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Minority Governments: Why Smaller Is Not Necessarily Worse

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In the wake of the results of the elections to the 24th Knesset, it would seem that a minority government is the most likely option that would enable the formation of a government and prevent yet another election

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Over the course of Israel’s political history, the country has been governed by several minority governments, and there is no reason why this should not happen again. Minority governments are not necessarily less stable or less able to govern, and despite the fact that this model does come with some challenges, it is important to remember that even majority coalition governments are not always flawlessly stable and effective.

A minority government is one in which the members of the parties, comprise less than 50% of the total members of parliament. Though most governments in democratic countries are majority governments, minority governments are also fairly common. A study of the governments formed in 29 European democracies between 1945 and 2010, found that approximately 33% were minority governments. There are two main distinctions between the types of minority governments: Most minority governments in established democracies are single-party (that is, they are based on just one party), though a considerable number are coalitions; and most minority governments in established democracies are based on “external support” from a specific party or parties (that is, they are not “pure” minority governments).

Minority governments are justified principally on the basis of a substantive approach to democracy, as opposed to a procedural approach. This is the case because procedural democracy focuses on the importance of decision-making by a majority, and so—question the legitimacy of minority governments. By contrast, substantive democracy does not consider a majority as the be-all and end-all, and alongside overall support for majority decision-making also emphasize principles such as minority rights and the need to limit the power of the majority to make certain decisions.

There are several factors that encourage the formation of minority governments. Naturally, minority governments are only formed if parliament does not contain a ruling party with more than 50% of the seats. Other factors include:

a. Political tradition: There are countries with a political tradition of minority governments (such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Spain), in which such governments are seen as the most natural model and the default option.

b. Political culture: As noted, minority governments are more common and viewed as more legitimate in countries in which substantive democracy is more accepted than procedural democracy.

c. The lack of a requirement for an "investiture vote" (a parliamentary vote of confidence for the new government): Minority governments are more common in countries in which investiture votes are not required (such as Denmark and Norway), because their governments do not need to garner a majority or even plurality/simple majority in parliament in order to be sworn in. However, minority governments can also be formed in countries in which investiture votes are required, but in order for this to happen, parties that are not members of the government must abstain or even support the new government in the investiture vote.

Why would parties support a minority government from the outside without joining it? Despite the obvious advantages of being in government, ideological parties are sometimes concerned that if they join the coalition, they will be perceived as having compromised their principles; and in certain situations, a party can gain more by supporting the government externally than by joining it.

Minority Governments as Compared with Majority Governments

Stability

In general, minority governments are less stable than majority governments. One reason for this is that parties supporting minority governments from the outside are less committed and may withdraw their support of the government more readily than is the case for parties that are members of majority governments. Another reason underlying the instability of minority governments, is that they are more likely tend to enter a state of paralysis, in which they cannot advance their policies in parliament because they do not have an assured parliamentary majority. In such situations, the ruling party itself may prefer to call new elections or to form a new government.

However, in light of the diversity of models of both majority and minority governments, the reality is more complex. In the Israeli context, it is particularly important to note that the common model of majority government, the oversized coalition -- in which there are more member parties than the minimum necessary to produce a majority in parliament—is relatively unstable, among other reasons because these coalitions are less homogeneous ideologically, and there is greater danger of friction among the different parties. According to empirical studies, this model is less stable than single-party minority governments, and some studies have found that it is also less stable than coalitionary minority governments.

Another important factor affecting the stability of minority governments is rooted in the no-confidence rules in parliament. The higher the threshold that must be met for a vote of no-confidence to be passed, the harder it is to replace a minority government, and thus the more stable it is (though this may harm the capacity for governance, as explained below).

Governance

Despite the danger that a minority government will find it difficult to gain a majority in parliament and thus will encounter difficulties in advancing policy, or even be completely paralyzed, studies show that there does not seem to be a significant difference between the functioning of minority and majority governments. As with stability, so with governance-- there are arguments that minority governments, while functioning less well than single-party majority governments, function as well as or even better than coalitionary majority governments, particularly oversized coalitions.

Minority governments function best when they rely on institutionalized and permanent external support from parties that are ideologically similar to the parties in government. There are even explanations as to why such governments are likely to function better than majority governments. On the one hand, they enjoy the benefit of a parliamentary majority, just as do majority governments. On the other, they are smaller than majority governments in terms of the number of ministers appointed, which saves public funds and makes government discussions more efficient, and may even reduce the number of government ministries needed.

