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A minority government or a minority cabinet is a cabinet of a parliamentary system formed when a political party or coalition of parties does not have a majority of overall seats in the parliament but is sworn into government to break a Hung Parliament election result. It is also known as a minority parliament. In bicameral parliaments, the term relates to the situation in the chamber whose confidence is considered most crucial.
Coalitions and alliances
To deal with situations where no clear majorities appear, parties either form coalition governments, alliances or agreements with other parties to stay in office.
A common situation is governance with "jumping majorities", i.e. that the cabinet stays as long as it can negotiate support from the parliament—majorities which well may be differently formed from issue to issue, from bill to bill.
An alternative arrangement is a looser alliance of parties, exemplified with Sweden. There the long governing Social Democrats have governed with more or less formal support from other parties: in the mid-20th century from Agrarians, after 1968 from Communists, and more recently from Greens and ex-Communists, and have thus been able to retain executive power and (in practice) legislative initiative. This is also common in Canada, where nine elections from 1921 to 2005 effectively produced minority federal governments: the parties can rarely cooperate enough to form a coalition, but will have loose agreements instead.
Occasionally a confidence and supply agreement may be formed. This is more formal pact which still falls short of creating a coalition government. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the Liberal Party formed a minority government from 1985 to 1987 on the basis of a formal accord with the New Democratic Party (NDP): the NDP agreed to support the Liberals for two years on all confidence motions and budgetary legislation, in exchange for the passage of certain legislative measures proposed by the NDP. This was not a coalition government, as the NDP remained an opposition party and was not given seats in the cabinet. In this case the Liberals did not even have a plurality of seats: they had 48 and the NDP had 25, but the Progressive Conservatives were the largest party with 52.
New Zealand's 48th Parliament operated with both a coalition and a looser agreement: the government was a coalition between the Labour Party and the Progressives, while United Future and New Zealand First had an agreement to support the government on confidence matters, while the Green Party abstained.
Simple plurality system
In most Westminster system nations, each constituency elects one member of parliament by simple plurality voting. This system heavily biases the vote towards increasing the number of seats of the top two parties and reducing the seats of smaller parties, a principle known in political science as Duverger's law, and thus minority governments are relatively uncommon. Advocates of this system see this as one of its advantages. A party with less than 40% of the popular vote can often win an outright majority of the seats. (For instance, in the 2005 UK General Election, the governing Labour party won by a majority of 66 seats in the House of Commons with only 35.2% of the popular vote.) If support for some parties is regionally concentrated, however, then Duverger's law applies separately to each region, and so it is quite possible for no party to be sufficiently dominant in each region so as to receive a majority of the seats. This was the situation in Canada in the 2004, 2006, and 2008 federal elections, with no party obtaining a majority due in part to the dominance of the Bloc Québécois in the province of Quebec.
In Westminster systems, in minority situations, the incumbent government usually has the first opportunity to attempt to win the confidence of the House. This is so even if the incumbents have fewer seats – the incumbent prime minister still holds his or her commission for the duration of the writ period and immediately following an election. If (s)he cannot form a government that commands the confidence of the House then it is expected that (s)he will resign that commission voluntarily – it is not considered acceptable for the Sovereign (or her representative) to revoke said commission unless the prime minister was acting in serious breach of constitutional protocol. Nevertheless, usually an incumbent government that loses its plurality in the House simply resigns, especially if the main opposition party is only a few seats short of having a majority or if it feels it has no chance of winning the support of enough members of smaller parties to win an initial confidence vote.
Nevertheless, the now-common practice of the party with the most seats forming the government has led to a widespread misconception among voters that a convention exists whereby the party with the most seats always gets to form the government. In fact, the most compelling reason for this practice is that the party with the most seats can survive confidence votes so long as the smaller party (or parties) simply abstain from confidence votes, whereas a governing party without a plurality in the House needs at least one other party to vote with it at all times (assuming the largest party will always vote no confidence, but that is almost certain to occur when they are denied the opportunity to govern). This means that in most situations, the party with the most seats has the best chance and the least complicated route to winning a confidence vote, regardless of its place on the political spectrum. At the Canadian federal level, in the four most recent of the five occasions a governing party lost the plurality without another winning a majority (1957, 1963, 1979, and 2006) the incumbent governments resigned rather than attempt to stay in power.
Whatever party forms the government must either form a coalition with one or more other parties, or they must win some form of support from the other parties or independents so as to avoid no-confidence motions. Because of no-confidence motions, minority governments are frequently short-lived or fall before their term is expired. The leader of a minority government will also often call an election in hopes of winning a stronger mandate from the electorate. In Canada, for instance, federal minority governments last an average of 18 months.
The British voting system caused few occasions since 1900 for a minority government to be formed, with coalitions last in office between 1931 and 1945. However, the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson formed a minority government for seven months as a result of the General Election of February 1974. This arrangement began on 4 March 1974 and lasted until the October election later that year which resulted in a Labour Government with a tiny majority of three.
The following administration became a minority government once more after the collapse of the Lib–Lab pact in 1977, and the then British Prime Minister James Callaghan's Government fell in March 1979 with a vote of no confidence that carried by a single vote.
