A Hung Parliament: Prospects for stability and stalemate

09 December 2019 1304 Views



After decades of an authoritarian regime in which one party monopolized power for over five decades, Tunisian policymakers in 2011 designed an electoral law based on a proportional largest remainders system that not only encourages political pluralism, but also favors small parties. Despite mounting criticism of the system that it has led to fragmentation and government instability, politicians maintained the system in 2014 and 2019, claiming that it encouraged pluralism and coalition-building. Given that it is impossible for any party to gain a majority under the current electoral system, political parties have two options: form a broad coalition government dictated by political necessity rather than a common vision or hold fresh elections.

In light of the lack of a majority in the 2019 Tunisian legislative elections and a highly fragmented parliament, political parties have engaged in intra-party negotiations to form a unity government that maximizes the government’s stability and effectiveness. This paper analyzes the Tunisian context and examines experiences of hung parliaments and coalition governments in some established democracies, such as the United Kingdom, Spain and New Zealand. It also discusses the potential scenarios for Tunisia’s hung parliament and the prospects for the survival of its nascent democracy. It ends with a look at the challenges facing the incoming government’s effectiveness and accountability.

  1. Context

The 2019 general elections resulted in a hung parliament: Ennahdha Party won 52  (24 %) seats out of 217 (24 % of the vote), Qalb Tounes 38 seats (17.5 % of the vote)  , Attayar 22 seats (10% of the vote)  , Karama Coalition 21 seats (10% of the vote), the Free Destourian Party 17 seats (8% of the vote), and Harakat Chaab 16 seats (7.5% of the vote)  .There is no majority for any party, leaving the leading party, Ennahdha, with two options: to construct a large coalition government or to go back to the polls.

 A close examination of the parties’ ideological affiliations shows that they can be categorized into three major schools: two parties with an Islamic framework (Ennahdha Party and the Karama Coalition), two parties regard themselves as the heirs of Bourguibism or the Destourian movement (Qalb Tounes and the Free Destourian Party)  and two parties (Attayar and Harakat Chaab) are center-left parties with some Arab nationalist influences. Securing a stable democratic transition depends heavily on the extent of cooperation between old regime forces (mainly within or allied with Qalb Tounes and the Free Destourian Party) and the pro-democracy camp led by Ennahdha Party, and which features smaller parties such as the Karama Coalition, Attayar and Harakat Chaab. Some propose that pro-democracy forces should ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and not disturb the delicate peace between old regime figures and pro-democracy parties reached in recent years. The best option, many have argued, is to continue the tradition of “consensual politics”, designed by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi and the former President BejiCaidEssebssi, who were committed to a long-term consensus-based approach to governing the country.

Observers differ over their assessment of the (2014-2019) consensus-based unity government. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that Tunisia has succeeded in establishing important democratic constitutional institutions, and in organizing and conducting free and fair elections. Ghannouchi and Caid Essebsi are recognized as having initiated a culture of reconciliation, cooperation and coexistence. Today, this culture is being put to the test with are configured political scene. There is a genuine threat to Tunisia’s young democracy,which is prone to division and paralysis due to a highly fragmented party landscape and an electoral system that makes governing difficult.


  1. Experiences of hung governments in established democracies: stability vs. stalemate

There are a range of views on electoral systems and the best way of dispersing power in a parliamentary system. Where some electoral systems encourage power sharing, particularly during transitional phases, having a large number of small parties in a legislature may lead to political stalemate if politicians fail to manage intra-party conflicts, which may also threaten political stability and hinder important reforms.

A hung parliament can be said to exist “when no single political party wins a majority in the [Parliament]. It is also known as a situation of no overall control” (UK Parliament).

The examples below illustrate the potential pitfalls of a hung parliament through case studies of some established democracies.


For about four years, negotiations between Spanish political parties reached a stalemate. Spain has a multi-party system dominated by four major parties: UnidasPodemos (left-wing),  the Spanish Socialist Party PSOE (centre-left), the People’s Party (right-wing), and VOX Party (far right), which in some ways resembles the Tunisian landscape.

Since April 28th, 2019, the Spanishinterim Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, was unable to secure enough seats to form a government and Spain went to the polls for the fourth general elections held in four years, which sought to unblock the political impasse. Sanchez, a Socialist, had failed to share power with the United Left (IU) in the 2016 general election.

The Spanish case illustrates a reality that has been occurring across European democracies, where the party system has become increasingly fragmented and polarized, dividing the public further and makes it more and more difficult to find a stable consensus. As one Spanish political analyst writes, “Spain’s successful transition to democracy rested on the moderation of its political leaders, left and right, in Madrid and Barcelona”. Now, many key political players seem to be abandoning that restraint –and one worries what they might abandon next.

*United Kingdom

Despite the long history of post-war consensus (lasting between 1945 and 1979), British politics has become increasingly polarized in recent years. The Conservative Government lost its majority in the 2017 General Election, largely blamed on party leader Theresa May’smiscalculations. According to many observers, two major issues have disfigured UK politics: the decline of the two-party system and Brexit and the question of whether to ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in the EU, which have driven the political landscape into dangerous, unchartered territory.

