her by the Federal Assembly. The French finally got rid of cohabitation simply by shortening the presidential term from seven to five years (through a referendum organized by Jacques Chirac) and by organizing both presidential and parliamentary elections during the same year. Voila!

Guenther Baechler, Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi, holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.