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Game of Democracy – How does democracy work?

“The basic problem of democratic policy is that we all want something different but have to coordinate ourselves to reach a decision,” Professor Steffen Ganghof says. Picture: Karla Fritze

“The basic problem of democratic policy is that we all want something different but have to coordinate ourselves to reach a decision,” Professor Steffen Ganghof says. Picture: Karla Fritze

Whenever you see the word “democracy”, parliament cannot be far off. Democracy very often implies parliament. Elected representation in most democratically organized countries significantly contributes to forming the government, making state-supporting decisions, and preparing new laws. It should, above all, ensure policy with which the majority of the population agrees and which those in the minority can tolerate. How political majorities form, emerge, and operate to meet the wishes of the civic majority differs significantly from country to country. The political scientist Prof. Dr. Steffen Ganghof and his team analyze the phenomenon of democratic majority formation around the world – from Denmark to Australia – and over time.

“The basic problem of democratic policy is that we all want something different but have to coordinate ourselves to reach a decision,” Ganghof says. “Majority formation is a kind of coordination game in which we draft a law proceeding from contradictory opinions.” This process differs from country to country and depends on structural requirements. The constitution is as important as the historically contingent peculiarities of the respective country. In his project the “Analysis of the Coordination Regimes in Parliamentary Democracies” the political scientist wants to document and compare these differences from a new perspective.

“Comparative research to date has mainly distinguished between democracies according to the majorities needed to implement policy, e.g. to adopt a law,” Ganghof says. In Great Britain you can usually achieve a lot with a narrow majority. Switzerland, on the other hand, is often seen as a prime example of consensus democracy, where large majorities are necessary for amendments. The reality is even more complex than such differentiation suggests. ‘The coordination game’—the necessary size of the majorities as well as how they are found and secured—is essential to a process leading to political decisions. “We have identified four models of how—or better yet when—majorities are established,” Ganghof says, “in the formation of (1) parties, (2) electoral alliances, (3) governments, and (4) legislative coalitions.”

A two-party system, as it long existed in Great Britain, is one extreme on this spectrum. Citizens opt for one of the two parties in an election as well as for a ‘party platform’ that will form the victorious party’s basis for government. At the other end of the spectrum is the model of flexible legislative coalitions formed in case of minority governments. This system has been working in Denmark for some time now. Without a parliamentary majority necessary to pass legislation, the government has to find allies among other political actors to make individual decisions. In between these two examples are those systems in which parties secure a majority either pre-election or during the post-election government formation, as has been done in Germany for many years. “Germany usually negotiates a majority once every four years during coalition negotiations. The coalition agreement, including all the compromises, lays the groundwork for political action,” Ganghof says.

The actors of the coordination game constantly face a conflict of interests between stability and flexibility: Coordination at an early point of political processes ensures stable majorities during the legislative period, but it impedes the creation of flexible parliamentary majorities able to adapt to factual issues. The controversial childcare subsidy, for example, would not have found a majority in the Bundestag without coalition discipline. Although creating flexible majorities in the case of minority governments has democratic-theoretical advantages, such minority governments are often less stable. “Our aim is not to assess which form is the best one,” the scientist says. “We want to explain why, where, and to what extent a certain type develops.

For this purpose, Ganghof and his team are analyzing 22 established democracies worldwide and comparing their structures on the basis of, for example, their constitutions and their development—since 1945 in some cases. Institutional change shows that each country has developed historical peculiarities “because ultimately the existing models are closely linked to the political culture in these countries,” Ganghof explains. “This is why these models function very differently. It may be that two countries with the same constitutional structure have developed different political realities with regard to forming majorities.”

“The Weimar Republic is a striking example of a constitution drafted on a purely theoretical basis that failed in an unprepared political culture. It was elaborated without adequate understanding of the effects of a constitution on the actors. Do they work with or against each other?” Ganghof asks. “Political actors always tend to use the power granted to them by the constitution.”

The researchers are extensively analyzing five countries individually – Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland. Looking at how they resolve the conflict of interest between stability and flexibility in the process of creating majorities promises highly interesting findings. Negotiating flexible majorities has had a long tradition in some countries. According to Ganghof this is also true for Switzerland, where consensus seeking has often been overemphasized. The project intends to explicitly establish, along the way, the elements of majority democracy in Switzerland.

Germany, on the other hand, is very interesting because it is breaking new grounds on the national and federal levels when it comes to minority governments. “We had two stable blocks in Germany for a very long time that enabled majority coalitions when forming a government,” Ganghof explains. “It no longer works very well due to the changing landscape of political parties. As a consequence coordination partly fails.” In the last elections to the Bundestag almost 16% of the electorate voted for parties that did not gain seats in the German parliament because of they failed to meet the 5-percent threshold. The model of a minority government may become more attractive in the long run. Initial attempts on the federal-state level have shown that minority governments can successfully represent the interests of the electoral majority. The constitution does not provide for such a form of government, Ganghof says.

Analyzing the Red-Green minority government in North Rhine-Westphalia from 2010 to 2012 showed that opposition parties were ready to form flexible majorities regarding many individual issues, i.e. to approve the passage of legislation if it served their own interests. The experiment ultimately failed prematurely. “Minority governments are problematic in a parliamentarian democracy,” Ganghof explains. “Working together with the government interests opposition parties only when it is preferable to chasing them out of office. Overthrowing the government — which is arduous and risk-laden—is extremely attractive during crises.”

By preparing a comparative synopsis of the overall and detailed country studies, the political scientists hope to better understand “the system of corresponding vessels and the connection between coordination problems and institutional solutions,” Ganghof says. “There is no ideal model. Our aim is to collect knowledge about the emergence, development, and effect of constitutions that can serve as a reference for future constitutional reform processes, for example in the European Union.

The Scientist

Prof. Dr. Steffen Ganghof studied political science, economy, and sociology at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Freie Universität Berlin, and Stanford University (California, USA). After many years at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne and as a junior professor at the University of Mannheim, he has been Professor of Comparative Political Science at the University of Potsdam since 2007.


Universität Potsdam
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Straße 89, 14482 Potsdam

The Project

“Analysis of the coordination regimes in parliamentary democracies as an answer to the conflict of interests between inter-temporal flexibility and stability of democratic majority creation”

Participating: Prof. Dr. Steffen Ganghof (applicant), Dr. Sebastian Eppner
Funded by: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
Duration: 2012–2016

Text: Matthias Zimmermann, Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa, Translation: Susanne Voigt