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In a two-party parliamentary system of government, a hung parliament occurs when neither major political party (or bloc of allied parties) has an absolute majority of seats in the parliament (legislature). It is also less commonly known as a balanced parliament12 or a legislature under no overall control.345 If the legislature is bicameral, and the government is responsible only to the lower house, then "hung parliament" is used only with respect to that chamber. Most general elections in a two-party system will result in one party having an absolute majority and thus quickly forming a new government; a "hung parliament" is an exception to this pattern, and may be considered anomalous or undesirable. One or both main parties may seek to form a coalition government with smaller third parties, or a minority government relying on confidence and supply support from third parties or independents. If these efforts fail, a dissolution of parliament and a fresh election may be the last resort.
In a multi-party system with legislatures elected by proportional representation, it is rare for a party to win an outright majority of seats, so a "hung parliament" is the norm and the term is rarely used. However, the term may be used to describe an election in which no established alliance among the parties wins an outright majority, such as the 2005 German election. Italy passed a bill on electoral reforms in March 2014 to avoid hung parliament.6
In the United Kingdom, before World War I, a largely stable two-party system existed for generations; traditionally, only the Tories and Whigs, or from the mid-19th century the Conservative and Liberal parties, managed to deliver Members of Parliament in significant numbers. Hung parliaments were thus rare, especially during the 19th century. The possibility of change arose when, in the aftermath of the Act of Union, 1800, a number of Irish MPs took seats in the House, though initially these followed the traditional alignments. However, two Reform Acts (in 1867 and in 1884) significantly extended the franchise and redrew the constituencies, and coincided with a change in Irish politics. After the 1885 General Election, neither party had an overall majority. The Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power and made Irish Home Rule a condition of their support. However, the Liberal Party split on the issue of Irish Home Rule, leading to another general election in 1886, in which the Conservatives won the most seats and governed with the support of the fragment of Liberalism opposed to Home Rule, the Liberal Unionist Party.
Both the election of January 1910, and that of December 1910 produced a hung parliament with an almost identical number of seats won by the governing Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. This was due both to the constitutional crisis and to the rise of the Labour Party. The elections of 1929 resulted in the last hung parliament for many years; in the meantime Labour had replaced the Liberals as one of the two dominating parties.
Since the elections of 1929, there have been two general elections that resulted in hung parliaments in the UK. The first was the election in February 1974, and the ensuing parliament lasted only until October. The second was the May 2010 election, the result of which was a hung parliament with the Conservative party as the largest single party. The results for the 3 main parties were: Conservatives 307, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57.7
Since the formation of this coalition, an Act of Parliament was passed creating Fixed Five-Term Parliaments, so that the next election will not take place until 2015. This was the idea of the Deputy Prime Minister, who is the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who said that this would stop the Prime Minister, who is the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, from calling a snap election, as many other Conservatives have requested.
Hung parliaments can also arise when slim government majorities are eroded by by-election defeats and defection of Members of Parliament to opposition parties, as well as resignations of MPs from the House of Commons. This happened in December 1996 to the Conservative government of John Major (1990–97) and in mid-1978 to the Labour government of James Callaghan (1976–79); this latter period covers the era known as the Winter of Discontent. The minority government of Jim Callaghan came when Labour ended their 15-month Lib-Lab pact with the Liberals having lost their majority in early 1977.
According to researchers Andrew Blick and Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the phrase "hung parliament" did not enter into common usage in the UK until the mid-1970s. It was first used in the press by journalist Simon Hoggart in The Guardian in 1974.8
Academic treatments of hung parliaments include David Butler's Governing Without a Majority: Dilemmas for Hung Parliaments in Britain (Sheridan House, 1986) and Vernon Bogdanor's 'Multi-Party Politics and the Constitution' (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Three recent Canadian Parliaments (the 38th, the 39th, and the 40th Parliaments) were hung parliaments. However, the term is not used in Canada. Instead, the term "minority government" or "minority parliament" is used. Although minority governments have tended to be short-lived, the two successive minorities under Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to hold onto power from February 2006 until a no confidence vote in March 2011 resulted in the dissolution of Parliament and elections held on May 2, 2011. The subsequent election saw a majority parliament elected with Harper's Conservative Party obtaining a 24-seat majority.
Australian parliaments are modelled on the Westminster system, with a hung parliament typically defined as a lack of a lower house parliamentary majority from either the Australian Labor Party or Liberal/National Coalition.
Hung parliaments are rare at the federal level in Australia, as a virtual two-party system, in which the Australian Labor Party competes against an alliance of the conservative parties, has existed with only brief interruptions since the early 20th century. Prior to 1910, no party had a majority in the House of Representatives. As a result, there were frequent changes of government, several of which took place during parliamentary terms. Since 1910, when the two-party system was cemented, there have only been two hung parliaments, the first in 1940, the second in 2010. At the 1940 federal election, incumbent Prime Minister Robert Menzies secured the support of the two crossbenchers and continued to govern, but in 1941 the independents switched their support to Labor, bringing John Curtin to power. At the 2010 federal election, which resulted in an exact 72-72 seat tie between Labor and The Liberal-National Coalition, incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard secured the support of four out of six Independent and Green Party crossbenchers and continued to govern.