The last occasion a minority Government held power in the UK was between December 1996 and May 1997. John Major had won the 1992 General Election with an absolute majority of 21 seats over all other parties. This majority was whittled away through defections and by-elections defeats, most notably including Newbury, SE Staffordshire and Wirral South leading to a loss of a majority in Parliament.
Westminster and the British media tend to perceive minority government as unstable and ineffective, possibly because recent examples of minority governments (Callaghan and Major) occurred as a result of government decline.
In the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives won the most seats and votes, but only a minority of seats in parliament. There was therefore some discussion after the election of the possibility of creating a Conservative minority government. There were also talks about creating an alliance between the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties, as then Prime Minister Gordon Brown had the first opportunity to form a government. Brown however waived this right, acknowledging that the Conservative Party should have the first opportunity to form a coalition government as they had won the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. Further discussions then led to the formation of a coalition government, which was also a majority government, between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as it was thought this would be more stable.
During the history of Canadian politics there have been twelve minority governments on the federal level, in eleven separate minority parliaments (there were two minority governments during the life of 15th Parliament). One of these minorities, the 14th Parliament, was only a minority for half of its duration owing to floor-crossings and by-elections. The tenth and eleventh were elected twice in Canadian federal elections of 2005/2006 and again in the 2008 election. There have also been numerous minority governments in provincial legislatures, particularly in provinces such as Ontario where there are strong third parties.
At the federal level, the party which has won the most seats in a general election has formed the government in all but the 15th Parliament. There have also been instances of parties which did not win a plurality forming the government at the provincial level (notably under David Peterson).
Coalitions in the Netherlands are formed with the support from parliamentary parties, elected in a system of proportional representation. Although very rare, minority governments can be formed during the formation period of a Dutch cabinet, since an election might not result in a coalition that can be agreed upon by the parliamentary parties. More often, a minority government is formed when one of the parliamentary factions of a coalition partner of the cabinet retracts its support for the coalition, or when all ministers of that parliamentary party resign. Then the Prime Minister will offer the resignation of the full cabinet to the Dutch Monarch.
At this point, the Monarch may choose to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election, making the cabinet demissionair. A demissionary cabinet is not a minority government, but rather a form of caretaker government, enjoying only limited powers until the new Parliament assembles.
If the Monarch does not dissolve Parliament, the remaining Cabinet continues as a minority cabinet in full possession of its powers, that can finish any introduced legislation (e.g., a budget), but will need to obtain majority support in Parliament if this legislation is to be passed; this will necessarily mean gaining the support of parties outside the government. General elections may then be held at some later time. Theoretically, there is no need to hold an early general election, but early elections are often called in practice because the basis for the coalition agreement is gone.
A third option is available to the Monarch, namely the formation of a new cabinet, based on a different Parliamentary majority, which may even include the defecting coalition partner. Elections are then held as scheduled at the end of the parliamentary term, since the Monarch will not dissolve parliament when an informateur was able to negotiate a new coalition agreement.
The Netherlands recently had a minority government in 2010-2012: the First Rutte cabinet. The Second Rutte cabinet (2012-) consists of de conservative liberal VVD and the social-democratic PvdA and has a clear majority in the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), but lacks a majority in the Eerste Kamer (Senate). On 11 October 2013, the cabinet reached a budgetary agreement with the social-liberal D66 and the smaller Christian parties ChristenUnie and SGP. The support of these three smaller parties will provide the VVD/PvdA cabinet a (very small) majority (of just one seat) in the Eerste Kamer (see also: Purple (government)).
After the 2007 parliamentary elections, the Scottish National Party led by Alex Salmond constituted a minority government in the Scottish Parliament. This was because the SNP gained 47 seats out of 129 in the election, which was some way short of achieving an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, but more than any other single party gained. The SNP were unable to negotiate a majority coalition government with any other party, but as no other combination of parties were able to agree a deal, the SNP was left to become the government though without a majority.
After the 2007 Assembly elections, the Welsh Labour Party led by Rhodri Morgan initially formed a minority government in the Welsh Assembly. This was because they gained 26 seats in the election, which was short of an absolute majority of seats in the Assembly. Whilst Labour were initially unable to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a 'Rainbow Coalition' of the Conservative Party (UK), Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru failed to come to fruition. However on 6 July 2007, Welsh Labour Party members voted for a coalition with Plaid, which was followed by a similar result from Plaid Cymru members the next day. As a result, the Welsh Assembly was controlled by the Labour-Plaid alliance with Rhodri Morgan as First Minister (up until his retirement in 2009 and subsequent replacement by Carwyn Jones as First Minister) and Plaid Leader Ieuan Wyn Jones as his deputy. After the 2011 Welsh General Election, Welsh Labour won 30 seats and entered into a new government, with a minority of 0.
- BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/politics97/background/pastelec/ge74oct.shtml
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- "Making Minority Government Work : Hung Parliaments and the challenges for Westminster and Whitehall". 7 December 2009.
- "Minority Government". www.canadaonline.about.com.