Prime Minister from a Small Party? Impossible? Well… There are Examples
A government headed by a prime minister who leads small faction in the Knesset - how exceptional is such a scenario and to what extent is it prevalent in parliamentary systems? Prof. Ofer Kenig analyzes examples of parliamentary democracies where the prime minister hails from a small party.
"Prime ministers in parliamentary democracies most often come from large parties, but the possibility of a government headed by someone from a small party certainly exists. In Belgium and Latvia prime ministers representing smaller parties now serve in office. Such a situation usually occur in circumstances where the political system is at a dead-end and a compromise candidate is appointed. While this is not an ideal situation, it may be preferable to the reality of prolonged political deadlock."Prof.Ofer Kenig
The political system is, for the fourth time in less than two years, immersed in the complex process of forming a government. And as in previous times – achieving success is questionable, and the nightmare of a fifth election is not in the realm of the impossible. One of the solutions to the political deadlock that has come up recently is the formation of a minority government, even one headed by a prime minister who comes from a medium-size to small faction. To what extent is this type of scenario unusual? To what extent does it fly in the face of the principles of the parliamentary democratic regime?
The fundamental principle of the parliamentary system of government is that the executive branch (the government) depends on the confidence of the legislative branch (the parliament). However, this confidence is not necessarily expressed in the government's reliance on a majority of MPs, for example-- in minority governments. A study examining the types of governments in Europe between 1945- 2010 found that 33% of them were minority governments.
The description below presents the various types of governments in 25 parliamentary democracies, as of April 2021, and provides us with several insights. First, in most cases (17 out of 25) these are governments that enjoy a majority in parliament. This group includes governments made up of a single party (UK, Greece, New Zealand,) or coalition governments (13 cases). Second, 8 cases (32%), are minority governments. This group includes minority governments consisting of a single party (Denmark, Portugal, Canada) or coalition minority governments (5 cases). Third, even when there is a coalition government that enjoys a majority in parliament, the prime minister does not always come from the largest party in parliament or in the coalition. In Belgium, for example, the current prime minister, Alexander de Croix, belongs to the Flemish Liberal Party (Open VLD), although the party won only 12 of the 150 seats in parliament (8%), making it the fifth largest party in parliament. In Latvia, Prime Minister Krisinis Karinesh is serving on behalf of a New Unity (JV) that in the last election received only 8 out of 100 seats—that is, the smallest party in parliament!
• The current Prime Minister Alexander de Crooo (incumbent since October 2020) serves on behalf of the Flemish Liberal Party (Open VLD) even though his party won only 12 seats out of 150 (8%) in the last election. It is the fifth largest party in parliament ... even if we include the Walloon Liberal Party (MR), which is considered a "sister" party, they both hold only 26 seats (17%).
• Also, following the 2014 elections, a prime minister was finally appointed from a mid-size party. Charles Michel served on behalf of the Walloon Liberals (MR) even though they received only 20 seats (13%) which placed them as the third largest party.
• The current Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš is serving on behalf of the New Unity List (JV) which in the 2019 election received only 8 seats (8%) which placed it as the smallest party in Parliament! Following the failure of major party candidates to form a government after the election, the president gave Kariņš a chance and he managed to form a coalition of 5 parties.
• Giovanni Spadolini served as Prime Minister of Italy for a year and a half (1981-1982). He served on behalf of the Italian Republican Party (PRI) - a small center-right party that won only 16 seats out of 630 in the election (2.5%). In fact it was only the fourth largest partner in a coalition of 5 parties. Coalition parties decided to appoint him after the previous prime minister (on behalf of the Christian Democrats) resigned amid a corruption scandal.
• Benedetto "Bettino" Craxi served as Prime Minister from 1983 to 1987. He represented the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) - a medium-sized party that won 73 seats (about 12% of all seats). It was the second largest party in a coalition of 5 parties, but the major party relinquished the post of prime minister.
• Giuliano Amato served as Prime Minister for one year (1992-1993).He served on behalf of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) - a medium-sized party that won 92 seats (about 15% of all seats). It was the second largest party in a coalition of 4 parties.
Ahti Karjalainen served as prime minister for a year and a half (1970-1971) on behalf of the Center Party (KESK) - a party that came only third in the election with 36 seats out of 200 (18%). The party was the second largest in a coalition of 5 parties.
• Martti Miettunen served as Prime Minister for a year and a half (1975-1977) on behalf of the Center Party (KESK) - a party that came only third in the election with 39 seats (19.5%). The party was the largest in a minority government formed after a deadlock in forming a government.
• Kjell Magne Bondevik served as Prime Minister for two and a half years (1997-2000) on behalf of the Christian Democratic Party (KrF) even though in the election it came only in fourth place and won 25 seats (15%). He returned to office after the 2001 election, although in this election the party came only in fifth place and won only 22 seats (13%).