What happens if no party wins a majority of seats? Minority possibilities, explained
OTTAWA -- At this point in the race, based on polling, a majority government may not be in the forecast for either the Liberal or Conservative parties. That's prompted a flurry of attention on the prospect of a minority or coalition government.
But what would that mean?
There are a few scenarios that could unfold, but first it’s important to establish that there is no real rule book for how these post-election talks can go, just historical convention and precedent.
Parliament has 338 seats, so in order to win a majority government—like the Liberals did in 2015—a party needs to elect 170 or more MPs. Heading into the campaign the Liberals held 177 seats, the Conservatives had 95, the NDP held 39, the Bloc Quebecois had 10, the Green Party had two seats, and the People’s Party had one. The 42nd Parliament also had several independents as of dissolution.
“We actually have to be prepared for a scenario where one party wins the popular vote and another party potentially wins the greatest number of seats but short of a majority government, which would create a democratic impasse, where there’d be a significant proportion of Canadians who would be very upset that hypothetically the winner of the popular vote did not have a chance to form a government,” said pollster Nik Nanos.
In the event that no one wins a majority of the seats—something both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer say they remain confident in being able to do—then things could go a few different ways.
Before getting into the various scenarios, here’s a brief explainer on minority governments and coalitions:
- What is a minority government? When the party with the most seats, but not a majority of them, tries to govern and maintain the confidence of the House by relying on cross-party agreements or vote-by-vote support to get the votes needed on key issues and bills in order to be able to advance policy. There have been several examples in the past, including three since 2000.
- What is a coalition government? When parties join forces to hold a larger share of seats than any other party. This can include formal agreements where the cabinet includes members from both, or all parties depending on how many team up. Extremely rare in Canada, a coalition government has not been formed federally in modern political times.
Here’s a brief synopsis of where the party leaders stand on minority or coalition potentialities:
- Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau: Has so far dodged questions on whether he’d look at teaming up with anyone post-election, saying he is focused on electing a progressive government with a “strong mandate” as the best way to stop the Conservatives. As a backbench MP, he did support the failed 2008 coalition attempt between the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois and NDP.
- Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer: Has flatly rejected the notion of forming a coalition government, or working with any other party under any circumstance, calling the prospect of the progressive parties teaming up something "Canadians can't afford."
- NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: He was the first to really stir up the coalition talks, saying he would "absolutely" work with the other parties and do "whatever it takes" to keep the Conservatives out of power, including teaming up with the Liberals. His team later cited minority agreements or vote-by-vote support as other possibilities. Singh has also has spelled out the conditions for his party's support in a minority Parliament. They include implementing national pharmacare and dental care, as well as electoral reform.
- Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: Has previously said her support in a minority scenario is contingent on the party presenting a serious climate plan, something she's said none have done to date. May has also said she would rather defeat a government and ultimately force Canadians back to the polls rather than allow a party with a climate plan not up to her standards to govern.
- Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet: Has said he isn't interested in teaming up with anyone in a coalition, but would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to support various initiatives proposed by either a Conservative or Liberal minority.
- People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier: He has said he would not join any coalition.
And here’s how it could all play out:
Liberals look to govern
According to experts, the incumbent party is largely seen to have the first right to attempt to continue governing after an election, even if they don’t win the most seats. So that means Trudeau could take the first chance to test the confidence of the House of Commons even if the Conservatives win more seats than the Liberals.
This would mean Trudeau, who would still be the prime minister, reconvening MPs for a new session of Parliament. There, he’d present a Speech from the Throne and this would be the first and key confidence vote he’d need to pass.
“If he does, he carries on as government; if he doesn’t, he’s out,” said former House of Commons law clerk Rob Walsh.
In a minority there is no formal power-sharing agreement and the governing party just needs to ensure they secure enough votes on key issues or bills to stay alive.
Walsh said that Trudeau’s staff in this situation would likely be talking to the third parties about securing their support, depending on how many seats each has and how many votes Trudeau would need, but he wouldn’t necessarily have to have secured agreed backing beforehand.
He said Trudeau could essentially say to the third parties: “I dare you, vote me out of office and you’re going to get a Conservative government, or if it’s three months down the road, vote me out of office and you’re going to get another election.”
In a minority government case the Liberals would be “governing on eggshells,” and not knowing when they may be defeated, depending on the kind of cross-party support they’re able to muster, said Walsh.
Conservatives look to govern
If the Conservatives have the most seats but not a majority, they will “claim almost certainly the right to form government,” says Paul Thomas, senior research associate at the Samara Centre for Democracy.
Given the convention that the sitting prime minister gets the first shot, unless it’s a clear Conservative victory and Trudeau concedes, the Conservatives wouldn’t likely be given the chance to form government until after the Liberals tried and failed.
If they are given a chance to govern as a minority, it would roll along in the same way described for the Liberals above.
It’s also in this scenario that a possible coalition could form among the more left-leaning parties in an effort to combine to hold the most seats and thwart a Conservative government, on some sort of agreement for moving ahead more progressive policies. A coalition was attempted, unsuccessfully, just weeks after the 2008 election by the Liberals, Bloc, and NDP, and was largely seen as a power-grab.
It would be in this kind of a situation where Governor General Julie Payette might play a bigger role.
“The governor general after the election only really becomes involved if you need to name a new government,” said Thomas, explaining that it is the governor general’s discretion to determine who has the “reasonable expectation” to maintain the confidence of the House and that only when a party loses confidence and requests a dissolution of Parliament, is their discretion needed to decide what happens next, like calling upon another party leader to form an alternative government.
While the talk of the last few days has been about a coalition forming, the experts CTV News spoke with say it remains a very unlikely outcome.
Canadians head back to the polls
It’s true, Canadians could be faced with another election campaign all over again. If the situation is unstable enough that no one manages to hold together a government, or that all attempts are futile, then it may be back to the polls in hopes of a more decisive result.
However elections cost millions of dollars, and that’s a factor parties would have to keep in mind should they decide to trigger another election.
And, of course, keep in mind that party standings can fluctuate. If a member is removed from caucus for one reason or another, resigns their seat, or dies, then the balance of who holds the firmest grip on power could fluctuate.
With files from CTV News' Omar Sachedina