Coalition-making under conditions of ideological mismatch: The populist solution

DOI10.1177/01925121211040946
Date01 November 2021
AuthorParis Aslanidis
Publication Date01 November 2021
SubjectArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/01925121211040946
International Political Science Review
2021, Vol. 42(5) 631 –648
© The Author(s) 2021
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DOI: 10.1177/01925121211040946
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Coalition-making under conditions
of ideological mismatch: The
populist solution
Paris Aslanidis
Yale University, USA
Abstract
This article problematizes how non-spatial factors facilitate the formation of extraordinary ideologically
mismatched government coalitions. An intensive case study analysis of the SYRIZA–ANEL governments
in Greece (2015–2019) suggests that a shared symbolic discourse directed against mainstream contenders
allowed elite actors with widely disparate programmatic commitments to circumvent rigid constraints
imposed by minimal range theory. Under conditions of acute polarization and socioeconomic upheaval
owing to the Greek sovereign debt crisis, a strategic use of populist anti-bailout discourse upset the usual
order of party competition along spatial dimensions, fostering cross-ideological cohabitation at the executive
level between the radical-left SYRIZA and the radical-right ANEL for a total of four years. However, an
office-seeking approach based on a populist symbolic framework to represent salient grievances cannot
fully eliminate policy dissension. Once core ideological commitments become explicitly challenged, inelastic
policy-oriented factions and voting blocs may ultimately precipitate the expiration of the populist coalition.
Keywords
Coalition theory, populism, minimal range theory, Greece, SYRIZA
Introduction
Following the January 2015 Greek election, the radical right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL)
joined the radical left-wing SYRIZA in a coalition government, breaking the duopoly of
Conservatives (New Democracy: ND) and Socialists (Panhellenic Socialist Movement: PASOK)
that had dominated the nation’s politics since the mid-1970s. Having failed to fulfill its mandate of
wresting the nation from the grip of international creditors, the government resigned in the summer
of the same year. And yet, SYRIZA and ANEL emerged victorious from the September 2015 snap
election, resuming their joint tenure for a total of four years.
Corresponding author:
Paris Aslanidis, MacMillan Center for International & Area Studies, Yale University and Department of Political Science,
Yale University, Henry R. Luce Hall, 34 Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven, CT 06520-8206, USA.
Email: paris.aslanidis@yale.edu
1040946IPS0010.1177/01925121211040946International Political Science ReviewAslanidis
research-article2021
Article
632 International Political Science Review 42(5)
Governments that incorporate radical-left and radical-right forces severely violate the principle
of ideological adjacency that undergirds party system coalition theory and its empirical models,
forcing us to seek alternative or complementary explanations to make sense of this extraordinary
instance of coalition formation. Scholars of populism have attempted to solve the puzzle by stress-
ing the common populist outlook of SYRIZA and ANEL. However, they have so far failed to
illustrate how populist dynamics specifically induce cross-ideological partnerships, thus missing
the opportunity to contribute toward refining existing coalition theory.
To fill the gap, this article problematizes the role of populist discourse and its interdependences
within a broader constellation of non-spatial elements that facilitate ideologically mismatched coa-
litions by relaxing the strict requirements of ideological proximity. I begin by drawing on standard
coalition theory to identify constraints that obstruct populist cohabitation in the executive arena. I
then proceed to an empirical analysis of party strategy, policy platforms, campaign material, state-
ments by elite actors, parliamentary speeches, and legislative voting behavior, to discuss how the
deviant case of the SYRIZA–ANEL government calls into question the rigidity of our assump-
tions. The findings show that party elites can strategically utilize populist discourse to overcome
spatial constraints that hinder coalition bargaining and executive action under normal conditions.
However, it is also demonstrated that the political latitude of cross-ideological populist executives
is ultimately finite and that breaching core ideological commitments can precipitate coalition
breakdown.
Coalition theory and populist parties
European scholars have strongly emphasized ideological affinity as a condition for coalition for-
mation and stability. As Sartori (1976: 122) holds, ‘feasible coalitions’ are ‘only the ones that are
ideologically consonant and permissible’. Challenging the American school of minimal winning
coalitions with its policy-blind game-theoretical assumptions of office-seeking behavior (Gamson,
1961; Riker, 1962), minimal range theorists posit that actors strive for policy preference maximiza-
tion and thus promote ‘connected’ alliances with minimal dispersion on the left–right axis (De
Swaan, 1973, 1975; Leiserson, 1966; also Axelrod, 1970). Ideologically adjacent parties readily
signal agreement on fundamental programmatic visions, legitimizing their collaboration in the
eyes of constituents while fostering policy coherence in office (Strom and Nyblade, 2007). A polit-
ical actor is therefore expected to enter the bargaining fray ‘by looking for that partner with whom
policy differences are minimal and require only marginal adjustment: his neighbor on the scale’
(De Swaan, 1973: 287), a process that benefits the median party (Laver and Schofield, 1990). Even
when the condition of unidimensionality is relaxed in favor of multi-dimensional spatial analysis,
policy-seeking behavior remains central in the literature (Laver and Shepsle, 1990), and ‘policy
horizons’ – the boundaries parties are unwilling to breach – must exhibit considerable overlap for
a coalition to materialize (Warwick, 2005). Moreover, it is claimed that the increasingly rigid insti-
tutional structure that regulates interaction between legislature and government in modern parlia-
mentary democracies affords only weak agenda-setting powers to the executive, therefore
accentuating the positional advantage of centrist formateurs (Tsebelis and Ha, 2014). Thus, coali-
tions that leapfrog over the median party and its immediate neighbors on a policy scale severely
violate existing theory.
The voluminous literature on executive coalition formation largely abstains from discussing
populist parties. Scarcity of empirical cases is an obvious culprit, aggravated by fundamental issues
of theoretical incongruence. Populism is by nature office-seeking; as a discursive act, it carries a
redemptive promise that can only materialize by winning power in the name of the people to unseat
the ruling elite and restore popular sovereignty (Aslanidis, 2016a). However, the populist agenda

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