The results of this third round of elections would seem to indicate that, once again, no decisive victory has been won, and that the Israeli political system is likely to remain stuck at the same dead end at which it has been stranded for the last year. Could a government of experts resolve the crisis?
The results of this third round of elections would seem to indicate that, once again, no decisive victory has been won, and that the Israeli political system is likely to remain stuck at the same dead end at which it has been stranded for the last year. In the coming days we can expect, along with some initial attempts to form a coalition, to hear calls for the establishment of a “government of experts” that will extricate the country from this mess. The proponents of such a government argue that it is a temporary necessity, an unusual measure to deal with unusual circumstances. Such a government will supposedly stabilize the system and deal with urgent tasks, such as passing the state budget, accommodating the Corona crisis and advancing necessary reforms.
Governments of experts, also known as technocratic governments, are not such a rare phenomenon in parliamentary democracies. While they are certainly not the norm, there have been several cases in which such governments were appointed. A comparative study from 2014, found 24 governments of experts that have held power in European Union countries since the mid-20th century (McDonnell and Valbruzzi, 2014). These countries include Italy, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, Finland, and the Czech Republic. Since the study was published, there have been two additional prominent cases: in Greece (2015) and in Austria (2019–2020). The terms of such governments have been relatively short: from a very brief period of just one month, up to 22 months.
While it is possible to criticize the appointment of such a government as an act that to some degree, suspends democracy and ignores the “will of the people,” the fact that this mechanism is temporary, somewhat takes the edge off this concern. A 2016 study concluded that the governments of experts meet democratic criteria (on dimensions such as responsiveness, representation, and legitimacy) no less than “regular” governments, but attribute this to the fact that the adherence of “regular” democracies to these criteria, has eroded over time. This study claimed that governments of experts are in fact a symptom of a deeper disease: the decline of the party system in Western democracies, and the loosening of delegation and accountability ties between voters and parties (Pastorella, 2016)Pastorella, Giulia. 2016. “Technocratic Governments in Europe: Getting the Critique Right”, Political Studies 64 (4): 948–965.
Three by Three
Technocratic governments (governments of experts) have three basic characteristics:
• They are headed by a figure who is not a politician and is not identified with any political party
• Their members (or at least some of them) are “professional” ministers, who are not politicians and are not identified with any political party
• They have a relatively short “shelf life”; that is, their political horizon is limited.
There are three main types of these governments, distinguished by their internal composition and the scope of their mandate.
1. Full technocratic government
These governments are headed by a prime minister who is not a politician and is not identified with any party; the remaining ministers are also all “professional” appointments; and the government is granted a broad mandate to pursue policy, including passing a budget, implementing reforms, and more.
2. Caretaker technocratic government
As in the previous case, these governments are headed by a prime minister who is not a politician and is not identified with any party; and the remaining ministers (or most of them) do not represent political parties. However, such a government operates solely as a temporary transition government, until new elections are held. As such, they do not have a broad mandate to make fundamental policy changes, and are charged only with managing ongoing affairs of state. These governments are usually appointed after a government is brought down by a vote of no confidence or following the prime minister’s resignation, and in a situation in which a date for new elections has already been set. The rationale for their establishment is the prevention of the continued functioning of the outgoing government, given the risk that it may exploit its position in order to manipulate the public agenda of the upcoming elections.
3. Technocrat-led partisan government
These governments are led by a prime minister who is not a politician and is not identified with any party, but the other ministers represent political parties—usually the two largest parties in parliament. They enjoy a broad mandate to pursue policy, including passing a budget, carrying out reforms, and more.
|Governments of Experts in Parliamentary Democracies Since 1990|
|Year||Country||Length of Tenure|
|1998||Czech Republic||5 months|
|2009–2010||Czech Republic||14 months|
Source: Author’s update to McDonnell and Valbruzzi (2014, 659)McDonnell, Duncan and Marco Valbruzzi. 2014. “Defining and Classifying Technocrat‐led and Technocratic Governments”, European Journal of Political Research 53 (4): 654–671.
