Politics

Harmful coalitions. Who the opposition should and shouldn’t partner with

August 18, 2022
Alexander Kynev
Political scientist
Alexander Kynev cautions Russian oppositionists from joining coalitions with toxic figures. Such coalitions are likely to do more harm than good by leading to confrontation with a significant part of the internal Russian opposition rather than uniting it. 
The original text in Russian was published in Republic and republished here with their permission.
Garry Kasparov in 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
At the end of August, Vilnius will host another Free Russia Forum, organized by part of the Russian opposition. It is only a part, as you can draw up an impressive list of political forces that won’t participate, starting with supporters of Alexei Navalny. Yet among the organizers are odious characters like Garry Kasparov, who in recent months has given several very harsh – and even plainly offensive for people who remain in Russia – interviews. His inappropriate statements about "good" and "bad" Russians have already done the opposition more harm than good and put other members of the movement on their heels. Such a "coalition," so to speak, aimed more at confrontation with a significant part of the internal Russian opposition than bringing it together, represents something completely surreal from the point of view of coalition politics, which can’t even be explained by plans to use the platform he created (after all, go ahead and create a platform, it's still informal). Such a coalition, in my view, makes sense only in one case: if in principle there is no goal of obtaining support in Russia (and Kasparov's political past leaves no doubt that, given his toxicity in Russia, he will poison any project aimed at a Russian audience), otherwise the lineup announced for the congress would be puzzling.

Why no coalitions in Russian politics?

The almost complete inability to build coalitions is one of the most acute problems in Russian politics. Healthy and effective coalitions in Russian political life are a rarity. This is due partly to the personification of Russian politics (any public or party organization as a rule is a kind of small personalist dictatorship) and partly to the lack of traditions of political culture and the weakening of the influence of electoral mechanisms amid elections with limited competition.
If elections were truly competitive, life itself would force politicians to learn how to build coalitions."
Meanwhile, you see strange and even harmful coalitions – coalitions for the sake of coalitions, where the partnership does more harm than good and a toxic ally ruins the whole thing. The organizing committee of Kasparov’s Vilnius Forum, in my view, is just such an example, like it was with Yabloko party, when multiple times on the eve of elections it cast aside those who didn’t subscribe to some unwritten canon. Another example is PARNAS, which in 2016 included nationalist blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev near the top of its party list and as a result lost some of its supporters and leaders instead of expanding his electoral base.

True, these are not unique, purely Russian, cases. "Harmful" coalitions are seen even in stable democracies, and the damage they do is quite revealing.
Logo of the German FDP party, 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
Not a uniquely Russian problem

One ⁠example of a toxic⁠ political partnership is the 2020 Thuringian election scandal in Germany, which cost Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, then thought to be in line to succeed Angela Merkel, her career. After the elections to the Thuringian Landtag at end-2019, the parties couldn’t form a ruling coalition for almost three months. On February 5, 2020, the Landtag nevertheless settled on a minister-president: in the third round, Thomas Kemmerich, a liberal from the Free Democratic Party (FDP), was elected. Bodo Ramelow, the Left Party candidate, who had until then led Thuringia, lost to Kemmerich by just one vote. The FDP deputies were joined in a tactical coalition with members of the CDU and the full block of the AfD to elect Kemmerich. As a populist party, the AfD represents a wide range of populist politicians, but its members in Thuringia are, according to many experts, not far from neo-Nazi views. Despite the fact that the AfD had made its way into both regional parliaments and the Bundestag, until then it had been considered an unacceptable ally. In Thuringia, it was the votes of the AfD that decided the outcome of the election. Moreover, many believed that this happened because of a conspiracy: a letter immediately surfaced in the press written by former local AfD leader Björn Höcke to colleagues from the CDU and the FDP with a proposal for such a vote deal.

This was a nationwide scandal. Kemmerich announced that he was ready to dissolve the Landtag and resign. CDU leader Kramp-Karrenbauer belatedly called for a re-election, but the Thuringian CDU leadership simply didn’t heed her demand – new elections promised the CDU in Thuringia an even worse performance. In the end, on February 10 Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation as leader of the CDU and said she would not run in the 2021 elections. On March 4, Ramelow was nevertheless reelected minister-president and managed to form a minority government.

A coalition is like cooking with spices: they can improve a dish’s taste and make it a culinary masterpiece, or they can turn it into something completely inedible – a fly in the ointment.

