The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Minority government

For minority régime, see Apartheid.

A minority government, or a minority cabinet, is a cabinet of a parliamentary system which does not represent a majority in the parliament — or in bicameral parliaments, in that chamber whose confidence is considered most crucial.


Coalitions and alliances

To deal with situations where no clear majorities appear, parties either form coalition governments, ad-hoc alliances or loose agreements with other parties to stay in office.

A common situation is governance with "jumping majorities", i.e. that the Cabinet stays as long as it can negotiate support from parliament-majorities which well may be differently formed from issue to issue, from bill to bill.

An alternative arrangement is a looser alliance of parties, exemplified with Sweden. There the long governing Social-Democrats have governed with more or, mostly, 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 practise) legislative initiative. This is also common in Canada where parties can rarely cooperate enough to form a coalition, but will have loose agreements. Minority governments ruled Canada from 1921 to 1930, 1957 to 1958, 1962 to 1968, 1972 to 1974, 1979 to 1980 and currently in 2004, the Liberals have been elected into a minority government.

Occasionally these agreements may be more formal while still falling short of creating a coalition government. In the Canadian province of Ontario the Ontario Liberal Party formed a minority government from 1985 to 1987 on the basis of a formal accord with the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) in which the NDP agreed to support the Liberals for two years and for that period vote with the government against motions of no confidence and vote with the government on budgetary legislation in exchange for the passage of certain legislation and other measures proposed by the NDP. The NDP, however, remained an opposition party and did not take seats in the Cabinet so this was not a coalition government. This is also one example of how a party that does not have the greatest number of seats can form a minority government with the support of smaller parties as the Liberals had several fewer seats than the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. In Canada, in minority situations, the incumbent government has the first opportunity to attempt to win the confidence of the House even if it has fewer seats. Usually, in this situation the incumbent government simply resigns 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. Thus in 1957, 1963 and 1979 the incumbent governments resigned rather than attempt to stay in power.

First Past the Post

Under First Past the Post electoral system, with only one elected representative per constituency, which is used by most but not all Westminster system nations, minority cabinets are uncommon. This is because the system heavily biases the vote towards increasing the number of seats of the top parties and reducing the seats of smaller parties. A party with less than forty percent of the popular vote can often win an outright majority of the seats. Nations like Canada, and the United Kingdom are thus usually governed by parties that control over half of the seats in their legislature.

In a minority situation the head of the largest party is still asked to form a government. They must then either form a coalition with one or more existing parties, or they must win enough support from the other parties or independents to avoid no-confidence motions. Because of no-confidence motions minority governments are inherently short-lived and frequently 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.

Proportional representation

Minority governments are more common in countries using proportional representation systems, where it seldom occurs that one single party wins a majority of their own. For instance under Israel's purely proportional system between 1949 and 1992 no one party ever controlled a majority of the seats. These countries are thus usually ruled either by coalitions of parties, or by minority cabinets. Countries in Continental Europe and Israel all have proportional representation and rarely have a single party that controls a majority of the parliament.


Many criticize minority governments arguing they create deadlock within the government, which prevents and slows changes. Others, however, view minority governments as beneficial for creating a more diverse government that reflects more than one viewpoint.

See also

Last updated: 05-07-2005 15:27:40
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04