Having hung Parliaments in both Australia and the United Kingdom at the same time, and also briefly including Canada as well, is unprecedented in the history of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Hung parliaments are rather more common at a state level. The Tasmanian House of Assembly and the unicameral Parliament of the Australian Capital Territory are both elected by Hare-Clark proportional representation, thus, elections commonly return hung parliaments. In other states and territories, candidates contest single-member seats. With far fewer seats than federal parliament, hung parliaments are more likely to be elected. Recent examples include New South Wales in 1991, Queensland in 1998, Victoria in 1999, South Australia in 1997 and 2002, Western Australia in 2008, the Australian Capital Territory in 2008, and Tasmania in 2010.
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In countries used to decisive election outcomes, a hung parliament is often viewed as an unfavourable outcome, leading to relatively weak and unstable government. A period of uncertainty after the election is common, as major party leaders negotiate with independents and minor parties to establish a working majority.
An aspiring head of government may seek to build a coalition government; in Westminster systems, this typically involves agreement on a joint legislative programme and a number of ministerial posts going to the minor coalition partners, in return for a stable majority. Alternatively, a minority government may be formed, establishing confidence and supply agreements in return for policy concessions agreed in advance, or relying on case by case support.
In the Western Australian state election of 2008 the Australian Labor Party won more seats than the Liberal Party at 28 to 24. The National Party along with three independents had the seats needed to give either party a majority. To help the Liberal Party form government, the Nationals supported the party on the condition that the Royalties for Regions policy was implemented.
In the 1999 Victorian state election, the Labor Party won 42 seats, while the incumbent Liberal National Coalition retained 43, with 3 seats falling to independents. The Labor Party formed a minority government with the 3 independents.
The 2010 Tasmanian state election resulted in a hung parliament. After a period of negotiation, the incumbent Labor government led by David Bartlett was recommissioned, but containing the Leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Nick McKim, as a minister, and the Greens' Cassy O'Connor as Cabinet Secretary.
In the 2010 federal election, neither Labor nor the Liberal coalition secured the majority of seats required to form a Government in their own right. Ultimately, a government was formed by Julia Gillard with the help of three independent members and a Greens member for the Australian House of Representatives.
In the February 1974 General Election, sitting Prime Minister Edward Heath refused at first to resign, attempting to build a coalition government despite winning fewer seats (though gaining more votes) than the then opposition Labour Party. He was unable to do this, and so the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson took over, in a minority government.
In the 2010 UK General Election, another hung parliament occurred, and discussions followed to help create a stable government. This resulted in agreement on a coalition government, which was also a majority government, between the Conservative Party, which won the most votes and seats in the election, and the Liberal Democrats.
The 2012 elections in Greece were overshadowed by the country's dire financial position, with a heavy backlash against the ruling parties that supported stiff austerity measures. The ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement party lost much ground, with no party having the numbers or the agreement to form a working coalition. As a result, new elections will immediately be held.9
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There have been occasions when, although a parliament or assembly is technically hung, the party in power has a working majority. For example, in the United Kingdom, the tradition is that the Speaker and Deputy Speakers do not vote and Sinn Féin MPs never take their seats, so these members can be discounted from the opposition numbers.
In 2005, for Wales, this was the case in the National Assembly for Wales, where Labour lost their majority when Peter Law was expelled for standing against the official candidate in the 2005 Westminster election in the Blaenau Gwent constituency. When the Assembly was first elected on 1 May 2003, Labour won 30 seats, Plaid Cymru won 12, the Conservatives won 11, Liberal Democrats won 6, and the John Marek Independent Party won a seat.
When Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Plaid Cymru) was reelected as the presiding officer, this reduced the number of opposition AMs who could vote to 29, as the presiding officer votes only in the event of a tie and, even then, not on party political lines but according to Speaker Denison's rule. Thus, Labour had a working majority of one seat until Law ran in Blaenau Gwent.10
- "Balanced parliament: No need to rush". The Guardian (London). 2010-05-05.
- "SNP puts case for hung parliament". BBC News. 2010-04-20.
- "Q+A - What happens if no party gets a majority in UK election?". Reuters. May 7, 2010.
- Paun, Akash (2009-12-04). "Hung up on 'no overall control'". The Guardian (London).
- "Welcome to the era of no overall control". Newstatesman.com. Retrieved 2013-12-27.
- "General election 2010 results of a hung parliament", PoliticsRAW. May 08, 2010
- Blick, Andrew; Stuart Wilks-Heeg (April 2010). "Governing without majorities: Coming to terms with balanced Parliaments in UK politics". Liverpool: Democratic Audit. p. 2. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- Helena Smith (May 15, 2012). "Greece to hold fresh elections as unity talks fail". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2012-06-06. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Labour lose assembly majority as Law quits, ePolitix.com. April 17, 2005