A minority government, 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 the chamber whose confidence is considered most crucial to the continuance in office of the government (generally, the lower house).
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.
The unprecedentedly close 2010 Australian federal election produced a federal minority government in Australia for the first time since 1940. The Labor Party and Coalition both won 72 seats, 4 short of a majority. Labor won the two-party preferred vote by 0.24%. Six crossbenchers, consisting of four independents, one Greens MP, and one WA Nationals MP, held the balance of power. Ultimately, four crossbenchers gave confidence and supply to Labor, allowing them to form an extremely narrow minority government. This government stood until the 2013 election.
After the 2016 federal election, the Coalition formed a majority government of just one seat. They lost their majority after the 2018 leadership spill which deposed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as National Party MP Kevin Hogan moved to the crossbench. The government lost another seat after the 2018 Wentworth by-election, which was won by independent Kerryn Phelps. They lost another seat after MP Julia Banks resigned from the Liberal Party, reducing the government to 73 seats. However, they retained confidence from all three MPs, enabling them to remain in government.
Minority governments can occur in the federal Parliament of Canada, the legislatures of the 10 provinces, and the legislature of the Yukon territory. Because territorial political parties do not exist in the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, minority governments are not possible in their respective legislatures. Members of the legislatures of the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut are elected as non-partisans, and is governed under a system of consensus government.
During the history of federal Canadian politics there have been thirteen minority governments, in twelve separate minority parliaments.[note 1] Federal minority governments typically last less than two years. Exceptions to this include the 26th, 27th, 39th and 40th Canadian parliaments, which all lasted for longer than two years. The 14th Canadian Parliament functioned as a minority government for half of its duration, owing to floor-crossings and by-elections. The 15th Canadian Parliament was the only federal minority parliament that saw two different minority governments form. The last minority parliament elected at the federal level was the 43rd Canadian Parliament, whose composition was determined in October 2019.
Minority governments may also occur in all provincial legislatures, as well as the Yukon Legislative Assembly. However, minority governments do not occur as frequently in these legislatures as they do at the federal level. Ontario has seen six minority legislatures in its political history, the most among the 10 provinces and the territory of Yukon. Alberta is the only province that has never had a minority government in its provincial legislature.
Belgium is not familiar with minority governments. Moreover, this type of government is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution, even though the Constitution does not prevent its existence. More often than not, minority governments emerge following elections when the government that was in power loses its majority and has to become a caretaker government pending the formation of a new government.
In Belgium, it is the King who appoints the government. However, as Belgium is a democratic state, constitutional custom requires that this appointment must be approved by the Chamber of Representatives, the democratically elected body. This consent is given by a vote of confidence. There is, however, a small constitutional trick, since the majority required to obtain confidence is not calculated on the basis of all the members of parliament, but on the basis of the votes cast. As the specialist on minority governments in Belgium, Lucien Rigaux, points out, this means that the majority is calculated on the basis of the members present and does not require more than 76 votes (the majority of the 150 seats in the Chamber). Moreover, confidence is obtained if there are more votes in favour than against. For example, out of 100 votes cast, a minority government can be invested with 40 affirmative votes, 20 negative votes and 40 abstentions. The benevolent abstention of parties which, for various reasons, do not wish to enter the government boat thus makes it possible to form an emergency government with full powers and democratic legitimacy.
Never in the federated entities has a minority government been formed spontaneously. On the other hand, at the central and then federal state level, there have been five attempts to form a minority government. Three of these attempts were transformed. As Lucien Rigaux points out in an issue devoted to the history of minority governments in Belgium: "The first two attempts were failures. In 1925, the Liberals experienced an electoral debacle. They preferred to stay away from a government majority. The Catholic Party and the Belgian Workers' Party each won approximately 40 percent of the seats so they could not govern alone. However, within the Catholic Party, there remains serious reluctance to collaborate with the Socialists. It must be said that strong tensions between the two camps, particularly over the Flemishisation of the Ghent University and the management of external affairs, had led to the fall of the homogeneous Catholic government. After 38 days of caretaker governement - which was relatively long for the time - the King appointed a Catholic cabinet. The latter was finally nipped in the bud by Parliament, since the latter decided not to grant its confidence on the grounds that the proposed Catholic coalition did not respect "Flemish national law", that it "was not qualified to resolve the difficulties of the parliamentary situation" and that it did not make it possible to fight the bourgeoisie".
