Minority governments are a common occurrence in many parliamentary democracies. Drawing on a new edited volume, Minority Governments in Comparative Perspective Bonnie N. Field and Shane Martin examine why and how minority governments form, and how well they tend to govern when in power.

Approximately one-third of parliamentary democracies are ruled by a minority government – a situation where the party or parties represented at cabinet do not between them hold a majority of seats in the national parliament. Moreover, the rate of minority governments appears to have increased slightly over recent decades.

Examples abound. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May in the United Kingdom between 2017 and 2019 depended on the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. The current government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Spain is a minority coalition of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and United We Can. And a Liberal minority government was formed in Canada in 2021 under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Minority governments are particularly interesting in countries with parliamentary democracies because the government is politically responsible to parliament and can be removed by it. Rightly, minority governments are no longer viewed as some kind of anomaly, at least in academic circles. This stems in large part from pathbreaking research by political scientist Kaare Strøm. Nonetheless, few academic studies both contextualise minority governments in specific countries and compare them cross-nationally, in contrast to publications on coalition governments that have been essential for understanding governance.

Thus, in a new edited volume, we explore and analyse the formation, functioning, and performance of minority governments, what we term the why, how, and how well of minority government politics. We examine the three questions concurrently because we suspect they are interconnected. For example, how a minority government governs may be shaped by why it formed. Why minority governments form may be connected to how well they perform.

Our book presents rich analyses of minority governments in countries that vary widely in terms of the frequency of minority governments, their party systems, and the institutional attributes of their political systems: Australia, Canada, France, India, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Insights from each analysis are too numerous to detail here. Instead, we highlight a few comparative contributions.

Frequency of minority governments

The first relates to their frequency. Minority governments cross-nationally are likely more prevalent than current measures indicate. Most measures of government type record a change in government as happening when one or more of the following conditions are met: (a) a change in the partisan composition of the cabinet, (b) a change of head of government, or (c) a general election.

This criterion ignores as a change of government type a situation where a sitting government loses its majority or gains a majority in parliament without one of these other conditions. For instance, in the UK, Prime Minister John Major had a majority in parliament when he took office after the April 1992 general election; however, he lost that majority in 1996, subsequently governing in minority. By not recognising such situations as a change of government type, conventional counting practices likely undercount minority governments.

Moreover, most measures assess the government’s status in the lower (or only) chamber of parliament. This make sense if the government is only responsible to that chamber. However, there are countries where the government is responsible to each chamber of parliament separately, as in Italy, or both jointly, as in Romania. Our proposed counting rule determines the majority or minority status of the government in the chamber, chambers or parliament as a whole that can hold the government responsible.

Why minority governments form

We revisit prominent hypotheses about why minority governments form. For example, strong parliamentary committees have been posited to encourage the formation of minority governments because political parties calculate that they will be able to influence the production of public policy without (the potential costs of) joining the government. However, among our set of countries, there is little evidence outside of the Scandinavian democracies that this helps explain cross-national patterns of minority government formation.

Minority governments are frequent in political systems where the opposition has a strong institutional role in policy making in parliament, as in Romania, and where they do not, as in India. Notably, in India, committees became more powerful after minority governments formed. Strong committees are only one way to institutionalise influence over public policy for parties that stay out of government – others include contracts and agreements and the allocation of non-cabinet offices to support parties.

India reminds us that institutions are not static. Whereas scholars studying political outcomes like to view institutions, such as committee systems and government investiture rules, as fixed or explanatory, they are at times the outcome of the political process. In Spain, for example, the parliament designed the rules for forming a government with a minority government in power, which allowed a government to be selected more easily in a second-round vote. Thus, our analyses reveal that investiture rules and committee strength sometimes result from the existence of a minority government, and not the reverse.

How minority governments form

Regarding how minority governments govern, there is evidence of the strategic use of a complex array of arrangements and relationships with parties in parliament. The diverse set of countries we assess does not exhibit a trend toward contract parliamentarism. This is a governing arrangement where relations between the minority government and support parties in parliament are so highly institutionalised that it resembles majority government. In many countries where minority governments are frequent, formal arrangements of support from parties in parliament, let alone contract parliamentarism, are not prevalent. For example, in Canada, Norway, Poland and Portugal, it is most common for governments to build majorities in parliament in an ad hoc manner.

We also show that the territorial dimension of politics matters for understanding minority governments in a wide variety of countries, including India, Spain, Canada, and the UK. Regionally-based parties are often reluctant or opposed to entering a central government as a coalition partner, especially those that represent a distinct national identity. This includes the Bloc Québécois in Canada, the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties in Spain and the Scottish National Party in the United Kingdom, as well as several regional parties in India. But, these same parties may opt to support minority governments from parliament in exchange for concessions.

How minority governments govern is clearly intertwined with concessions to allies in parliament. While policy and pork concessions are widespread, our analyses collectively demonstrate that concessions in the form of political offices are more important than prior research suggests. Office concessions include subcabinet posts in governments in Sweden, regional political office in Spain, positions on state regulatory boards, or state enterprise boards in Poland, and parliamentary posts, such as committee leadership positions in Italy.

A rational cabinet solution

Perhaps of most consequence is how well minority governments govern. While there is certainly variation, the picture that emerges is that minority governments, generally and often, work well or comparably to majority governments in the same country. This is striking given the diversity of countries we examine. This provides further evidence – as Kaare Strøm noted decades ago – that they are a rational cabinet solution, which, we think, feeds back into their formation.

For more information, see the authors’ new edited volume, Minority Governments in Comparative Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2022)

This blog was originally published under a Creative Commons licence by The London School of Economics and Political Science.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.