It should be noted that minority governments are also subject to the traditional tension between stability and governance. The harder it is to replace a minority government and call new elections, the greater the danger that the government will enter a state of paralysis, in which it is unable to garner a parliamentary majority to advance its policies, yet is able to remain in power.

Other Aspects

In addition to the governance aspect, studies show that minority governments do not fall short of majority governments, and may even outperform them, when it comes to advancing other democratic values. For example, they perform as well as do majority governments with regard to responsiveness and fulfilling promises to voters. In addition, minority governments have the potential to improve the representation of marginalized groups considered out of bounds, if the parties that represent such groups support the government from the outside.

Minority Governments in Israel

Minority governments are not common in Israel. While over the years, there have been several examples of such governments, almost all were created due to the resignation of a coalition party from the coalition in the middle of a term of government, and they functioned until the government was expanded or until a new government was sworn in. The minority governments that functioned for relatively long periods were the second Rabin government (from the resignation of the Shas party in September 1993 until the swearing-in of Shimon Peres as prime minister following Rabin’s assassination in November 1995); the subsequent government, with Peres as prime minister, which was formed as a minority government with external support from the Arab parties; and the Barak government, which evolved into a minority government in the summer of 2000 following the resignation of the Yisrael B’Aliyah and Shas parties.

Why are minority governments rare in Israel? Several explanations suggest themselves: The requirement of an investiture vote in the Knesset as a condition for forming a new government; a tradition of “inclusion,” dating back to the pre-state era, according to which coalitions are a worthy mechanism for coordination among different social groups (this also explains why most coalitions in Israel are oversized); and a procedural approach to democracy, according to which only decisions made by a majority are legitimate.

However, conditions in Israel do not necessarily prevent the formation of a minority government in the future. Though the investiture vote makes this difficult, it is still possible (and happens in other countries, as noted above). Moreover, the investiture vote in Israel only requires a simple majority, meaning that the abstention of a single party that is not joining the government may be sufficient to allow its formation. In this context, it should also be taken into account that the fact that the Knesset has the power to dissolve itself with a majority of 61 members (a power that is not common in parliamentary democracies) means that any minority government in Israel will likely require committed external support. Without it, the opposition could dissolve the Knesset and call new elections at any time.

Similarly, while the political culture and tradition in Israel are not supportive of minority governments, to some extent, Israel does have a culture of external support for the government by the opposition on critical foreign policy issues: Labor supported the Camp David Accords, which were signed by a Likud government; the Arab parties supported the Oslo Accords (and the government in general), despite not being members of the coalition; and the Shinui party supported the final stages of legislation regarding the disengagement plan, despite not being part of the government at that time.

Conclusion and Possible Outcomes

Overall, minority governments in Israel can be expected to bring with them both advantages and disadvantages with regard to legitimacy, governance, and stability. Two advantages particularly worth noting are: (a) better representation of marginalized groups and their reduced alienation from the political system—specifically in a situation in which Arab parties support the government externally; and (b) greater ability of the Knesset to provide oversight of the government—a matter in which the Knesset has functioned poorly and which requires significant improvement. This is because the parliamentary majority enjoyed by minority governments is less solid and automatic than that of majority governments (even when the minority governments are based on committed external support).

It is particularly important to emphasize that a minority government is a legitimate solution in light of the current abnormal political situation. Israeli politics entered a spiral whirlwind around two years ago from which it is yet to emerge – of repeat elections, transition governments, and then, non-functioning governments. Moreover, unlike in the past, senior figures in the political landscape—most of them from the center-left bloc, but also from the right—have publicly discussed the possibility of forming a minority government, including with external support from Arab parties, and have thus granted legitimacy to this possibility.

Indeed, in the wake of the results of the elections to the 24th Knesset, it would seem that a minority government is the most likely option that would enable the formation of a government and prevent yet another election.

Several options have been proposed in this context. The two most prominent are:

a. A right-wing government, headed by Netanyahu, comprising Likud, Yamina, Religious Zionism, Shas, and United Torah Judaism (59 seats) and supported externally by Ra’am (4 seats).

b. A centrist government comprising Yesh Atid, Yamina, New Hope, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, and Labor (52 seats), with external support from Meretz, the Joint List, and/or Ra’am (maximum 16 seats in total).

We can also consider other possibilities, such as external support for a centrist government by Haredi parties. Clearly, all these options would be very difficult to implement, especially because of the great ideological gap between the parties that would form the government or support it externally. It is therefore far from certain that these are practical solutions, but if they are-- they should certainly not be ruled out simply on the basis of being minority governments.