Pinterest WhatsApp

In 1974, when Harold Wilson formed the UK’s first minority government in 45 years, observers like Anthony King optimistically claimed that “[m]inority rule can work”. This challenges the oft-cited view of Strøm that minority governments are counterintuitive phenomen[a] in the world of parliamentary democracy”. Today, minority governments constitute approximately one third of governments in established parliamentary democracies, globally. This ‘counterintuitive’ statistic raises the following questions: When can minority rule work? Under which conditions are minority cabinets effective? How have minority rule governments evolved over time?

To answer these questions, I focus on three cases – Sweden, Norway, and Denmark – where minority cabinets are the predominant form of government. Ultimately, I argue that existing measures to assess the performance of minority government performance, such as Strøm’s (1990) functionalist approach and Field’s (2016) concept of “governing capacity”, fail to explain the effectiveness of minority governments.

Setting the Scene: Regularity Hypothesis and Indicators

Strøm’s regularity hypothesis – which states that “[m]inority governments perform best in those political systems where they are most common, and least well where they are most rare” – can be used as starting point to explain when minority governments are effective. It could be argued that path dependency – meaning that initial decisions and developments concerning minority governments have long-term effects on current formations of such governments –  and a “collective memory” (common experiences and learnings) are developing in countries in which minority governments are common, like in Nordic countries. Further, actors can learn from their experiences in a social constructivist sense and thus promote the effectiveness of minority governments. Sweden has been ruled by minority cabinets for over 70 percent of the post-war period. In Denmark, “minority governments without stable parliamentary support became the new rule”, while Norway is considered the “land of minority governments, with one of the highest incidences of such cabinets in the world of parliamentary democracies”. Therefore, one could expect that Nordic minority governments are more effective than their other European counterparts. In terms of performance – following a functionalist approach – three indicators are used by Strøm to assess the general “effectiveness” of minority governance: a) the legislative productivity (number and share of government bills approved), b.) the government duration (stability), and c.) the degree to which the electorate rewards or punishes governing parties in the subsequent election. This approach also underscores Field’s (2016) concept of “governing capacity” to describe “the government’s ability to make significant, authoritative decisions regarding the country’s public policies”.

In the case of Sweden, Bäck & Hellström (2022) conclude that “no systematic differences can be found when comparing minority and majority cabinets”. However, the devil is in the detail. The quantity of bills passed reveals little about their content, that is, whether rather small legislation changes where achieved or a controversial reform. Moreover, since the Swedish Constitution has weakened the incentive for the government to call for early elections, an administrations’ duration is an insufficient indicator of governance effectiveness. In Norway, minority governments have been less durable than majority governments. It must be noted, however, that Norwegian cabinets have remained stable, as eight out of ten cabinets formed since 1990 have served out their maximum term. Therefore, both Strøm and Field’s respective concepts consist of blurry indicators that are not sufficient to analyse the effectiveness of minority governments. Instead, I argue that we can measure government performance through three key indicators: 1. the type of minority government (“what”), 2. shifting coalition strategies (“how”), and 3. the positioning in the party system (“where”).

  1. Type of Minority Government: Contract Minority Cabinets and Issue-Linkage

Minority governments with written support agreements can enhance their performance, especially in environments where minority-government experience is low. As is evident in the case of Sweden, minority governments can increase efficiency through written “confidence and supply” arrangements with opposition parties to secure a legislative majority. The phenomenon of contract parliamentarism or the so-called contract minority cabinet with permanent legislative majority support are similarly stable compared to majority governments, since the written statements function like coalition agreements, thus decreasing uncertainty. This type of minority government can essentially be described as a “majority government in disguise”.

However, formalising agreements with one specific legislative partner also means that the minority government could have less policy influence. Moreover, as Krauss & Thürk (2022) show, minority cabinets without written support agreements have a higher risk of early government termination than majority cabinets. Importantly, however, Krauss & Thürk do not analyse the nature of the support agreements. Therefore, it remains puzzling what kind of support agreement would fulfil the stabilising function (in terms of format, length, duration, number of addressed policy areas, and conflict-solving mechanisms). Such agreements can cover a wide spectrum of formalism and commitment. For instance, the agreements could constitute a mutual press release or a formal legal contract like the “confidence and supply” agreement. The latter has – according to Thürk – “the most binding character of support agreements”Approaches and theories on contracts and formalism from legal scholars could give more insights.