Coalition prerequisites

To a certain extent, the independence of all parties, organizations and politicians is limited by the understanding that, to achieve a desired goal, it is almost always necessary to enter into agreements and partnerships. However, when forming a coalition, one must first answer questions like why it is needed, who it attracts, who it scares away, what problems it solves and what problems it creates. Coalition projects in a normal political setting are tested and studied by all available methods, including opinion polls, focus groups, expert interviews and election analysis, while “skeletons in the closet,” image compatibility/incompatibility, etc. are studied in detail.

In Russia, no one (almost) ever does this. Decisions about alliances and coalitions in Russia are most often made on the fly – the result of a brainstorm at headquarters – and sometimes just a voluntaristic decision of a single person. The Russian voter (and she is probably not alone) loves it when someone unites with someone and doesn’t like scandals and splits. This is precisely why reports about alliances are often just PR fakes (for example, when those who are already in an alliance “unite” anew, or when it’s a coalition with a movement that in fact doesn’t exist).
It is also why you should never ally with scandal-prone characters, as it really raises the risk that the whole structure will fall apart later and the harm will be much greater than the good done."
When it comes to politics, party partnerships are characterized by the closeness of the partners and can be divided into coalitions (usually an episodic agreement on a specific issue) and alliances (longer partnerships – for example, the CDU/CSU in Germany). In addition, they are defined by what is at stake: elections, parliament or government. The least close and stable partnerships are usually electoral and parliamentary coalitions (in fact, they are always situational alliances for a very limited time), while party alliances are the closest.
State Duma of the Russian Empire of the 4th convocation, 1913. Source: Wiki Commons
Link between coalitions and electoral systems

The need for coalitions is directly affected by the electoral system. Many researchers believe that a proportional system contributes to the development of ideological dividing lines in society, as you need, if not the largest group of supporters, then at least a cohesive group made up of “your people.” Hence the fierce intraspecific competition in proportional systems. The result is an attempt to formulate clearer differences between the parties. In a majoritarian system, where there is only one winner, coalitions are inevitable and ideological positions gradually converge, since the outcome of elections is determined not by firm supporters from the left or right but rather by moderate voters who might vote for either side. Thus, in such systems – especially those with two-round elections – we see the strangest bedfellows, usually based on being “against” instead of “for” (a vivid example is Smart Voting in Russia). The cohesiveness of parties is also indirectly dependent on the size of constituencies: the smaller the constituencies, the more elections become about individuals, bringing to the fore the personality of candidates and naturally enhancing the independence of elected representatives vis-à-vis their parties; meanwhile, large constituencies give elections a collectivist character, significantly increasing the importance of party discipline and political partnerships.

Sometimes coalitions become the subject of restrictions and opposition from the state. This is precisely the case in Russia, where election blocs have been banned since 2005 and parties haven’t been allowed to run candidates who are members of other parties since 2006.

The degree of independence of coalition and alliance members, as well as their real role, also depends on a number of situational factors, in particular the distribution of votes in parliament or government. In the case of an unstable majority, even a small-sized party can become a kingmaker – for example, the Republicans in the current French National Assembly or the Liberal Democrats in the UK after the 2010 elections. Under pressure from the Free Democratic Party in Germany in 1982, a new parliamentary majority was formed and the chancellor was replaced. In the history of Russia, in the Third State Duma of the Russian Empire the Octobrists played a significant role, determining whether a right-wing Octobrist or an Octobrist-Cadet majority arose.

Coalitions also emerge within parties when they have various wings or factions. For example, many parties in Latin America are traditionally divided into semi-independent factions. The US Democratic and Republican parties are de facto broad coalitions. Moreover, in each state the parties collect signatures and are registered separately, while at the national level they actually represent federations of the parties of individual states. But overall, parties should undoubtedly be more cohesive and unified structures than interparty partnerships simply because in theory they are durable structures focused on the long term that can’t be effective in politics without being real teams.

Coalitions in civic campaigns

In civic campaigns, however, the usefulness of coalitions is measured solely by whether they increase or decrease the number of supporters of a particular side. Here victory is not seats or positions, but reputation and public support.
Thus, appealing directly to the people, to a certain part of society, may turn out more important for the future than becoming part of the political 'establishment'."
A civic pact also doesn’t entail any “structural” obligations between members: interparty or intraparty coalitions often conclude written agreements that place restrictions on certain actions of their members for a certain period, while in civic campaign coalitions no one usually bothers with this, and the entire coalition can become hostage to the stupidity and ambitions of a single member.

In any case, the main thing is that the founders of a coalition must clearly understand why they need it besides generating a buzz for two days and hundreds of articles in the press – is the partnership between A and B necessary and useful or not? It is not about a universal value but situational advantage.
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