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.


Pedro Magalhães May 7, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Hi. According to this, between 45 and 99, in 17 West European countries, 33% of cabinets were minority governments, and 22% single-party minority governments. They also show, quite predictably, that minority governments have a shorter-life span and that, more interestingly, parties controlling minority cabinets tend to be less punished in subsequent elections than in any other situation.

Joshua Tucker May 7, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Why is everyone so sure we’ll get a minority government? This seems plausible: (1) Clegg demands PR from Conservatives (2) Cameron says no (3) Clegg demands PR from Labour. At this point in time, Labour essentially chooses bewteen a Conservative minority government (which, as Erik notes, will probably lead to a Conservative majority government in a couple of years) or rolls the dice on a coalition government followed by PR elections. 4-7 years out of power is an awfully long time to preserve an SMD system that has just punished Labour so viciously. Do we often think politicians are operating on these types of time horizons?

Erik Voeten May 7, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Josh: I am not sure at all; it just seems the most likely outcome. I do suspect that a LibDem-Conservative majority coalition is much more likely than one involving Labour and that the LibDems will get much less than full PR in exchange for participating.

laurenz_e May 8, 2010 at 5:49 am

it might be useful to look into the predictions that can be derived from formal coalition theory here. assuming that parties are rational actors maximizing their utility it should be clear that the lib dems (who are the key player here) opt for a formal coalition with labour since it gives them more policy and office payoffs than any other option. however, if this is set off by a devastating prospect for future elections, they could choose otherwise.

it all comes down to how the lib dems balance their policy-, office- and vote-seeking, and how they estimate their electoral prospects. it should be kept in mind though, that the lib dems could easily lose a lot of votes while at the same time gaining more seats if the electoral system was made more proportional. so vote-seeking incentives might be offset by an offer for introducing pr.

Justin May 11, 2010 at 6:53 am

There’s no way they’re going to get PR. Public support for it isn’t strong enough (around 40% in favor 30% against, the rest unsure) to pass by referendum which is why the major parties are making such offers. Recal that the major reforms in New Zealand and Japan enjoyed broad popular support (reaching 85%) and only came after massive scandals. It’s quite surprising that Labour caved in to STV so easily . The Lib Dems would be foolish not to take it, rather than bank on the possibility of AV passing by referendum.

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