"Forming a government" in a parliamentary system

I’ve studied parliamentary systems in formal settings, informal settings, and through news of current events, but there’s always been this one hole in my understanding of their operation - forming the government.

It’s been my experience that every overview of the workings of other country’s parliamentary governments talks about elections, and nominations of ministers and certification by the Queen or President or whatever, followed by introducing laws and bills for consideration. And off it goes until the next cycle.

The details about the title section of the political process never seems to get explained very well, however. I’m given the political equivalent of a 10 year old’s birds ‘n’ bees talk. As I understand it, when a boy politican likes a girl politician, they might decide to make a government. So they…uh…how do I explain this. They, uh, talk a lot, and nine days later a government is formed! Any questions, champ? No? Perfect.

So, I’ve love it if someone could explain in great detail what happens between “Labour won 45% of the vote, Conservative won 40%, Chess Party won 15%” and “Let’s get to guvernin’!” And please be technical and specific. Some extraordinary hypotheticals or counterfactuals would really help, too.

For one thing, the Opposition will already have a “shadow cabinet” chosen long before they take control: They already know who they want as Minister of This and Director of That and so on, so once they get into power, it’s a fairly quick matter to swap in all of those people into the appropriate positions.

In such a case where there’s no outright majority, Labour and Conservative would both be courting Chess to get enough votes to form a government. Chess would probably want concessions in the form of a few ministries, and its leader would likely get a nominal appointment as Deputy PM.

This is basically the situation in the UK right now - the Conservatives are a few votes seats shy of a majority, and were able to convince DUP, a Northern Irish Unionist party with something like 10 seats, to form a coalition with them.

As far as the UK goes, MPs are elected by constituencies and are directly responsible to them, much like members of the US House of Representatives. MPs can be elected by any number of means but here in the UK we use First Past the Post for elections to Westminster.

A government is formed by the MP who commands a majority in the House of Commons who then becomes Prime Minister. This is usually - but not necessarily - the leader of the largest party. Theoretically, if the largest party needed one extra independent MP, that MP could become Prime Minister. There would be a great deal of nodding and winking in that case. More likely the other parties become subordinate to the largest party in the coalition and the leader of the second-largest party will become Deputy Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then goes to the Monarch to inform him or her and formalise the position. He or she kisses the Monarch’s hand and ‘accepts’ the position of Prime Minister. In the UK’s case it is a careful fiction. Theoretically, the PM serves the Monarch, but Parliament is supreme and the PM controls Parliament.

The Prime Minister then appoints [del]cronies and arse-lickers[/del] MPs who are members of the ruling coalition to the various Offices of State - Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Defence, etc - who then become Secretaries of State. The Prime Minister then liaises with those Secretaries of State to appoint junior Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The Prime Minister also appoints a Chief Whip who is in charge of keeping order in the party and coalition.

MPs who do not hold any position are known as backbenchers. Some may be given consolation prizes of positions on (even chairmanship of) various committees of varying import.

Let’s back up a second. How do we even know who the PM is, officially? And when do they approach the monarch? At what stage and by what means is a person officially the Minister of Defense or whatever? There’s surely some official paperwork and some sort of deadline, absolute or relative, that says “this MP is now the PM” and so forth. Can I theoretically win 60% of the vote and yet appoint some first-year MP from the opposition to be the PM?

The percentage of the vote is irrelevant, it’s what the number of seats in Parliament they each win which matters.
So, for simplicities sake, I’ll count your “votes” as seats.
100, seats, need 51 for a majority.

In a Parliamentry system the Government either vide specific constitutional provision or by convention rules if it has the confidence of the majority in Parliament (for simplicities sake I am presuming a unicarmael rather than a bicarmael legislature).
Traditionally the Government must maintain a majority for three things:

  1. Confidence (duh)
  2. Supply. The Government has to ensure appropriations for everyday functions, no shutdowns here.
  3. Matters which form part of the Government agenda, this is typically what was on the party’s election platform. After all, this is what the people voted for.

Negotiations will begin. Let’s say in a law and order manifesto, the Conservatives want to reintroduce public flogging for mopey, while the Labour Party talks about counselling. The chess party has no love for mopery, but finds counselling wishy washy and public flogging a bit much. They also want to see benefits reduced substantially, which the other party care little or less about.