In 1946, the government of national unity, which followed the World War II, had already served its purpose. The Liberals felt that their new electoral defeat invited them to undergo an opposition cure. Socialists and Catholics clashed during the election campaign over the royal question of the return of King Leopold III to Belgium, which made the political climate particularly tense. The Socialists reject the invitation of the Catholic informer to form a government because the former want to associate the Communists, who have obtained a better result than the Liberal Party, with the government, while the Catholic Party categorically refuses to do so. After a month of political crisis, a cabinet composed solely of socialists is appointed by the King. In the parliamentary gallery, the then Prime Minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, declared: "if you think you can quickly give the country a government other than the one before you, stronger, based on a stable majority, do not hesitate, overthrow us. But if you don't have that assurance, if you foresee, after a negative vote, a long period of hesitation, conciliations, abortive attempts, then think carefully about what you are going to do". He nevertheless succumbs a few days later, since with as many votes in his favour as against him, he does not enjoy the confidence of Parliament. The defeat must have been all the more difficult to swallow as two Socialist MEPs had left before the vote in order not to miss their train to Liège.
On the other hand, the last three attempts were successful.
Firstly in 1958 a minority government received, for the first time, the support of Parliament. The Social Christian Party obtained a remarkable score that had nothing to envy to its results of the 19th century with 104 seats out of 212. However, the government's formation patinated notably on the school question which pitted Catholics and lay people against each other and which related to the financing of Catholic and public schools. Both the socialists and the liberals have the impression that they are playing a fool's game where the lowest bidder will have the chance to claim a few positions in a government that will carry out the entire Christian program. The Christian Social Party then tries to capitalize on its 104 seats to gain confidence. Contrary to all expectations, the abstention of one Volksunie member and two Liberals was enough to gain the confidence of Parliament. The Eyskens II minority government thus received the support of a relative majority of the members present, 106 in favour and 104 against. A few months later, the minority government became a majority government when the Liberal party joined the government team after an agreement was reached on the school issue.
Then, in 1974, the political context was that of the state reforms initiated in 1970. Community autonomy was achieved, but the implementation of regionalisation was at a standstill, in particular because the Brussels dossier was repeatedly put on ice. Fifteen days after the elections of 10 March 1974, Léo Tindemans (CVP) was appointed formator. He is entering into negotiations with the Liberals and the Socialists to form a government that can benefit from a broad parliamentary base. While the liberals seem to be acquiescing, the negotiations with the socialists reveal divergences, mainly on the implementation of regionalisation, on the question of state interference in economic affairs and on the method of "community to community" negotiation involving so-called community parties rather than political families. The socialists, who had campaigned strongly on the left, decided in the Namur Congress to withdraw from the negotiations and denounced the formation of a "coalition of the rights". Not giving up on forming a large majority, the social-Christian and liberal political families negotiated with the community parties. A partial agreement is reached in Steenokkerzeel. For the Walloon Rally as long as there is no agreement on everything, there is no agreement on anything. Nevertheless, it decides to grant its benevolent abstentions to the Christian Liberal coalition so that a government can be formed quickly. With 100 votes in favour, 63 against and, above all, 47 abstentions, the minority Tindemans I government won the confidence of the House and the Senate five days later. The Walloon Rally also joined the coalition, which became a majority a few months later.
Finally, the last successful attempt was made in 2020 to fight the COVID-19 crisis. While the negotiations have been stalled since the last elections on 26 May 2019, the coronavirus crisis has brought down the cards. A sort of national union to which the N-VA does not, however, adhere, the Vlaams belang and the PTB decided to give its confidence to the Wilmès II government in order to give it full powers and, above all, democratic legitimacy to deal with the health crisis.
Advantages and inconvenients
As with day-to-day business, the minority government provides a flexible institutional response in times of crisis that allows the state to continue to function and to be able to carry out its essential tasks. However, unlike current affairs, the action of a minority government is not locked to current affairs, day-to-day business or urgent decisions. It benefits from the fullness of its competences since it is constituted on the basis of a democratic decision which grants it de facto a certain democratic legitimacy.
The main disadvantage of minority government by the elected assembly is that it can be instituted without a majority of the members of Parliament having voted in favour of it, but that, on the other hand, a majority of the members of the assembly is required to dismiss it (76 minimum).
Since 1982 most of the coalition government in Denmark are in minority, that the minority government coalition need to make deals and reach support with the opposition parties.
Estonia has had several minority governments. A minority cabinet can occur:
- when the governing coalition loses support due to a coalition member leaving the governing coalition (Vähi II and Ansip II cabinets);
- when MPs leave party factions (Ratas cabinet);
- when a minority government is appointed with additional parliamentary support (Tõnisson IV, Vähi Interim, Siimann and Kallas cabinets); or
- when the government is voted into office with a plurality and some MPs abstain from voting (Birk, Tõnisson II, Piip and Akel cabinets).
