Monday, February 9, 2015

The Liberal leadership spill and its international context

As most of my readers will know, the federal Liberal Party of Australia is currently involved in a leadership crisis. Poor polling for Prime Minister Tony Abbott has fermented discontent amongst backbenchers, and while Abbott managed to win 61-39, it appears highly unlikely that the discontent will go away.

For the past few years. the Liberal Party of Australia has recently been free of leadership rumors, which is due to political good fortune. However, polling has turned south since the Liberals have entered government, which has put the heat on Abbott.

Australia has had a number of recent changes in political party leadership, with the federal Labor Party having troubles during their last term of government and the NT Liberal leadership crisis creating panic amongst that party.

This type of leadership instability is rather rare in developed democracies. However, there are some countries where political leadership transfers frequently, despite democratic elections.


Japan has had a significant amount of leadership instability. Japanese prime ministers have served only around two years on average since World War 2, with it being a rare occurance for a party to be led by the same leader two elections in a row. Even Junichiro Koizumi, a long-lasting and succesful Prime Minister, only faced the electorate twice.

Like Australia, Japanese party leaders are elected by party caucuses. This has meant that it is cheap and easy to depose a poorly performing leader. The Liberal Democrats, the centre-right party that led Japan for forty years, often changed leaders due to the complex web of factions within the party. In the era of regular opinion polling, the Liberal Democrats and the opposition centre-left Democratic Party have changed leaders due to poor polling.

Recently, Japan appears to have made a turn towards political stability. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in office for a long time, and a leadership coup does not look likely in the near future. However, this may just be an extremely popular politician, and one cannot be certain what will happen.


In years past, Italy has been notorious for its many changes of leadership. Under the Christian Democratic coalition government, there were 29 Prime Ministers between 1949 and 1993. 

This was blamed on the use of a proportional representation system. However, all but four of those prime ministers were Christian Democrats, so that seems unlikely. Rather, the change in Prime Ministers was a direct consequence of the bickering between the internal coalition parties and the Christian Democrat factions. This is different from Australia, in that Prime Ministers were not sacked due to unpopularity. 

I'm not sure how Christian Democrat leaders were elected (if you know, please comment), although judging from how the party governed, it wasn't dissimilar to a papal election.

That's it?

Well, it's not an exhaustive list. If I included presidential or semi-presidential countries, the list would include countries like South Korea and Taiwan. I only looked at national jurisdictions.

Australia may be on a downward spiral when it comes to leadership challenges, anyway. The Labor Party has introduced leadership rules that require 80% of Caucus to announce their opposition to a leader for said leader to face a leadership ballot. If Abbott was a Labor leader, it would be virtually impossible to remove him unless he quit.



  1. 80% of the caucus? That is quite extreme.

    Samuels and Shugart's Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers includes extensive discussions of the dynamics of the delegation of parliamentary parties (and presidents) to their agents (prime ministers and to a lesser degree presidents) and the choice thereof. - JD

    1. I don't quite know, but it is some extremely high percentage, as leadership ballots are expensive. I think it's 80%.

    2. Effectively, this means that a leader could cling on despite being opposed by the vast majority of his caucus. British parties aren't nearly as restrictive. - JD


The Editor reserves the right to delete any comments on grounds including, but not limited to, irrelevant, offensive and threatening.