What Do We Know About Minority Governments?

by Erik Voeten on May 7, 2010 · 5 comments

in Comparative Politics

And so the British have their “hung parliament.” While there is some chance that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will form a majority coalition , it appears more likely that a government will form that cannot reliably count on a majority in parliament. Most of what I know about minority governments comes from UCSD professor Kaare Strom’s great but somewhat older work (especially this book). Here are a few relevant points:

1) Minority governments are more common than we might think. Strom’s 1984 article (gated) cites that 35% of governments in the 15 parliamentary democracies he studied (from 1945) had minority governments. I would love to see a more recent figure.

2) The same article argues that “minority cabinets form when even oppositional parties can influence parliamentary legislation, and when government participation is likely to be a liability in future elections.” These points seem important to me, especially with regard to Labour: better to be on the outside and influence policy without being blamed for what is likely to be a difficult episode in British history.

3) Tjorborn Bergman shows that minority governments are much more likely to form in countries (such as the UK) where the rules for coalition formation are negative rather than positive; where a negative rule means that a coalition does not require an absolute majority of parliament to be invested.

4) In his book, Strom finds that minority governments are less durable than majority governments but otherwise perform about equally well. They tend to resign under more favorable circumstances and tend to do better at the polls than parties that resigned from a majority government.

I encourage our readers who specialize in comparative legislative politics to comment on, add to, and subtract from these points.

Update: A reader e-mailed me this 2004 article in the British Journal of Political Science by Jose Antonio Cheibub, Adam Przeworski, and Sebastian Saiegh, which shows with a comprehensive dataset of post World War II democracies that minority governments are indeed quite common and that they are not less successful than majority governments in passing bills through the legislature.


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