The ways a cabinet can be terminated

There is a literature in political science on government (cabinet) termination in parliamentary democracies. This is not a review of that literature. Rather, it is an accounting of three recent cases that illustrate different ways that a government in a parliamentary democracy can end.

We can have a party based on an electoral majority that seeks a fresh mandate. That is, a party–or bloc of parties running together in the election– that has won a majority of seats, but, for strategic reasons, decides to hold an early election. Exhibit: Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Liberal Democratic Party) announced a snap election on 18 November, despite about two years remaining on the term and a comfortable majority won in the 2012 election. The election will be 14 December.

We can have a coalition government, formed by bargaining among multiple parties after an election, which holds a majority of seats. The parties might have a falling out over one or more policy issues, and the parties break up the government rather than resolve their differences within it. Exhibit: Israel. On 2 December, Prme Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two ministers, each of whom heads a party that was in his coalition: Finance Minister Yair Lapid (of the Yesh Atid party) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (of HaTnua). The firing, which meant the breakup of the coalition, followed weeks of rancor over the budget and a bill backed particularly by another coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, that critics (including the ceremonial president) said would elevate the state’s Jewish character over its democratic character. New elections will be 17 March.

We can have a minority cabinet, in which the party or parties holding ministerial positions do not hold a majority of parliamentary seats, with no available backing from among the non-governmental parties in parliament, and which fails to get the support needed to pass its budget. Exhibit: Sweden. On 3 December, the minority center-left government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven lost a budget vote, 153-182, and announced there would be a snap election. The wild card here was the Sweden Democrats, a far-right or “populist” party that neither Lofven nor the center-right opposition wanted to be seen to deal with following elections that were held less than three months ago. When the center-right would not back the budget, the government effectively lost its right to continue governing. A new election is expected to be set for 22 March.

One could say that these were listed not only in chronological order, but in reverse order of “necessity”. There was no reason why Japan needed an early election–its government has a solid majority. The Israeli election call is also not exactly necessary–the parties whose leaders Netanyahu fired were not in anything like open rebellion even if they were in policy disagreement (which is, after all, natural in coalitions). It was, however, a coalition that the PM himself clearly never wanted, and was forced upon him by the election results in early 2013 and the bargaining stances of other parties (specifically, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home). Polls show the potential of a much stronger right-wing bloc in a new election. So, it is an opportunistic call, but arguably less unnecessary than Japan’s. The Swedish situation, on the other hand, is one of real deadlock.

Of all these countries, the one that has the lowest tendency towards early elections is Sweden, even though minority governments are quite common there. Usually, however, they have had a fairly reliable “outside” party to back them on budgets or other confidence matters. Israel has frequent early elections–although this one will be earlier than any in years–and usually has oversized governments (meaning containing more parties than actually needed to have a parliamentary majority–such as the just-collapsed one). Japan usually has electoral-majority governments, but has had many early elections, including the famous one of 2005, also called by a government that had a secure election-based majority, but wanted (and got) a bigger one to push through reforms blocked by intra-party resistance.

All these great examples of early elections in parliamentary systems, and it wasn’t even my teaching quarter for any of my comparative democracy courses.

12 thoughts on “The ways a cabinet can be terminated

  1. I wonder if Sweden’s lack of early elections can be attributed to the fact that snap elections are only for the unexpired term of parliament and not for a full four-year term. Bringing down the government may not seem worth the effort to most opposition parties.

    • That is a good point, Chris. That sort of provision is quite unusual, isn’t it?

      I believe Portugal has such a provision, although in the context of a semi-presidential system.

      For Sweden, however, I would still suspect a sufficient explanation to be that they have no experienced a similar case of deadlock, by which I mean a minority government that lacks a party outside the cabinet with which it is willing to strike deals, but where the opposition is also not willing to form a governing bloc.

      • Or an amendment to my own response to Chris: the fact that the term is not reset following an early election is quite likely sufficient to explain why Sweden does not have elections in the last year of a (full) term, as do many parliamentary systems on a regular basis. However, for an election that’s especially early (after just three months), the inter-party bargaining situation is probably sufficient to account for the low propensity for such elections. In fact, the bargaining situation is the most important reason for early elections by governments other than those that are single-party (or bloc) majorities.

  2. My favourite examples like Sweden: 1) UK 1974. In February Labour won the most seats, 17 seats short of an overall majority. The 14 Liberal MPs were not enough. Independent Labour “Eddie” Milne was a difficult man to get on with. Dick Taverne, and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, were not reliable coalition partners. Another election followed in October, with a Labour majority of three. And 2) the Canadian federal election of 1925, on which books have been written.

  3. There is also the peculiar Westminster case where the government fails to secure supply from both houses and then becomes liable to a viceregal dismissal. Australia in 1975, about which many books have also been written, is the classic example.

    In 1932 the governor of New South Wales dismissed the Lang government for unlawful conduct, although it is extremely unlikely that will happen again. It’s worth noting that, unlike 1975, the governor was completely open with the premier and notified the premier that if he offered certain advice he would be dismissed.

  4. In Sweden’s case what will the election result be, most likely it will be a mess, and Sweden has entered a period of high political drama, and that is very unusual for a country unaccustomed to extra elections. As for Israel, the election result will be interesting to see what the new higher electoral threshold set at 3.25%, mean for the parties below that threshold.

  5. There is always the possibility that Shinzo Abe knows something we don’t, and his support within the Liberal Democrats is crumbling. In terms of parliamentary confidence, he may not need this vote, but he may need it for party confidence. This is obviously a separate issue, though.

    • If that is the case, then this dissolution would be another case like 2005. Koizumi’s snap election was triggered by intra-party dissent–specifically, the LDP lost enough of its caucus members in the second chamber that its postal reform bill was defeated. The bill actually had passed the first chamber (the only one that can be dissolved). He wound up with his coalition winning over two thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives, which would have been sufficient to override second-chamber vetoes if necessary.

      This time, Abe and the LDP seem almost certain to lose seats, but to retain a majority.

  6. Is Greece about to show another way an early election can be forced? If Prime Minister Antonis Samaras could not rally 200 (out of 300) MPs to elect a new (ceremonial?) President in the first or second round, or 180 in the third round, the Parliament will be dissolved and new election held. Or can this situation be lumped together with a case of failure to elect a government? (After all, the President is nominally vested with executive authority.) I remember similar situation occurred in 2009 in Moldova, which just elected another pro-European parliament without the 60% majority enough to elect the President, though this time the current president’s term only expires in 2017.

    • The Greek situation is obviously not about cabinet termination, but it indeed may show soon another way that a dissolution can occur. Greece has various provisions for automatic dissolution when the parties fail to do certain things, including electing the president. The Greek presidency is almost completely ceremonial, but nonetheless the office must be filled, and Greece is one of a few parliamentary systems that constitutionally mandate an early parliamentary election if the parties are deadlocked over the choice of a new president.

  7. Pingback: “December Agreement”–Swedish election unsnapped | Fruits and Votes

  8. Pingback: Greek parliament can’t elect president, must be dissolved | Fruits and Votes

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