It is, of course, possible that the Canadian election today will not produce a clear ‘winner.’ It would be a surprise if any party emerged from the election with a majority of the seats, and it would not be a surprise if the party with the most seats was in a less-than-commanding position to form a minority cabinet.
Canada has had considerable experience with federal elections in which no party obtained a majority of the seats. In each of those cases, the party with the most seats has formed a cabinet consisting of ministers only from that party, and that remained in office only if the other parties in the House of Commons did not join forces on a no-confidence motion. This is what is meant by the term, minority government, as opposed to a majority government (one party having over 50% of the seats) or a coalition (two or more parties sharing executive and legislative power and dividing up the cabinet ministerial portfolios among themselves).
Not counting today’s election, Canadians have gone to the polls in a general election sixteen times since 1957. In almost half of those elections–seven–no party has obtained a majority of seats. (Of the other nine in which one party formed a majority government, only twice did that party have a majority of votes: 1958 and 1984, both times the Conservative party and both times the party won around 3/4 of the seats.)
Many of these minority governments have been quite close to a majority. Here are the dates of those elections, the party that won the most seats, and the percentage of seats it held.
1957, Conservative, 42.3
1962, Conservative, 43.8
1963, Liberal, 48.7
1965, Liberal, 49.4
1972, Liberal, 41.3
1979, Conservative, 48.2
2004, Liberal, 43.8
The average seat share of these minority governments has been 45.4%; in three cases, the party forming the cabinet had over 48% of the seats.* With the largest party short of, but often fairly close to, a majority of seats, parliament has been “workable,” by which I mean the government has been able to govern and legislate, albeit cautiously, by making ad hoc agreements with other parties or by those other parties’ selective abstentions on parliamentary votes.
The 2006 election, however, may produce the least workable plurality in the Commons in more than half a century.
My estimate based on an average of several polls published on 19 January suggests around 143 seats for the Conservatives, or 46%, which would be near the average for minority governments in Canada. However, other estimates–including alternate scenarios using my estimation method, only based on a closer result than the recent poll average–have the likely Conservative plurality of seats being in the range of 38â€“42%. Even the high end of that range would be a smaller share than the current Paul Martin government holds, and the lowest since 1972. Moreover, given the current make-up of the Canadian party system, a Conservative plurality could be particularly unworkable: The NDP has little in common programmatically with the Conservatives, and the Bloc Quebecois is a separatist party (which also has some signifcant policy differences with the Conservatives).
As Wilfred Day notes in a really interesting comment to an earlier post, there is no provision granting the plurality party a right to make the first effort to form a government (as there is in some other country’s constitutions, notably Iraq’s, as I have discussed at length previously). In fact, Wilfred quotes a Canadian parliamentary scholar as saying that the incumbent cabinet gets the first move in the event that an election has produced no majority: it decides whether to resign, or to face the new house and seek a confidence vote.
I recommend reading the entire excerpt that Mr. Day posted in his comment. The thrust is that a plurality of seats does not in any way prove that the party has “won.” Only a vote by the people’s elected representatives can do that. He cites the case of Ontario in 1985 when the Conservative party (then the incumbent, with a majority in the preceding provincial parliament) won 41.6% of the seats, but after a month of post-election negotiations, the Liberals (with 38.4% of the seats) were able to form a government with the support of the NDP (20% of the seats). It is worth noting in that case that the Liberals had won the popular vote, 38-37. It is also worth noting that the combined Lib-NDP seat share in that election was well over 50%.
In Canada’s federal parliament after today’s election, it is possible that the Liberal and NDP share will be greater than that of the Conservatives, but it is not likely to be a majority, given that the BQ will probably win 58-63 seats and be pivotal. Will either major party be willing to be seen negotiating with the BQ to make a government deal? I would think not. But the smaller the Conservative plurality and the closer the election, the less we can be assured that the party in the lead tonight will be the party granted the exclusive right to appoint cabinet ministers.
Whatever happens with the outcome of the election and the ensuing inter-party negotiations, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Canadians will be called back to the polls before long. A maximum term of parliament in Canada is five years, although elections often happen in the fourth year of a parliament. However, if a government loses a confidence vote–as minority governments are especially vulnerable to doing–or if it sees an opening to seek a greater mandate, a goverment may request, and the Goveror General usually will grant, an earlier election. For each of the above minority governments, here is when the next election was held (with the month noted for both dates), and what resulted from it:
1957/6 –> 1958/3, Conservatives reelected with majority (78.5% of seats)
1962/6 –> 1963/4, alternation to Liberal minority
1963/4 –> 1965/11, continued, but larger, Liberal minority
1965/11 –> 1968/6, Liberals reelected with majority
1972/10 –> 1974/7, Liberals reelected with majority
1979/5 –> 1980/2, alternation to Liberal majority
2004/6 –> 2006/1, ????
The average parliament without a majority party in the last 49 years has sat for a little over 18 months, or almost precisely the length of the one elected in 2004.
*It is worth noting that in two of these cases, the party with the most seats was not the party that the plurality of Canadian voters had voted for: “reversed pluralites” happened in 1957 and 1979.