When the dust settled at the end of the 2022 midterms, and the GOP’s red wave failed to materialize, Republicans consoled themselves with the fact that they had indeed won the House Of Representatives. Sure 222-212 was a fairly small majority, but it was indisputably a majority! Perhaps without the Senate they would not be able to pass the sort of legislative agenda they had promised voters, but they could still prevent Biden’s agenda from making it to law if they presented a united front. Presumably no issue. After all, as the old saying goes: “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.”
And then the trouble began. The cascading series of votes to elect Kevin McCarthy Speaker of The House were derailed, one after another, by the efforts of a dedicated group of far-right Republicans lead by the Freedom Caucus. Voting continued amidst negotiations with (and concessions to) these holdouts. As the Freedom Caucus continued to act in its own interests it took on the appearance of a separate political party entirely. One that could make a minority party out of the once indivisible GOP. Ideas were floated that maybe, in exchange for centrist compromises, a number of Democrats could vote to give McCarthy his speakership and end the ongoing catastrophe. While this never came to fruition, and the rebellious Freedom Caucus were eventually brought back into the fold, the affair did spark comparisons to parliamentary politics and stirred talk in political circles on the topic of minority and coalition governments. While the two-party presidential system usually keeps these negotiations behind the scenes, Americans were being treated to a rare look at parliamentary politics, and how echoes of that system still exist within the legislative branch.
Forming a government
The concept of “forming a government” as used in the context of this article may be a foreign one to readers more familiar with the presidential system. While the executive in a presidential system is chosen by public election, the executive in a parliamentary system is selected by the legislature. The successful election, by the legislature, of an executive (most commonly a prime minister and cabinet) is known as forming a government. As we will see shortly, this is not always a simple task.
What is a minority government?
In a parliamentary system of government when one political party holds more seats in the legislature than any other party but fails to obtain fifty percent of the overall seats it can in many cases still form a government without the support of other parties (so long as it can achieve a confidence agreement but more on this later). In this case it becomes what is known as a minority government. This is in contrast to a majority government where the ruling party holds a majority of seats, rather than merely a plurality.
While technically possible, the obstacles faced by this new governing party are clear: any legislative agenda the ruling party proposes can be shot down by a unified opposition from those legislators excluded from government. In fact the very stability of a minority government is often in perpetual jeopardy due to the threat of a No Confidence vote. If such a vote passes the current government is deemed unfit to continue operating. At this point the existing government is usually given a window in which to remedy the situation. For example: in the U.K. a Motion Of Confidence passed by parliament within fourteen days can prevent the full dissolution of government. This allows the minority government to seek support from smaller parties or form an alternative government. Should they fail in this a general election will be called and an attempt will be made to form a government from the newly elected parliament.
With the possibility for defeat looming, and the opportunity for legislative success so limited, minority governments find themselves drawn towards the most logical solution: some form of coalition government.
Coalition: your ticket to governance
In the absence of a clear majority held by a single party, a larger party may take on one or more junior coalition partners to form a coalition government. This is done via negotiations that weigh the policy goals and political aspirations of the various factions within the governing body. If a coalition is able to secure greater than fifty percent of seats in the legislature they will take power having neutralized, to some degree, the dangers of ruling as a minority government. At the very minimum this new government is likely immune to the threat of a No Confidence vote, though the legislative agenda of the larger party may be affected by negotiations with its junior coalition partner.
One instructive example is the Oireachtas parliament of The Republic of Ireland, which has spent much of its modern existence governed by coalitions. In fact, the governments of Ireland since 1978 have been a non-stop parade of varying coalitions. Either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael have headed each of these, with junior partners including Labour, The Greens, and independents. In 2020 a coalition government was even formed that included both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael following a surge from their largest rival Sinn Féin.
Other notable coalition governments of the current moment include Norway, Canada, Pakistan, Croatia, and Sweden. The last of these is especially notable in that its coalition is formed by three parties: the Moderate Party, Christian Democrats, and Liberals (in agreement with a fourth: Sweden Democrats) none of which individually holds over 20% of parliamentary seats.
Coalition without the commitment
Alternative versions of this process less formal than a coalition exist as well. One commonly seen is Confidence And Supply agreement. In this arrangement a smaller party or individual senator agrees to support the minority government in all matters of confidence and appropriations.
