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A minority government, or minority cabinet or minority parliament, is a cabinet formed in a parliamentary system when a political party or coalition of parties does not have a majority of overall seats in the parliament. It is sworn into office, with or without the formal support of other parties, to enable a government to be formed. Under such a government, legislation can only be passed with the support of enough other members of the legislature to provide a majority, encouraging multi-partisanship. In bicameral parliaments, the term relates to the situation in chamber whose confidence is considered most crucial to the continuance in office of the government.
A minority government tends to be much less stable than a majority government because, if they can unite for the purpose, opposing parliamentary members have the numbers to vote against legislation, or even bring down the government with a vote of no confidence.
Coalitions and alliances
To deal with situations in parliamentary systems where no clear majority to support a government exists, two or more parties may establish a formal coalition government, commanding a clear majority of the parliamentary members, or a party might enter into less formal alliances or agreements with other parties, or individual members, to allow the minority government to stay in office.
A common situation is governance with "jumping majorities": the cabinet stays as long as it can negotiate support from a majority in the parliament, even though that majority may be differently formed from issue to issue or from bill to bill. On occasion the legislature may permit a minority cabinet to continue in office despite having been defeated on a given vote, and a minority government might even bring on a confidence vote and threaten to resign should the legislature vote against it.
An alternative arrangement is a looser alliance of parties, exemplified by Sweden. There the long-governing Social Democrats have ruled 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 establish a formal coalition, but operate under a loose agreement instead.
Occasionally a confidence and supply agreement may be formed. This is a 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 formal coalition, because 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: the Progressive Conservatives were the largest single party with 52 seats, but the Liberals had 48 and the NDP had 25.
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.
There have been few occasions since 1900 when a single party has not commanded a parliamentary majority. Indeed, the 2010-2015 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government was the first of its type in Britain since the National Government between 1931 and 1945.
The Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, formed a minority government for seven months after the General Election of February 1974. That situation lasted until the prime minister called another election in October that year, following which the Labour Government obtained a tiny majority of three.
The following administration also became a minority government after the collapse of the Lib–Lab pact in 1977, and the then British Prime Minister James Callaghan's Government fell in March 1979 as the result of a vote of no confidence which was carried by a single vote.
The last occasion on which a minority Government held power in the UK was between December 1996 and the general election in May 1997. The Conservative Party, led by John Major, had won the 1992 General Election with an absolute majority of 21 seats over all other parties. That majority was progressively whittled away through defections and by-elections defeats, the most notable of the latter including those in Newbury, SE Staffordshire and Wirral South, resulting in the eventual loss of the Major government's majority in Parliament.
Westminster and the British media tend to perceive minority governments as unstable and ineffective, possibly because recent examples of minority governments (Callaghan and Major) occurred as the result of governments in decline.
In the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives won the most seats and votes, but only a minority of seats in parliament. There was some discussion after the election of the possibility of creating a Conservative minority government and, because the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown had the first opportunity to form a government, there were also talks about creating some sort of alliance between the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties. However Brown waived his right, acknowledging that because the Conservative Party had won the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, it should have the first opportunity to form a government. Further discussions then led to the establishment of a formal coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, which enabled the formation of a majority government, because it was thought that would ensure more stability.
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 chose to form a one-party minority government, with confidence and supply support from the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Conservative Party.
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. In 2016 Welsh Labour returned with 29 seats out of 30 and formed a minority government of 0 with the one remaining Liberal Democrat AM.
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). For information about minority governments at both the federal and provincial levels see Minority governments in Canada.
Coalitions in the Netherlands are formed with the support from parliamentary parties, elected by proportional representation. Although very rare, minority governments can be formed during the formation period of a Dutch cabinet, if an election result makes a majority coalition impossible. More often, a minority government is formed when one of the cabinet's coalition partners withdraws its support, or when all ministers of a given parliamentary party resign. In these cases, the Prime Minister offers the full cabinet's resignation to the Dutch Monarch.
At this point, the Monarch may choose to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election. The cabinet continues to serve as demissionary. A demissionary cabinet is not a minority government but 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. It can finish any legislation already before underpreparation, if Parliament passes it by majority vote; this necessitates the support of parties outside the government. Theoretically, early general elections need not be held, but they are often necessary in practice, since the coalition agreement no longer has parliamentary support.
A third option is available to the Monarch: the formation of a new cabinet of different Parliamentary parties (which may include the defecting coalition partner). Elections are then held as scheduled at the end of the parliamentary term, since the Monarch does not dissolve parliament if an informateur has been able to negotiate a new coalition agreement.
The Netherlands had a minority government in 2010-2012: the First Rutte cabinet. The Second Rutte cabinet (2012-) consists of the conservative liberal VVD and the social-democratic PvdA and has a clear majority in the House of Representatives, but none in the Senate. On 11 October 2013, the cabinet reached a budgetary agreement with the social-liberal D66 and the smaller Christian parties ChristenUnie and SGP. This provides the VVD/PvdA cabinet a single-seat majority in the Senate (see also: Purple (government)).
Republic of Ireland
The Irish parliamentary system broadly works on a simple majority system, where the Taoiseach is elected by the Dáil when they achieve 50% + 1 of the votes in favour of their nomination. The Taoiseach then appoints his own cabinet. Until the 1980s, Irish politics were dominated by two parties, either of whom could achieve a simple majority of seats in the Dáil and therefore elect their party leader as Taoiseach. Since the 1980s, the popularity of other parties has increased such that coalition governments are now typical and expected, with one of the two major parties being the "Senior" partner, and with one or more "Junior" partners ensuring that the coalition retains a majority in the Dáil.
A minority government is formed when a party (or a coalition) secures agreement from one or more other parties or independents to support their nomination for Taoiseach and achieve majority support, but without any formal coalition agreement with the parties who supported the nomination. Support for bills and other items requiring a Dáil majority vote is then negotiated on a bill-by-bill basis.
In the event that no agreement can be reached to nominate an individual to lead a minority government, the previous Taoiseach (acting in a caretaker capacity) can then seek dissolution of the Dáil and call a new general election. However, this scenario has not yet occurred.
The last Dáil with a single-party simple majority government was in 1977. Minority governments have been relatively common in the short history of the Dáil, making up 14 of the 32 governments (44%) formed since the Dáil was founded.
The period of 1987-2016 (29 years) is the longest that there has not been a minority government in charge.
- "BBC Politics 97". BBC News.
- "Making Minority Government Work : Hung Parliaments and the challenges for Westminster and Whitehall" (PDF). 7 December 2009.
- "Minority Government". www.canadaonline.about.com.