Other options include the “patchwork agreements” frequently used in Denmark, whereby different combinations of parties support different elements of the budget. However, as Green-Pedersen observes, the proposals are not technically connected to the budget per se, rather they constitute regular legislative changes passed in connection with the budget. Therefore, we may conclude that minority governments can enhance their performance through establishing written contracts and using an issue-linkage strategy to effectively pass their own proposals, since the government is under public pressure to pass the budget.

  1. Shifting Coalition Strategies

Second, it can be argued that (“substantive”) minority cabinets which constantly have to find legislative partners (“shifting majorities”, in Strøm’s terminology) can offer a greater variety of policy options by picking the least costly coalition partner, which, in turn, enhances their effectiveness. For instance, when considering the fiscal performance of minority governments, the public expenditure under minority governments is frequently smaller than that under majority governments because they can choose among different partners. In Denmark, parties in minority coalitions often build legislative alliances with opposition parties. Since 1994, the Danish minority governments have been highly flexible in governing the economy with support from diverse parties, ranging from the Unity List to major non-socialist parties.

However, when analysing the fiscal performance of minority cabinets, the role of the opposition must also be considered. Especially if the minority government is a coalition, the opposition could be more willing to pass budgets with deficit to reach office earlier because they view the deficits as a political opportunity. At the same time, it can be argued that “substantive minority cabinets” are more threatened by legislative defeat than formal minority cabinets, especially if the minority government cannot choose a partner to pass a law and the opposition party or parties hold a veto position. This is interlinked with the third proposed indicator, that is, the question of the minority governments’ position in the party system.

  1. Positioning in the Party System

The performance of minority governments depends on their positioning in the party system. In the literature, scholars – based on the Median voter theorem – claim that minority cabinets have an effective bargaining position when they are centrally located in terms of policymaking. Empirically, however, the opposite is the case when analysing the political system of Norway. Once again, the devil is in the detail. In his case study on Norway, Rasch (2011) suggests that no data “can document that most minority governments generally comprise the median legislator”. In line with this observation, König & Lin (2020) analyse the relationship between positioning and policy-making effectiveness, covering a dataset with almost 6,000 bills proposed by 256 ministries in 13 minority coalitions in Norway. They reveal that the median party is rarely included in Danish minority coalitions. In fact, the median party stayed out of the minority coalition in 63 percent of the investigated portfolios. Against the theoretical approaches of Baron (1991) and Tsebelis (2002), a minority coalition with a median party “creates an unbalanced policy-making structure that may amplify coalition tensions and thus increases the level of scrutiny and reduces policy-making effectiveness”. In cases where the median stays out of the minority coalition and is “sandwiched”, the minority coalition seems to have more effective policy-making conditions. It is important to note, however, that the work of König & Nick Lin (2020) only focuses on the political positionality of minority governments in one country. Studies in the comparative or cross-national context would yield more insightful and verifiable results.


In attempting to determine under which conditions “[m]inority rule can work”, we can conclude that Strøm’s functionalist approach as well as Field’s “governing capacity” concept offer insufficient explanations of the performance of minority governments. Instead, the three proposed indicators – 1. the type of minority government, 2. shifting coalition strategies, and 3. the positioning in the party system – provide a more nuanced and detailed picture of  minority governments and their performance. The country examples repeatedly show that the devil is in the detail and that the specific contexts of each country should be considered. However, a comparative perspective is also insightful to test whether the proposed indicators hold for other geographical contexts. While this article has focused on Scandinavian countries, the arguments could be further explored by investigating whether the claims apply to other democracies in Europe. The question of accessing the performance of minority governments remains relevant, considering an “on-going polarisation of party systems (and societies) in many European countries”. With no doubt, minority governments will constitute a more common phenomenon in the future.

Note: This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford. 



Previous post

OxPol Blogcast. Politics, Re-Imagined — Democratic Backsliding with Vicente Valentim

Next post

Sliding away from Unity: The Democratic Dilemma in the European Union