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Britain's election: A muddle across the pond

Result of British elections may not be clarity but a split vote and odd and unstable alliances

Americans exasperated by the gridlock in Washington sometimes look enviously at Britain, where the parliamentary system combines executive and legislative duties and the prime minister almost always gets his or her way. Unlike a president who may face a Congress controlled by the other party — a predicament President Obama knows well — a prime minister with a majority in the House of Commons ordinarily can propose and dispose without having to worry about being outvoted.

But as citizens in the United Kingdom go to the polls Thursday, it looks as if the result will not be consistency and clarity but a split vote that may result in some odd and unstable alliances — and perhaps another election in the near future. If pollsters are to be believed, neither Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, nor Labor Party leader Ed Miliband will amass a majority in the 650-member House of Commons. And attempts to form a coalition government are expected to be complicated by a strong showing from the Scottish National Party, which supports an independent Scotland. It's difficult to imagine any governing coalition that would include the SNP, which Miliband has derided as "a separatist party who wants to break up the country."

Coalition governments aren't unprecedented in Britain; in fact, since 2010, Cameron has presided over one that included the center-left Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader, Nick Clegg, served as deputy prime minister. But the Liberal Democrats are expected to garner many fewer seats than the 56 they occupied in the previous Parliament, while the SNP is projected to take as many as 50 of the 59 seats representing Scotland. That means that cobbling together a majority would require outreach to small parties. They include the Green Party, the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom Independence Party, a populist, anti-immigrant party.

The negotiations are unlikely to be as complicated as those underway to assemble a government in Israel, with its multiplicity of parties. But they could leave the government less stable than usual or unable to reach agreement on certain issues. Or Cameron or Miliband might try to govern without a majority, relying on minor parties not to hold a "no confidence" vote. Such "minority governments" tend to be short-lived. (It's also possible, but unlikely, that Labor and the Conservatives would unite in a left-right "grand coalition.")

Even if the election results in a stable coalition like the one that has governed Britain for the last five years, there will be disputes and compromises within the new government, just as there are in the U.S. On both sides of the Atlantic, and despite quite different political arrangements, politics is often the art of compromise.

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