Friday, May 22, 2009

Are Majority Governments Possible?

I've been thinking about whether it is likely we'll ever see a majority government in the future. Decades from now, I'm sure, the political climate will be completely different. But in the short term, I have real doubts we'll see a majority government. Never before has there been four healthy parties, each with solid bases of support.

Prior to 1993, only three parties were able to win more than one or two seats: the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats. The first two parties were strong enough that when they won elections, they'd win majorities. After 1993, the political scene splintered and five parties were able to win seats: Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, Reform/Canadian Alliance, New Democrats, and the Bloc Quebecois. The right was divided and the NDP weak, ensuring Liberal majorities.

But now we're back to four strong parties, and I have difficulty envisioning a situation where a majority government is possible. If it was going to happen, 2008 was the election. But we're in a political climate today where all four parties are reputable and competent enough that voters have several options if their usual party falters. In other electoral years, the disastrous Dion campaign would have resulted in a Conservative majority. But because the NDP has carved out for itself a strong niche, they took enough votes and seats from the Liberals to keep the Conservatives at bay. And the Bloc has such a monopoly on the seats in Quebec that today parties need to win 155 seats out of only 260 or so (60%), rather than the full 308.

I thought a little mathematical exercise could demonstrate how unlikely majority governments are in the future - barring, of course, an unexpected catastrophe for one of the parties.

First, let's look at the situation post-2004. The political climate today is now a "four-party system". Despite the presence of the Greens, they really aren't a factor since even in a stellar election campaign they don't seem capable of winning more than two or three seats. Since 2004 and the advent of the four party system, the "floors" of the various parties have been 99 for the Conservatives (2004), 77 for the Liberals (2008), 49 for the Bloc Quebecois (2008), and 19 for the New Democrats (2004). Considering that at least one independent has won in every election, we'll consider that the "Independent/Green" floor as well.

If the Liberals, Bloc, and NDP all repeat their worst results since 2004 and the advent of the four party system, the Opposition would still hold 146 seats. That means that the Conservatives, in a worst-case scenario for the other three parties, could win 162 seats. That is a margin of seven seats between majority and minority territory. That is not a big margin to work with, and it is difficult to imagine the Liberals repeating a worst-result-in-Confederation-history, which is what 77 seats represents. In this four party system, a Conservative majority is quite unlikely.

If the Conservatives, Bloc, and NDP all repeat their worst results since 2004, the Opposition would hold 168 seats - a majority. That means, in such a worst-case-scenario, the Liberals could win 140 seats. Looking at it from this angle, that makes a Liberal majority government virtually impossible.

Now, I know what you're thinking. While the Liberals probably will never dip below 77 seats, it is quite possible that the Conservatives, Bloc, and NDP could win fewer seats than their post-2004 floor. So let's bring that floor as far back as 1993.

Since the Conservative Party did not exist between 1993 and the 2004 election, it is difficult to find their floor. The Canadian Alliance and PCs had 78 seats in 2000 and 80 in 1997. They also only had 54 in 1993. It would be unfair to assign that 93 result as their floor, since the electoral support of those two parties was more than the sum of their parts. For this exercise, I'd have to choose the 1997 result as the Conservative floor. The Liberal floor remains at 77 from 2008. The Bloc Quebecois floor has to be 38 which they achieved in the 2000 election. That is really as low as it is possible to envision the Bloc going. The NDP won only 9 seats in 1993, though I feel their 13-seat result in 2000 makes more sense as a floor. But we'll use 9 anyway. And the Independents will remain at 1.

So, an absolutely worst case scenario in the event of a Conservative government would be an opposition of 125 seats. That leaves 183 to the Conservatives. That is still just a 28-seat margin, and considering how badly things would have to go for every other party, that is not as big a margin as it looks. For an absolutely worst case scenario in the event of a Liberal government, the opposition would still have 128 seats, leaving 180 to the Liberals, a margin of 25 seats.

It is difficult to use the floors from between 1993 and 2000 because having five competitive parties changes things significantly. For that reason, I think the last two scenarios are less likely. If we use the happy medium between the post-1993 and post-2004 scenarios, the Conservative margin in a best case scenario for them is 17.5 seats, while the Liberal margin is only five seats.

I think this exercise shows that it is very, very unlikely that majority governments are possible in the political climate we find ourselves in. For a majority government to happen, the Bloc has to drop to second place in Quebec, the NDP down to 10% or lower, and the Liberals or Conservatives below 30%. It is difficult to envision all of these events happening in one election.

So, that means we're condemned to minority governments, at least for the next decade or two. That suits me fine - more projections and polls to follow. Majority governments, for the politco, are boring.


  1. Could you please explain to me the projections at the top of the page? I don't understand why you end up with 127 CON 110 LIB. Why one projection for the last five polls, and then this one? What are the polls from which you draw the numbers for the 127-110 projection?

    And what is your criteria to qualify a government as stable or unstable?

    Thanks :)

  2. The projection at the top of the page is a long-term projection. It takes into account past voting result and polls stretching back to December. Polls are also weighted in terms of their age, the amount of people polled, and the reliability of the polling firm. It is a more accurate projection of what the result of the next election will be.

    The "Last 5 Poll" projection or short term projection merely takes the last five polls at face value, averages them out, and gives a seat result. It doesn't take into account anything other than those polls, and is more of a reflection of, if the pollsters are right, an election taking place right now would have that result.

    The short-term projection is a way to see how the parties are doing right now. The long-term projection is a way to see who is in the best position to win an election.

    A stable minority government is a minority government that can only be out-voted by the 2nd and 3rd parties. An unstable minority government is a minority government that can only be outvoted by the 2nd and 4th parties.

    This information can be found in the links at the side of the page (About This Site).

  3. As to your post, it's a well-thought out piece of work Éric. Another factor to note about why 1993 was such an unusual election is that many incumbents did not run for reelection (66/285 or 23.2%; more than any election before or since then, see "Incumbency Has its Benefits" and particularly Table 1).

    Perhaps it was because they feared losing their seats anyway, or perhaps in the case of government members they were not interested in sitting in opposition. Some others were despondent over the failure of the Charlottetown referendum and the feeling that all their efforts could wind up being so offside with where Canadians and Quebeckers were at.

    Still, whatever the reason, it left a LOT of seats with no incumbents, making them even easier pickings for other parties. And 67.5% of the resulting House was made up of new MPs.

    But, you're right. Unless the political landscape changes between now and the next election in terms of the number of parties in contention, it is very difficult to see any party forming a majority government, although I'm not sure all the political parties have fully accepted that reality as yet.


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