In This Article Minority Governments

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Datasets with Measures of Minority Government

Political Science Minority Governments
by
Bonnie N. Field, Shane Martin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0281

Introduction

A minority government is one that comprises ministers from one or more political parties where the party or parties represented in the cabinet do not simultaneously hold an absolute majority (50 percent plus one) of the seats in the parliament or legislature. Minority governments are particularly interesting in parliamentary systems, where the government is responsible to parliament, meaning that the parliament can remove the government with a vote of no confidence. Minority governments are puzzling in this environment because, presumably, the political composition of the parliament determines who will govern, and the parliament can remove a sitting government that it does not support. This bibliography focuses primarily on parliamentary systems and national governments (we acknowledge, however, a growing literature on minority governments at the subnational level). Minority governments are common, representing approximately one-third of all governments in parliamentary systems. In the European context, minority governments have been particularly common in the Scandinavian democracies of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and in Spain, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Ireland. They have also occurred in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and India, which historically were more accustomed to single-party majority governments. Minority governments also frequently occur at the regional and local level. Several questions drive research on minority governments. The first is why minority governments form. Are they an illogical outcome or one that a troubled political environment produces, or are they the consequences of rational decisions by political parties? Are there certain political or institutional characteristics that favor the formation of minority governments? A second line of research delves into how minority governments govern. This includes whether they govern with formal agreements with other parties in parliament, and through their alliance-building strategies within parliament. It also includes investigations into parties that provide support to minority governments within parliament—what scholars term “support parties.” A third line of research investigates the performance of minority governments. In particular, how does minority status affect the duration of the government and its ability to accomplish its policy goals and generate public support? While the research on minority governments varies, in general it has moved from viewing minority governments as peculiar and potentially problematic toward seeing them as rational cabinet solutions capable of effective governance.

General Overview

When no single political party secures a majority of seats in a parliamentary election, three outcomes are possible: a failed attempt to form a government (possibly leading to a new general election), a minority government, or a majority coalition government. While much research on minority governments is embedded within the larger government formation literature (focused more on coalition formation), influential research on minority governments has attempted to answer three fundamental, and ultimately interrelated, questions: Why do minority governments form? How do minority governments work? How do minority governments perform relative to majority governments? The groundbreaking work on the topic is Strøm 1990. In this volume, Strøm challenged the then conventional wisdom that minority governments in parliamentary systems represent deviations from rational behavior. Using a rational choice institutional framework, Strøm suggests that minority governments are actually rational outcomes under certain circumstances; namely, where parties can influence policy from outside government (reducing the incentive of parties to enter government) and where parties face an electoral cost for joining a coalition (again reducing the incentive to enter government). To a greater or lesser extent, all subsequent work on the topic builds on Strøm’s insights and framework. Strøm’s volume is also important because it has influenced scholarship beyond minority governments by using the topic of minority government formation to shed new light on a fundamental question in political science: What motivates legislators and the political parties to which they belong? Book-length studies that seek to extend or deepen the analysis of the formation of minority governments include Bergman 1995 (on the Swedish case), Nikolenyi 2010 (on the Indian case), and Keudel-Kaiser 2014 (on eight central and eastern Europe countries). Of course, minority government formation is only one stage of a minority government’s life cycle. Most governments spend longer governing than being formed (or dissolved). Surprisingly then, research long focused on why minority governments form and not on how they work and perform once in office. Today, however, there is a larger body of research addressing how minority governments work and how well they perform. An important contribution in this regard is Field 2016, a book-length study of why minority governments work in Spain. It offers a framework for explaining government performance that includes political institutions, partisan bargaining circumstances, and party goals.

  • Bergman, Torbjörn. Constitutional Rules and Party Goals in Coalition Formation: An Analysis of Winning Minority Governments in Sweden. Umeå, Sweden: Umeå Universitet, 1995.

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    This study explores the goals of parties with regard to government formation, and how these goals interact with constitutional structures and political culture to shape minority government formation in Sweden.

  • Field, Bonnie N. Why Minority Governments Work: Multilevel Territorial Politics in Spain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

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    This book explores how and how well minority governments work. It develops and applies a framework to account for the strong performance of Spain’s minority governments. Territorial politics and the presence of regional parties in the national parliament interact with political institutions and party goals to allow otherwise competitive parties to cooperate during minority governments. It also provides a review of the literature on minority government performance.

  • Keudel-Kaiser, Dorothea. Government Formation in Central and Eastern Europe: The Case of Minority Governments. Leverkusen, Germany: Verlag Barbara Budrich, 2014.

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    The book studies the formation of minority governments through case studies of eight central and eastern European countries from the 1990s up to 2010. It identifies party system features—and specifically the bifurcation of the party system—as the most important factor shaping the pattern of minority government formation in the region.

  • Nikolenyi, Csaba. Minority Governments in India: The Puzzle of Elusive Majorities. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

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    This book explores how dramatic changes to India’s party system resulted in a shift from single-party majority government to multiparty minority government. It explains these minority coalitions by employing the social choice theory of government formation, and provides insights into the duration of minority governments.

  • Strøm, Kaare. Minority Government and Majority Rule. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    This book argues that minority governments can be viewed as rational outcomes under certain circumstances; namely, where parties can influence policy from outside government (reducing the incentive to enter government) and where parties face an electoral cost for joining a coalition (again reducing the incentive to enter government). Therefore, a minority cabinet can be an equilibrium outcome.

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