Additional support is possible also because MPs leaving a party faction are not allowed to officially join another faction until the next elections. A government can be a minority government either throughout its term or just a part of its term, usually the latter. A list of minority cabinets:
- A. Birk cabinet (1920)
- J. Tõnisson II cabinet (1920)
- A. Piip cabinet (1920–1921)
- F. K. Akel cabinet (1924)
- J. Tõnisson IV cabinet (1933)
- T. Vähi Interim cabinet (1992)
- T. Vähi II cabinet (1996–1997)
- M. Siimann cabinet (1997–1999)
- S. Kallas cabinet (2002–2003)
- A. Ansip II cabinet (2009–2011)
- J. Ratas cabinet (2018–2019)
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 the members of the government with the approval of the Dáil. 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 independent TDs who are not members of the government to support their nomination for Taoiseach and achieve majority support. 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 government, the outgoing Taoiseach (continuing to act in a caretaker capacity) can seek dissolution of the Dáil and call a new general election. However, this circumstance has not occurred to date.
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 (2012–2017) consisted of the conservative liberal VVD and the social-democratic PvdA and had a majority in the House of Representatives, but a plurality in the Senate. On 11 October 2013, the cabinet reached a budgetary agreement with the social-liberal D66 and the smaller Christian parties CU and SGP. This provided the VVD/PvdA cabinet a single-seat majority in the Senate (see also: Purple (government)).
As of January 20, 2020 Norway has a minority government. In the beginning of 2019, the Christian Democratic party KrF joined Erna Solbergs cabinet, that had been ruling with a minority since 2013, to form a majority. On January 20, 2020 the Progress party, FrP, announced that they would withdraw from their role in government, and become an opposition party, despite continuing their support of Erna Solberg as Prime Minister.
Sweden had several minority governments in history, most of the time led by the Swedish Social Democratic Party, with the support of the Socialist Left Party. Centre-right Alliance which led by Moderate Party formed a minority coalition government from 2010 to 2014. The recent minority government is led by the Social Democrats and Greens, which only have one-third of seats.
There have been many occasions since 1900 when a single party has not commanded a parliamentary majority, although the 2010–2015 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government was the first formal coalition of its type in Britain since the National Government between 1931 and 1945.
Since the reforms to suffrage in 1918 there have been more minority or coalition governments than there have been single party majority governments (see List of United Kingdom general elections).
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.
A minority Government held power in the UK 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, South East Staffordshire and Wirral South, resulting in the eventual loss of the Major government's majority in Parliament. However, the Conservatives maintained support from Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party.
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 the 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.
In the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives won the most seats and votes, but lost their majority in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party, led by Theresa May, formed a minority government, with 317 seats, on 9 June 2017. On 10 June, the Prime Minister's Office announced a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party which would see the DUP support the Conservative government on a confidence and supply arrangement. However, the DUP later announced that no such deal had been reached. This remained the case until 26 June 2017, when a deal was agreed and announced between the two parties.
For much of the Johnson Ministry up until the 2019 general election, the government was a minority government. The suspension of the whip of 21 Conservative MPs on 24 July 2019 resulted in the working majority of the government being -43. The government lost several Parliamentary votes in the Autumn of 2019 before a general election was called.
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 2016 parliamentary elections, The SNP won 63 out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, losing their governing majority, but they went on to form a one-party minority government, led by Nicola Sturgeon. This is a similar arrangement to 2007 with support from the Scottish Green Party.
After the 2007 Assembly election, 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.
List of current minority governments
These are the countries with a minority government as of August 2020.
|Belgium||Sophie Wilmès||MR - CD&V - VLD||38||25.3%||57||95/150||63.3%|
|Croatia||Andrej Plenković||HDZ - SDSS||65||43.0%||11||76/151||50.3%|
|Czech Republic||Andrej Babiš||ANO - ČSSD||93||46.5%||15||108/200||54.0%|
|Netherlands||Mark Rutte||VVD - CDA - D66 - CU||75||50.0%||0||75/150||50.0%|
|New Zealand||Jacinda Ardern||Labour - NZ First||55||45.8%||8||63/120||52.5%|
|Norway||Erna Solberg||H - KrF - V||61||36.0%||27||88/169||52.0%|
|Spain||Pedro Sánchez||PSOE - UP||155||44.3%||13||168/350||48.0%|
|Sweden||Stefan Löfven||S - MP||116||33.2%||77||193/349||55.3%|
- There were two minority governments during the life of 15th Canadian Parliament
- Support by another party short of a coalition, for example in a confidence and supply arrangement.
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