Prominent Examples of Governments of Experts (Technocratic Governments)
Italy: Monti Government, 2011–2013
The Monti government is an example of a “classic” full technocratic government which served for around 17 months. It was led by Mario Monti, an economist by profession, and included 17 ministers, none of them politicians. The government had broad authority to pass reforms and to pursue policy.
The background to its establishment was the crisis that gripped the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi, regarding the terms of a European Union Bailout package. After losing his majority in parliament, Berlusconi tendered his resignation to the president, and shortly afterward, the president appointed Mario Monti prime minister. Most of the parties supported his appointment and that of his government of experts, as “the right step at the right time.” As required by the Italian constitution, the proposed government was ratified by both houses of parliament.
Austria: Bierlein Government, 2019–2020
The Bierlein government is an example of caretaker technocratic government, which functioned for around six months. It was headed by Brigitte Bierlein, a jurist and president of the Austrian constitutional court, and included ten ministers, all of them senior civil servants. The government had a short political horizon, as the date for new elections was set before it was established. And so, it operated as a caretaker (transition) government with a narrow and limited mandate for implementing significant policy changes.
The background to its formation was the fall of the government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a no-confidence vote in May 2019. The president, exercising the power granted to him by the constitution, removed Kurz and appointed Brigitte Bierlein in his stead. Unlike the Italian case described above, and in line with Austrian constitutional framework, this new government was not required to gain the confidence of parliament in order to begin its term.
Greece: The Papademos Government, 2011–2012
The Papademos government is an example of a technocrat-led partisan government. The appointment of Lucas Papademos—an economist well known in the banking world—as prime minister, resulted from a compromise between Greece’s two major parties. Almost all the other ministers were representatives of these two parties. The government had an extended mandate to pass reforms, mainly economic reforms.
The background to the formation of this government was the severe financial crisis that gripped Greece and the dispute over the European Union’s austerity program, which undermined Prime Minister Papandreou’s parliamentary majority. The prime minister held talks with the leaders of the opposition, who agreed to the appointment of a unity government headed by a professional appointee—Papademos—in return for Papandreou’s resignation. It was agreed that the government’s main role would be to facilitate the continued provision of the EU rescue package until new elections could be held.
Czech Republic: The Fischer Government, 2009–2010
This is another example of a full technocratic government, which served for 14 months. It was headed by Jan Fischer, a statistician by profession, and included 18 ministers none of whom were politicians, though they were appointed by political parties. It was granted a broad mandate to implement reforms and to pursue policy.
The background for the formation of the Fischer government was the fall of the government headed by Prime Minister Topolánek in a vote of no confidence in March 2009. Topolánek submitted his resignation to the president, who after realizing most parties approve of Fischer appointed him as prime minister. His government of experts was ratified by parliament as required by the Czech constitution.
Greece: The Thanou-Christophilou Government, 2015
This is an example of a caretaker technocratic government, which functioned for less than a month. It was headed by Vassiliki Thanou-Christophilou, a jurist and president of the Supreme Court, and included 21 ministers, almost all of them senior civil servants. It had a very short political horizon and functioned as a caretaker (transition) government with a limited mandate until new elections could be held.
The background to the formation of this government was the resignation of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, following the defection of members of his party and the consequent loss of a parliamentary majority, against the backdrop of the approval of the third rescue package from the European Union to Greece. Tsipras asked the Greek president to dissolve the parliament and hold new elections. After assessing the political situation, the president approved dissolving the parliament, and appointed Thanou-Christophilou as head of the transition government.
Italy: The Ciampi Government, 1993–1994
The Ciampi government is an example of a Technocrat-led partisan government, which served for almost a year. The appointment of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi—a well-known economist and the former governor of the Bank of Italy—as prime minister, resulted from a compromise between the large parties in the Italian parliament. Most of the ministers in the government were representatives of two parties: Christian Democrats and the Italian Socialist Party. It had a broad mandate to pass reforms and pursue policy, including electoral reform.
The establishment of the Ciampi government followed the resignation of Prime Minister Amatto, against the backdrop of a series of corruption scandals that rocked the political establishment to its core. A broad public protest led to pressure to appoint an independent, professional prime minister, and Ciampi agreed to take the job. As required by the Italian constitution, the new government was ratified by both houses of parliament.