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A grand coalition is an arrangement in a multi-party parliamentary system in which the two largest political parties of opposing political ideologies unite in a coalition government. The term is most commonly used in countries where there are two dominant parties with different ideological orientations, and a number of smaller parties that have passed the election threshold to secure representation in the parliament. The two large parties will each try to secure enough seats in any election to have a majority government alone, and if this fails each will attempt to form a coalition with smaller parties that have a similar ideological orientation. Because the two large parties will tend to differ on major ideological issues, and portray themselves as rivals, or even sometimes enemies, they will usually find it more difficult to agree on a common direction for a combined government with each other than with smaller parties.
Causes of a grand coalition
Occasionally circumstances arise where normally opposing parties may find it desirable to form a government. One is a national crisis such as a war or depression, where people feel a need for national unity and stability that overcomes ordinary ideological differences. This is especially true where there is broad agreement about the best policy to deal with the crisis. In this case, a grand coalition may occur even when one party has enough seats to govern alone. An example would be the British national governments during World War I and before and during World War II.
Another possibility is that the major parties may find they have more in common ideologically with each other than with the smaller parties, or that the fragmentation of the smaller parties is so great that no other coalition is stable. Examples include Austria, where the mainstream parties of the left and right have often formed grand coalitions to keep parties of the far left or far right out of government (an example of a cordon sanitaire), or Israel, where no single party has ever won enough seats to govern alone, and, in some parliaments, the fragmentation and intransigence of some of the smaller parties has made it easier to maintain a coherent platform with a grand coalition than with a narrow one. This is often done out of political necessity, to prevent an early election.
Grand coalitions by country
In post-war Austria, a "grand coalition" (German: Große Koalition) between conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) has been the standard case of governance. Notable exceptions were Josef Klaus's second government (ÖVP, 1966–70), the era of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky who governed between 1970 and 1983 with an SPÖ majority, and ÖVP Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's coalition governments with right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) between 2000 and 2007.
In post-war Germany, "grand coalition" (German: Große Koalition) refers to a governing coalition of the two largest parties, usually the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) with the Social Democrats (SPD). While Germany has historically tended to favor narrow coalitions of one of the two largest parties with the FDP or with the Greens, three grand coalitions have been formed on a federal level: the Kiesinger cabinet (1966–1969), the First Merkel cabinet (2005–2009) and the Third Merkel cabinet (since 2013). Under the Weimar Republic, a grand coalition was one including all of the major parties of the left, center, and center-right who formed the basis of most governments - the SPD, the Catholic Centre Party, the German Democratic Party (DDP), and the German People's Party (DVP). The two examples were the first and second Stresemann cabinets (August-November 1923) and, less ephemerally, the second Müller cabinet (1928-1930).
In Italy, "grand coalition" (Italian: Grande coalizione) refers to the only supermajority government formed in April 2013 between center-left Democratic Party (PD), center-right The People of Freedom (PdL) party, and the centrist Civic Choice (SC) and Union of the Centre (UdC) parties. In November 2013, The People of Freedom (later renamed as Forza Italia) however dropped out and broke apart, leaving the Letta Cabinet and further Renzi Cabinet (Coalition between PD, NCD, SC and UdC) with a small majority.
The UK has had grand coalitions in central government during periods of wartime. They are referred to as the "National Government".
The Northern Ireland Executive, the devolved administration of Northern Ireland, combines the largest Republican (also predominantly left of centre) and Unionist (also predominantly right of centre) parties. The chief post, of First Minister and deputy First Minister, is a diarchy. Most recently, this coalition was lead by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.
All parties, major and minor, are offered posts in the executive, although may now opt to form an opposition.
- Cooperative games
- Grand Coalition for Fiji
- Hung parliament
- National unity government
- Purple (government)
- Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction, Eighth Edition, Hague and Harrop, page 330; quoted on The Political Loop