Take, for example, Australia following the 2010 election. This exceptionally tight election saw the LNP (once itself a coalition of two parties) and Labor parties each secure 72 seats in the 150-seat Senate, leaving both four seats short of a majority. They soon turned their attention to the six remaining legislators: one belonging to The Greens, one belonging to Nationals WP, and four independents. After negotiations one independent and the sole Nationals WP senator cast their support for LNP while another three independents and The Greens’ senator threw in with Labor, giving Labor a narrow one-seat majority. This allowed Labor to pass a budget and avoid a No Confidence motion. The independent senators who lent their support to Labor meanwhile won concessions including policy focus on their respective regions, and parliamentary reforms. They were however under no obligation to vote in favor of Labor’s policy agenda.
Somewhere in between the Confidence And Supply agreement and a full-fledged coalition we also find the idea of “Jumping Majorities.” Here a cabinet from one party negotiates a legislative majority on a vote-by-vote basis. These majorities may change from issue to issue but, so long as a majority can be negotiated that will avoid a No Confidence vote, the initial party is able to remain in power.
Taking coalition further: the unity government
Another alternative along these lines is the formation of a unity government. In such cases, all political parties (or major parties anyways) come together to form a government that lacks any notable opposition. Due to the ideological drawbacks of such a strategy, unity governments are generally only seen in times of war or crisis where it is agreed that typical policy goals must be sublimated to ensure the security of the nation. One such example occurred in 1806 London when Whigs and Tories came together in the so-called Ministry of All Talents to contend with the threat of Napoleon’s French Empire. However, the failings of such governance became apparent. Though it was successful in passing an act banning the Atlantic slave trade, the political differences present in the alliance proved too much. The unity government collapsed the following year leading to a general election.
More recently, we can look to Afghanistan following the 2014 elections. Allegations of fraud in the final runoff lead to a spike in violence across the country. To regain stability the two leading candidates agreed to a national unity government, which lasted until 2019. Another examples comes from Tunisia in 2014 after the events of the Arab Spring. In an attempt to ease the tensions between Islamist and secular factions a unity government was created. While this compromise was able to sustain the fragile government in its early days, critics point to the political stagnation that followed as a consequence of the unity government’s monopoly preventing it from being held democratically accountable.
Proponents of coalition governments say that they produce more consensus-based political solutions. The argument advanced here is that by forcing ideologically different parties to come to the negotiation table, compromises will be reached that satisfy a larger number of voters. Additionally, it has been proposed that the potential future necessity of forming coalitions helps prevent the casting of politicians from other parties in a purely antagonistic light, cutting down on polarization and minimizing the vitriolic rhetoric surrounding otherwise divisive issues. This, they argue, cuts down on “extremes” in political alignment.
Detractors on the other hand point out the ability of small or even statistically insignificant parties to have a disproportionate impact on policy in a close election, undermining democratic representation. A party that only needs an additional handful of seats to reach a majority may make concessions to fringe parties that do not represent the views of most voters. Similarly the potential exists for election results to incentivize parties with incompatible views to form coalitions in pursuit of influence. In the Northern Ireland Assembly for example, the argument states, smaller unionist parties could be tempted to make a deal with the large, avowed separatist party Sinn Féin, compromising the general public will. This touches on a larger complaint: ideologically divided coalitions can make for unstable governments resulting in rapidly changing, inconsistent or inexperienced regimes.
A House divided
The battle for House speakership lasted four grueling days. During the minor crisis that it represented, many Americans were challenged to think differently about how interparty politics work in the legislative branch. In the end though America held true to its two-party system. No centrist Republican fringe formed a coalition with the house minority Democrats to elect Hakeem Jeffries speaker. Likewise, Democrats did not support McCarthy on the final ballot in exchange for policy compromises. And of course the Freedom Caucus did not go off into the wilderness of the third party but was instead welcomed back into the GOP after some concessions.
And yet what we glimpsed during those few days was a view of something that has simply been formalized in the structure of the parliamentary system: a network of constituencies and alliances that exists below the surface-level headlines and talking points. After all, what was Joe Manchin and the Democrats’ fraught relationship of the past two years if not a coalition of necessity? What was the Republican Senate in 2010 if not a minority government welcoming in the junior partner of the Tea Party wing? And in one of McCarthy’s concessions, a new rule that allows any member of the House to introduce a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair, what else can we see but a direct parallel to that bane of minority governments: the vote of no confidence.
Featured Image is The British Parliament and Big Ben, by Maurice