How Sustainable is Minority Government?

Although minority governments were a possible outcome of proportional representation systems, they were seen as unstable, short-lived and producing weak government. Much of the political analysis in the Latvian media still adheres to this paradigm.

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Many Latvian political commentators have argued that the minority government of Indulis Emsis (Green/Farmers Union – Z/ZS) is inherently unstable and ineffective largely because it lacks a parliamentary majority. The logic seems clear – a minority government, controlling less than half the seats in parliament, must eventually fall to a vote of no-confidence. After all, majority Latvian coalition governments typically only survive one year. However, comparative academic research hints at other possible outcomes. Thus the purpose of this brief article is to place this Latvian discussion into the wider international discourse on the utility of minority governments.

There is a broad body of political research on government coalition formation. In the 1950s, political scientists argued that a proportional representation (PR) system would produce government coalitions with a bare majority (in other words, the minimum number of parties needed to form a coalition). Although minority governments were a possible outcome of PR systems, they were seen as unstable, short-lived and producing weak government, largely because they lived under the perpetual threat of a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. Much of the political analysis in the Latvian media still adheres to this paradigm.

However, further academic research has largely discredited this traditional line of thinking. In 1991, Michael Laver and Norman Schofield published a study of governments formed in twelve European countries between 1945 and 1987.[1] They found that all the countries under study had experienced minority government. Indeed, of the 218 governments formed in this period, 33% were minority, while a further 21% were ‘oversized’ (with more parties than needed to achieve a bare majority in parliament). Indeed, Laver and Schofield found that minority governments in Sweden, Denmark and Norway tended to be the most stable type of government coalition.[2] In addition, research by Kaare Strom contradicted the conventional wisdom that minority governments are ineffective, finding that there was little difference in government performance and policy outcomes between majority and minority coalitions.[3]

Alan Ware identified two primary ingredients for a successful minority government.[4] First, a fragmented parliamentary opposition that finds it difficult to act in concert against the government. Second, the level of conflict in the minority coalition government must be smaller than could be expected in the next likeliest majority coalition. What does this tell us about the current Latvian government?

First, in terms of fragmentation, there is little doubt that the parliamentary opposition to Emsis is deeply polarized between the nationalist bloc of For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (TB/LNNK) and New Era (JL), and the cluster of fractious Russian-speaking parties. Their continuing mutually bitter rhetoric makes it difficult to imagine these disparate parliamentary groupings acting in unison against Emsis. Indeed, the Prime Minister clearly intends to exploit these divisions through ‘jumping majorities’ on an issue-by-issue basis (when a minority government forges different alliances with the opposition, according to the type of legislation under discussion) e.g. on EU/NATO issues Emsis may turn to JL and TB/LNNK for support, while on reform of the security services (appointing a new KNAB Director), look to the Russian-speaking parties. In this way a minority government can be quite effective in pushing through its policy agenda.

However, while ideological divisions in the opposition can influence the longevity of a government coalition, the reverse can also apply. An ideologically divided cabinet is less likely to survive than a unified one, largely because its members are continually forced into difficult compromises.[5] Is the Emsis cabinet a homogenous grouping? Broadly speaking, all three coalition parties are programmatically similar in terms of foreign and economic policy, and differences in social and regional policy are minimal. However, education language reform could prove divisive, as the nationalist Peoples Party (TP) comes head-to-head with the newly multiethnic Latvian First Party (LPP). Moreover, the different corporate interests that generously finance the coalition parties could have differing ideas on privatization and other more specific aspects of economic policy.

How harmonious would any alternative coalition be? Bearing in mind the hateful bickering between TP and JL both before and since the 2002 election, it is difficult to see them as coalition partners in the immediate future, despite their great programmatic similarities, although there can be

few doubts that they will be at the heart of the next government coalition. Moreover, the Russian-speaking National Harmony Party (TSP) is likely to continue supporting Emsis simply because it views this coalition more favourably than any other reasonable alternative that would likely contain the more aggressively nationalist TB/LNNK and JL.

Ironically, this is also likely to be the catalyst for the collapse of the Emsis government. While the opposition is fragmented, the coalition parties broadly homogenous and no other viable alternative visible in the near future, there are country-specific factors that point towards this coalition eventually collapsing. In particular, survey data clearly shows that ethnic Latvian voters overwhelmingly vote for ethnic Latvian parties. The electoral disaster that befell the Latvian Social Democrat Worker’s Party (LSDSP) and, to a lesser extent TB/LNNK, in the 2002 parliamentary election followed their flirtation with the Russian-speaking bloc in the Riga local authority. There can be no doubt that TP and Z/ZS are well aware of this factor, and will cease their cooperation with Russian-speaking parties (possibly including LPP) as the 2006 election draws ever closer. But in the intervening period, the Emsis government may well prove to be more programmatically coherent and effective than is commonly believed.


[1] Michael Laver and Norman Schofield (1991), Multiparty Government. Oxford University Press: Oxford. The countries under study were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

[2] Indeed, Swedish minority governments (invariably led by the Social Democrats) dominated twentieth century Swedish politics. However, the alliances have changed over the years: from Agrarians in the mid twentieth century, to Communists from the 1960’s, and ex-Communists and Greens more recently.

[3] Kaare Strom (1985), ‘Party Goals and Government Performance in Parliamentary Democracies’ pp. 738-754 in The American Political Science Review. Vol. 79, No. 3

[4] Alan Ware (1996), Political Parties and Party Systems. Oxford University Press: Oxford p. 339

[5] Paul Warwick (1994), Government Survival in Parliamentary Democracies. Cambridge University Press: New York

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