Let the discussions begin. Both parties will woo them, and they’ll be discussions on the issues and how much and in what way of each party’s election manifesto will find its way to the Government agenda. This depends on how much flexibility each party is willing to have, which I turn usually depends on how much the leaders can force past the backbenchers.

So a Labour Party :
Might agree to harsher penalties on mopery, but no flogging, and only partial reductions in benefits.
Conservatives Party:
Flog the fuckers and yeah, let’s slash benefits
Chess Party: Mopery is a big problem, but benefits need to come down enormously.

So, the Chess party agrees with the conservatives an agenda whereby benefits will be slashed and instead of totally public flogging, mopery will be punished by flogging in private in front of witnesses.
The Conservatives leadership are able to sell this as sufficiently Public to their backbenchers and we have a coalition!

Typically, the PM is the leader of the party that holds the majority in the Commons. (Historically, PMs governed from the Lords, but that hasn’t happened in the UK since the 19th century.) The closest equivalent in US politics would be the Speaker of the House.

I can only speak to formation of governments in systems based on the British system, sometimes referred to as the Westminster parliamentary system. Dunno how it works in other parliamentary systems, like Germany, France or Israel.

The starting point to forming a government is having a working majority in the most representative chamber of Parliament. In bicameral parliaments in the UK and Canada, that means a working majority in the House of Commons. In Australia, it’s the House of Representatives. In unicameral parliaments like New Zealand and the Canadian provinces, it’s a working majority in the Assembly (or whatever name is used in that jurisdiction).

What’s a working majority? If one party wins a clear majority of seats (not popular vote, mentioned in the OP), then that party has a working majority. The leader of that party will be the Prime Minister (or Premier).

The fact that that person has a majority in the Commons doesn’t mean they automatically become PM. The monarch must appoint that person to lead the government. That is a legal appointment under the Royal Prerogative. In the four countries I’ve mentioned, there is no legal definition of Prime Minister or Premier. That’s simply the customary title used for the person the monarch has appointed to lead the Government. If one person has a clear majority in the Commons, the monarch appoints that person automatically.

Once appointed, the PM then decides who will be appointed to lead the different ministries of government, and who will be Cabinet members. In the U.K., not all ministers are in Cabinet, only the heavy hitting ministries like the Exchequer, Justice and the Home Secretary. In Canada, all ministers are in Cabinet. (Dunno for OZ and NZ).

The monarch then appoints those individuals to their ministries. In the UK, the appointments are under the Prerogative; in Canada, the appointments are statutory. Either way, the appointment and the responsibilities of the Cabinet members are set out in an Order-in-Council, recommended by the PM and ordered by the monarch.

And I would respectfully disagree with Quartz’s characterisation of the people the PM appoints to ministries. Unlike the US system, where the President can appoint whomever he wants to the Cabinet, the PM in a Parliamentary system is constrained by his party’s fortunes in the election, and can only appoint MPs who have been elected to the Commons. The fact of their election means that they are significant political players in their own right, and a PM who ignores the different factions within his own party does so at his peril. The PM has to appoint MPs that represent all wings of the party, not just his own supporters - and that means that the Cabinet almost invariably has members who think they could do a better job and are plotting to supplant the PM!

For example, I’m sure PM May didn’t think of Boris Johnson as a supporter, but she had to include him in Cabinet initially because he represented a significant BREXIT faction in the Conservative Party. Similarly, in Canada in 1993, PM Chrétien had to appoint his major rival, Paul Martin, to Cabinet, because Martin had significant support in the Liberal caucus. And sure enough, ten years later Martin forced out Chrétien and became party leader and PM.

That’s how it works with a party with a clear majority. This post is long, so I’ll do another about minority governments, before the hamsters eat this one.

For a situation where no party has a majority in the Commons, it’s considerably more fluid. The person who was PM before the election is still the PM after the election. Depending on the standings in the Commons, that PM may be able to stay in power if he can reach ana gréement of some sort with some of the other parties. If he can demonstrate to the monarch that he still can command a majority, he can stay in power. That can happen even if that PM doesn’t have the most seats in the Commons. If no party has a majority, it depends on who can put together a majority.

For example, in the coalition government in Britain in the 1930s, the Conservatives had the most seats, but Ramsay Macdonald, leader of the Labour Party, was PM.

