Power sharing, coalition, divided, or minority government are usually terms associated with democracies in Europe or Asia. Left- or right-wing coalitions usually dominate the political alignments in those countries. In North America, political parties are usually broad-based coalitions with progressive, moderate and conservative wings. Even the Conservative Party and Liberal Party in Canada represent a more divergent scope of views than their labels suggest. In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans have similar characteristics that have evolved over time. But trends, as observed in recent elections, indicate that democracies in general are witnessing wider electoral coalitions and consequently greater power sharing in their governance.
In Canada, the parliamentary system is currently composed of four parliamentary party caucuses including the ruling Conservatives, the official opposition Liberals and third parties such as New Democratic Party and Bloc Québécois. Canada is now entering a sixth year of minority rule under Conservative Stephen Harper’s leadership. The last period in Canadian history with such a long run of minority government occurred in the 1963-1968 period under Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
Having personally served in successive majority governments in Québec (1985-1994) and worked in a minority government (2007), I concede that a majority government has obvious advantages in terms of pushing its agenda. However, with party allegiances more fragile than ever in Canadian history, one can expect to have more minority governments or power-sharing arrangements. The latest polls indicate that Canadians seem at ease with the current minority government situation.
The evidence is that minority governments have been known to work. The prolonged period of 1963-1968 produced the most progressive and long lasting legislation in Canadian history. National Medicare, a definitive study on bilingualism, pension reform, adoption of a new flag, cooperative federalism, and reform of the legal and criminal code occurred then. The current Harper minority government deserves credit for it has had to manage Canada through the Great Recession of 2008 and has arguably done better than other G-8 countries, with no need for banks bailouts and a lower unemployment rate than the U.S. along with a stronger recovery.
In the U.S., divided government has been a prevalent factor in every decade since the end of World War II. No one would doubt that America became the most successful country in the world in those years as divided government occurred for 34 out of 54 years (1954-2008). Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were two-term presidents who had to govern while sharing power with the other party in Congress. Most historians have recognized their accomplishments, namely prosperity and the end of the Cold War.
Much of the success of these presidents had to do with the exercise of political bipartisanship within Congress. It seems that they believed that governing from the center was ultimately the best way to achieve results and the majority party in Congress also saw advantages in bridging the political divide. The recent November 2 elections results will once again test the potential of political bipartisanship within a divided government context. Time will tell whether the latest Obama-GOP compromise is ushering a repeat of some of the more successful governments of the past. Or, will it result in an era of political gridlock?
Whatever term one uses—power sharing, divided government, bipartisanship, minority government—it seems the voters in both Canada and the U.S. are currently more comfortable with this reality than the politicians themselves. History in both countries records much success under these power sharing arrangements.
Compromise is not a sign of weakness to the electorate. At the end of the day, with the complexity of the issues and the problems faced by governments, the voters expect politicians of all stripes to reach out and find common ground. Otherwise, voters will let them know on Election Day.
*John Parisella is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is Québec’s Delegate General in New York, the province’s top ranking position in the United States.