Signalling opposition or struggling to compromise? Analyzing abstention votes in the UN general assembly

Does the decision to abstain in the UNGA depend on the domestic ideological fractionalization of coalition parties?

Voting records in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) are increasingly important for analyses of international cooperation as they have become the foundation of various measures of states’ foreign policy preference similarity. Many of these measurements treat abstentions as a less strong signal of disapproval than a “no” vote. However, we lack a comprehensive understanding of why states abstain from UNGA roll-call votes. I propose that a key determinant of the decision to abstain is the inability of governments to agree to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I focus on the decision-making mechanisms of coalition governments and argue that, as coalition parties become increasingly ideologically incongreunt on questions of foreign policy decision-making, indecision will become a determining element of abstention votes. I test my hypotheses utilizing data from the Manifesto Project to assess the effect of ideological incongruence of coalition governments on the United Nations General Assembly voting record of different democracies. I find that coalition governments are more likely to abstain from a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote in the UNGA as they grow more ideologically incongruent. This effect is more pronounced after the Cold War. This finding corroborates the hypothesis that the ideological preferences of cabinet parties influence the ability of governments to act on foreign policy and calls into question the predominant measurement of preference similarity of states in international relations scholarship.