More recently, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick this fall, the voters returned a hung parliament, with two major parties, the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, and two small parties, the Greens and the People’s Party. Premier Gallant was the Liberal leader who had called the election, but the Liberals only won 21 seats to 24 for the PCs. Nonetheless, he stayed on as Premier for about a month, trying to put together an agreement with the two small parties hat would keep him in power. Although the leader of the PCs argued that he had the right to be Premier because the PCs had more seats, the Lieutenant Governor, acting for the Queen, refused and said that Gallant had the right to try to put together an agreement. Ultimately, however, Gallant’s government was defeated in the Assembly, and the Lt Gov called on the leader of the PCs to be Premier.

Note as well that they can be two different types of governments in this situation: a minority government, or a coalition government.

In a minority government, only one party forms the government and controls Cabinet. That’s what PM May has. The Conservatives have formed government but have an agreement with the DUP that the DUP will support May on “confidence and supply” matters. That’s also what is now the government in New Brunswick.

However, there can also be formal coalition governments, where the government has members in Cabinet of more than one party. That’s how PM Cameron was operating originally, with Clegg of the Liberal Democratic Party as Deputy PM, and some Lib-Dems in Cabinet. There was also the coalition governments in Britainduring the Depression and then again in WWII (Atlee of Labour was Deputy PM to Churchill, a Conservative). There were also coalition governments in Britainand Canada during the Great War.

Coalition or minority governments are generally more short-lived in Westminster systems than majority governments.

In Japan, the postwar constitution changes ensure that the emperor does not act in anything but a symbolic role.

After an election or when the previous PM resigns, the two houses in the Diet have elections on candidates for PM. In the event that different parties control the houses, the candidate elected by the House of Representatives is deemed to be the candidate.

Once certified, the candidate is presented with his or her commission, and formally appointed to office by the Emperor.

They then form a cabinet, and the cabinet members do not have to be MP.

There were 11 PM while I lived in Japan, with frequent turnover.

Actualky, formal coalitions like that tend to be rare in Westminster systems. They’re usually triggered by a major crisis, where it’s felt that all parties should be in Government, to deal with the crisis. For example, in Britain there was the Liberal-led coalition of the Great War; the Labour-led coalition in the Depression; and the Conservative-led coalition during WWII. Cameron’s coalition government was very much an outlier.

In Canada, there’s only been one formal coalition at the federal level, from 1917 to 1919, to deal with the Great War. Other than that, minority governments have been the rule when no party has a majority.

A person becomes Prime Minister when appointed by the monarch. The PM has no term of office. They serve until they resign (by far the most common); they die in office (has happened twice in Canada, plus the mysterious disappearance of PM Holt in Australia, presumed drowned); or they are dismissed by the monarch (not happened in Britain since William IV; never happened in Canada; happened once at the Commonwealth level in Australia).

If the PM who called a general election wins a majority in the Commons, the PM stays in office. No need to be re-appointed, because the PM has never ceased to be PM

If the PM who called the election loses the election and another party has a clear majority in the Commons, the PM resigns and the Crown calls on the leader of the majority party to form a government. The Crown appoints that person to the formal title that carries with it the leadership of the government. In Britain, that is traditionally “the First Lord of the Treasury”.

It gets murkier if there is no clear majority party. As mentioned earlier, a PM who has lost the majority in the Commons can still try to put together a government, and the monarch normally respects that action, because it’s not the Crown’s job to decide who has a working majority in the Commons. It’s the elected officials themselves in the Commons who get to decide. Once it becomes clear who has a majority (as happened in New Brunswick this fall), the Crown calls on that person to form the government.

Ministers are appointed by Order-in-Council, mentioned earlier. That’s a formal appointment by the monarch, on the recommendation of the PM.

No formal deadline in Westminster systems. It’s solely based on political considerations.

Where there is a clear winner and the outgoing PM has been defeated, the transition happens quickly. Traditionally in the UK, a defeated PM resigns the day after the election and the Queen appoints the new PM and government that same day.

In Canada, where there’s a change in government with a majority, the transition normally is ten days to three weeks.

When there’s a minority situation, there are no fixed rules, because it’s essentially a political decision by the Commons. In a close election, the Crown gives the political actors lots of leeway to resolve the situation.

