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Hung parliaments, minority and coalition governments: who’s in charge if no one wins?

Bart Maat, AFP | Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte addresses the media in The Hague on June 13, 2017, a day after efforts to r forge a four-party Dutch coalition government again ran aground.

Parliaments throughout Europe are in various stages of composition and dissolution. When voters don’t return a clear majority, the process of forming a government can be messy and time consuming, and is frequently riddled with uncertainty.


The Netherlands has been without a government since it held elections on March 15 and no party managed to secure an outright majority of its parliamentary seats (resulting in what is known in many countries as a hung parliament the norm in Holland). On Monday, yet another effort to cobble together a coalition that would be capable of governing collapsed.

In mid-April, when her Conservative Party was popular in the polls, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for snap elections in the hopes of securing a strong majority that would give her the freedom to pursue Brexit negotiations the way she saw fit.

By the time the vote took place in early June, the Conservatives had fallen from grace and came eight seats shy of the 326 they need to control Parliament. May is in the process of holding talks with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, a pro-life, anti-gay, socially conservative party with a more working-class base than that of the Conservatives. If they can come to an agreement, the two parties will make odd -- and uncomfortable -- bedfellows.

And in Finland, the three-party coalition that has been governing for more than two years announced Monday it would dissolve after the leader of the junior party was replaced with an anti-immigration nationalist whose values were deemed too far out of line with those of his governing partners. A day later, the larger moderate faction of that party split from its more hardline wing, saving the ruling alliance.

“That happens every now and then; a party that is part of the coalition goes through internal upheavals,” said Wolfgang C. Müller, professor of government at the University of Vienna.

Political dealmaking is a messy business.

Government as usual

Most of the countries in Western Europe operate with coalition governments, and nearly all of them have had one at some point since World War II. Post-war Western Europe is among the most stable regions on the planet, despite the challenges inherent in such power-sharing arrangements.

Partners in coalitions need to find ways to work together for the limited amount of time they are in government together. That can be tricky, given that “before they started working together, they were, at least in the election, competitors, even if the parties are relatively close in terms of substance", Müller said.

“They do not have identical interests and they don’t bring the same ideas to the government table. And each party wants to get its policies implemented because this is what they can then show to the voters.”

Coalitions, on average, don’t last as long as single-party governments.

Governments enter into coalitions when no party manages to gain a majority of the seats in parliament in elections. Two or more parties -- generally led by that which won the most seats -- then band together to build a majority.

Ruling from behind

Alternatively, the winning party may try to rule as a minority government, either with or without the agreed support of a smaller party that votes with the bigger party at critical moments or abstains to allow for a majority.

Minority governments have been common in the Scandinavian countries. They generally work best “when the other parties are too distant in ideological terms to coalesce together, so they allow this minority government", said Daniella Giannetti, professor of political science at the University of Bologna.

“They can be long-lasting,” Giannetti said.

In her talks with the DUP, Britain’s May is looking not to form a formal coalition, but enter into a so-called “confidence and supply” agreement in which the DUP would support the Conservatives in key votes such as the budget and the Queen's Speech, which sets out policy direction. Though no finalised deal has been announced, the DUP would likely not share governing responsibilities and cabinet posts. That would effectively have May overseeing a minority government.

John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde said that while there are areas of agreement between the DUP, such as support for Brexit and the union with Scotland, the partnership may be an uneasy one.

“The DUP is essentially a working-class party,” he said. “It is socially conservative and economically illiberal.”

One issue that may emerge as a source of disagreement, Curtice said, is welfare cuts, which the Conservatives have been championing but which won’t sit well with the DUP base.

Competing interests

Unsurprisingly, single-party governments tend to last longer than coalition governments and have an easier time making decisions. The flip side is that, with only one party’s interests to consider, they can be less accommodating than coalition governments.

Coalitions, on the other hand, contain implicit tensions. “In a coalition, what is good for one party may not be good for another party,” Müller said.

In instances when there are many smaller parties, coalition building can be a laborious enterprise, as the Netherlands is currently illustrating -- though at three months, they are far from setting records. After holding elections in June, 2010, Belgium, another country with a fragmented party system, went a record 589 days before it was able to form a government.

Thirteen parties won seats in the most recent Dutch parliamentary election, making it “not astonishing” that it is taking them a long time to put together a coalition, Müller said. “You have a complex situation with the need to accommodate quite a few partners.”

What’s more, there are parties most notably Geert Wilders's nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV), that Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is trying to avoid aligning with. But with the PVV having won the second largest share of seats -- 20, to the VVD’s 33 -- working around them has proven tricky business.

Time is running out in Holland. The coalition-forming process has already taken longer than the average 72 days, the summer recess starts in just over a month and a budget is due in September. On the bright side, at the 90-day mark since the election, Dutch lawmakers still have room to run before they hit the nation’s slowest government-formation record of 208 days.

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