Over the past few decades, radical-right parties have found themselves serving more and more often in government coalition. While moderate parties may have a variety of reasons for seeking out such a partner, an interesting trend can be seen in looking at the ministry portfolios they are given control over.
I collected data on all coalitions in Europe that included at least one radical-right minister since 1989. Using definitions of radical-right parties from Rooduijn et al., ministries held by the radical-partner were coded to answer two important questions. First, does the number of ministries held by such parties differ from what junior coalition members are typically afforded? That is, does being a radical-right party lead to over- or under-representation while in a coalition government? Second, and perhaps more interestingly, which ministries themselves are typically awarded to radical parties? Do moderate parties tend to give their radical partners the more inconsequential roles, or do their allocations simply follow a random distribution?
First, in terms of the numeric share of cabinet posts, Gamson’s Hypothesis argues the “payoffs” of a coalition should tend to be directly proportional to the party’s “contributions.” This was further developed and empirically tested to show more concretely that the ratio of cabinet posts a party receives is directly proportional to their government seat-share (that is, their seat-share as a percent of total seats held by all parties in the ruling government coalition). Thus, the first point of interest is to see if radical-right parties maintain this trend, or diverge significantly from the standard mechanics of mainstream parties.
Second, in terms of the actual distribution of cabinet posts, research shows there is not a “trade-off” effect, whereby a party takes fewer posts than their share would earn them in return for more prestigious posts. This implies that, regardless of the portfolios distributed to a party, their numeric distribution should still follow Gamson’s Hypothesis. At the same time, there is evidence that certain posts are considered more beneficial, and thus more sought after by parties forming a coalition. Generally, these are the ministries which aid a party in maintaining electoral dominance and acquiring a monopoly of political power. These areas of importance are traditionally defined as the Prime Minister, as well as the Ministries of Defense, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Agriculture.
Table 1 shows the numeric share of seats a radical-right party receives (as a percent of all seats held by parties in the governing coalition) alongside the numeric share of ministries it received in that governing coalition. The distribution of ministry-posts follows almost exactly to the distribution of government seats, showing that radical-right parties, like all other parties, tend to receive a payoff proportional to its contributions, as Gamson predicted in 1961.
It does not appear that the share of ministries going to radical-right parties diverges from what research on portfolio allocation suggests. In figure 1 I display the percentage of coalitions where the radical party held each ministry. Given the fact that each government differs in the types of ministries it contains (for e.g. some coalitions include “ministers of old age,” most do not), and that many different governments group portfolios in different ways, I focus only on the most common cabinet ministries that are shared among all governments. These include the five “redistributive” portfolios mentioned earlier as well as Education and Justice.
If ministries are being dealt out in a completely random fashion, we should expect radical-right parties to hold each post roughly 22% of the time (as they, on average, hold 22% of cabinet posts). Of course, such allocation likely is not random. Looking at figure 1, we see vast variation in the probability of holding each portfolio. Rather, it seems that radical-right parties are most likely to be given control of Defense and Justice, ministries related to their policy focuses of “law-and-order.” They, meanwhile, almost never receive control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, likely indicative of their hostile relationship to allies and intergovernmental organizations.
Why does this matter? For one, ministries that include such ideological partners are much less stable than mainstream coalitions, and tend to breakdown much sooner. They experience higher levels of cabinet defections and are met with more mass protest. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the radical right can have profound impact on policy while in government. In 2005, for example, the radical-right Alliance for the Future of Austria (Bündnis Zukunft Österreich) was given the reins of the powerful Ministry of Justice. While at the helm, they pushed through many changes to Austria’s asylum law, making deportations easier, legalizing force-feeding, and making it easier to criminally prosecute lawyers and NGOs who aimed to help asylum seekers.
Thus, while the radical-right has generally been unsuccessful in winning outright power on their own (holding the Prime Ministership in only three European countries since 1990), their upward trend in serving as coalition partners may signify a cause for concern. While they do not tend to get any more ministries than a mainstream party would generally be afforded, they do generally receive the powerful ministries which enable them to impart their dangerous agenda on the country.
Nicolas Bichay is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Candidate at Department of Political Science, Michigan State University. See full profile here.
© Nicolas Bichay. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).