For example in New Brunswick, the election was on September 24, 2018. The next day, the Premier met with the Lt Gov, and indicated he wanted to try to form a government. She gave him permission to do so (sometimes phrased as “the PM has the right to face the Assembly”).

The Assembly was convened in late October. Premier Gallant’s government set out their proposed legislative agenda in the Speech from the Throne. There is then a debate on the contents of the Speech, and finally a vote on whether the Assembly agrees with the Government’s legislative agenda. That is a confidence measure, and in this case, the Opposition parties voted to reject the Speech. Premier Gallant promptly advised the Lt. Gov. that he would resign because he did not have the confidence of the Assembly. The Lt Gov. then called on Blaine Higgs, the leader of the PCs. Higgs and his Cabinet were sworn in on November 1.

I’m afraid I don’t understand this question.

I’m still lost on how the PM is officially chosen, in between winning the election and being commissioned by the head of state. When May shows up at the palace, how does she know she’ll be the only one in her party to do so? Why can’t a challenger of her own party show up and say they’re the chosen one? Is there a vote held at some time in the Commons that chooses her?

Since she has been elected as the leader of the Conservative Party and has not been replaced.
In fact, that’s exactly how she became PM in the first place, an election was held to select a new part pay leader to replace Cameron and that person (May as it turned out), became PM.

Under the Meiji Constitution, from 1889 to 1947, the Prime Minister and cabinet members were appointed by the Emperor and did not have to be members of parliament.

It’s interesting history which contributed to Japanese fanaticism but it’s a hijack to this thread.

ETA: Responding to Post #13.

May is the leader of the Conservative Party. By convention, the Crown only deals with the leader of the party.

In this case, Cameron gave notice to Her Majesty that he would resign, but would stay on as PM until the Conservatives elected a new leader. Once the Conservatives elected May, Cameron formally advised HM that May was the new leader. HM then called on May, inviting her to the palace and appointed her as PM.

HM stays above partisan politics, so she only deals with the leaders of the party. Since Cameron had advised her that May was the new leader, that’s who HM invited.

It’s very rare that there’s any doubt who has the leadership of the party, especially since the parties have all adopted formal election processes to determine their leader.

Note that the Conservatives in the UK were one of the last parties to adopt a formal leadership process, and HM did actually have to make an independent decision back in the 1950s; she chose Eden.

There was also one case in Canada in the 1890s where there was a Cabinet revolt against the PM, Mackenzie Boswell. The rebellious Cabinet ministers sought an audience with the GovGen, but he refused, citing the principle that the Crown only deals with the party leader, and doesn’t decide political disputes.

Ultimately, the elected MPs reached a political result: they agreed that Bowell could stay on as leader and PM until the end of the parliamentary session. After that, the party elected another member of Cabinet, Tupper, as party leader. PM Bowell resigned and the GovGen called on Tupper to form the government.

No, there’s never a vote in the British Commons to choose the PM. It’s the party process that decides who is the party leader.

That’s different from non-Westminster systems, and some of the newer Commonwealth constitutions, where there is a formal vote.

For example, in Germany, the President’s recommendation for Chancellor has to be approved by a vote in the Bundestag.

In recent history Australia has provided examples of minority governments. Since the most recent by-election, the Liberal/National government under Scott Morrison has had a minority in the House of Representatives, and in 2010-2013 the Labor government under Julia Gillard had a minority in the House. In each case, the main opposition party (or coalition) did not have a majority either, so in each case the PM governed with enough support from members of the cross benches (independents and Greens).

Chessic Sense’s confusion may arise out of people making a parallel with the selection of the Speaker or Majority Leader in the US chambers, where it is not uncommon for there to still be a competitive process or an insurrection *after *the election. But the parallelism is inexact because the Speaker role is one specific to the running of the House, and the US Leaders/Whips are officers of the delegation, and of course are selected after the delegation is certified elected.

As has been explained, at least in the Westminster systems the matter of who is leader and presumptive PM gets nailed down *before * the call for forming a new government.
As to what happens in the extremely embarassing contingency that the party sweeps to victory but the Leader loses his her constituency/riding, I am not familiar with how they do that

I’m not aware of a case where that has happened, but my guess is that the members of parliament from the new majority party would meet as soon as possible and elect a new leader.