The relative breakdown of the two-party system (long dominated by the Labour and Conservative Parties) has led to the rise of nationalist parties (the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the UK Independence Party) and have aggravated divisions in Parliament. The Conservative Government was accused of refusing to include other parties in finding a solution to Brexit, and dialogue with other parties over the deal was only started in earnest in mid 2019, three years after the Brexit referendum. The British sociologist, Anthony Giddens, highlights the vital role dialogue plays in a functioning democracy,  as “a way of creating a public arena in which controversial issues... can be resolved, or at least handled, through dialogue” (Giddens 1994).

The Brexit negotiations with the EU caused paralysis in Parliament, with the leading party calling an election on 12 December 2019 in order to win a large enough majority to push its Brexit deal through.The election campaign has been extremely polarised, and voters who have traditionally been life-long supporters of one of the two parties have become increasingly alienated by the Brexit debate.

  1. Successful experiences of power sharing

Although many established democracies appear to be entering an era of unprecedented polarization, there are many successful examples of power sharing and consensus-based democratic politics. In the UK, the first power sharing government was formed in 1929-35 when Ramsay Macdonald, the Labour Prime Minister, established a national unity government comprising all parties with the Liberals to overcome the repercussions of the Great Depression, which left 2 million people unemployed and unable to pay their taxes, soaring inflation and a collapsed economy.

It is important to highlight the Social Contract signed between the Labour Party and the trade unions in 1975-79. This experience is very relevant to the Tunisian experience, given the influence of Tunisia’s trade union federation, the UGTT. Jack Jones, the leader of the UK’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) seen as “the most powerful man in the country”, signed the Social Contract with the Labour Government. Faced with Conservative industrial policies seen to have caused social strife, the unions and Labour Government sought to find an accommodation for the sake of social peace and political stability. The Social Contract introduced a number of social policies, particularly the ‘social wage’ and ushered in a period of cooperation between government, employers and unions that strengthened the government till 1979.

In 2019, the Conservative Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Unionist Party signed “the Confidence and Supply Agreement” to agree on a number of priorities to secure a stable government. This enabled the Conservative Party to have a working majority and get its legislation through the parliament. Confidence and supply agreements have been used in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, India and the UK. They involve an agreement by smaller parties or independent members of parliament to support the government on important votes (motions of confidence, state budget, etc.) while retaining their freedom to vote according to their own views or policies on other legislative bills.

For example, in New Zealand in 2017, the Labour Party entered into a coalition with the New Zealand First Party, while also signing a confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party. The coalition parties signed a coalition agreement in which they outlined their shared commitment to tackling poverty and climate change, promoting regional development, increasing public health expenditure and reducing inequality.


The above examples indicate four key points or lessons on how parliaments can deal with division and fragmentation:

*The only solution to political impasse is negotiation and compromises to end division.

*Political parties must be more consensual in order to make genuine headway in their efforts against corruption, poverty, terrorism and other vast challenges.

*Adopting a clear agreement between parties and social actors who may be adversaries can help an elected government to introduce reforms.

*Cooperation between pre-democratic and pro-democracy parties is important for stability and continuation of a transition.

4-Conditions for durability

To guarantee and secure the democratic transition, Tunisia is desperately in need of a new pact based on a large unity government that involves political parties inside and outside the Parliament and social actors, mainly the Tunisian General Labour Union, (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, (UTICA), and the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishing (UTAP), to end decades of ideological polarization. Policy-makers should revive the spirit of the 18 October Movement and go beyond the populist rhetoric of dividing people between the “counter-revolutionary” camp and “pro-revolutionary” camp. Signing a contract on combatting poverty, terrorism and corruption, and promoting social injustice would help set out the shared priorities of the government and strengthen accountability to the public.

To do the above, political, cultural and economic elites must play a role in ending disunity and fragmentation. Edward Said stated that “the role of intellectuals is to speak truth to power”. Scholars, artists, journalists, and imams can play a role in ending prejudice and hate speech, and creating a culture of mutual respect, tolerance, solidarity and coexistence. The wave of charitable and volunteering campaigns in the aftermath of the presidential elections in November (led by young people, involving street clean-up campaigns, planting trees and charitable fundraising) is a manifestation of a rising public awareness of the need to take collective action to overcome Tunisia’s challenges.


In the context of an ailing economy that is not providing much-needed jobs and security to millions, decision makers must go beyond their differences and form a long-term consensus. Tunisians have shown enough wisdom to maintain unity in the face of many difficult challenges, while other countries have fallen into growing polarization and hatred. To engage in structural economic reforms, a unity government is required to avert a political impasse.The dilemma of the new emerging parties is that they are reluctant to participate in such a government for fear of losing their electoral base. A balance must be struck between preserving parties’ identities and electoral distinctiveness, and agreeing on a shared agenda for governance. However, self-interest and ideological dogma represent a threat to consensual politics. Tunisians need a stable government that is able to eradicate poverty, inequality, terrorism and corruption. We will see if politicians and influential social actors can make the necessary compromises and take the difficult decisions needed to achieve these central public demands.

Hatem Sebei

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